Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bringing U-Verse to the iPhone

Here's an issue I’ve been puzzling over for some time.

U-Verse, AT&T’s slick new IP TV service, is available in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, I’m too far from the distribution point to get it at my house. But many of my neighbors have and love it.

And like in many suburban neighborhoods, iPhones are sprouting up like crazy.

So, I have often puzzled: why can’t one watch U-Verse TV on one's iPhone?

This is the one mobile TV service that makes sense to me. Not random programming at random times, and not 'video shorts;' actual content I select, available to me, when I want.

Let’s look at the problems and what the answers might be.

First, if there ever was a phone for watching TV, it’s the iPhone. It’s got a great screen with brilliant colors, and the landscape display with 16:9 aspect ratio is ideal for HD TV.

Next, if there ever was a service provider to deliver on the ‘three screen’ vision, it’s AT&T. They are the sole quad-play provider in my neighborhood, delivering voice, broadband, mobile and now TV via U-Verse. And it’s not just any TV. It’s a full streaming IP TV service.

AT&T is particularly proud of its ‘whole house’ DVR, where a single box can stream video to different TVs throughout the home. Surely with this advanced capability, it would be possible to stream the shows stored on the DVR to a ‘third screen’ (e.g. an iPhone).

So what’s the hold up?

I don’t work for Apple or AT&T, so I have no inside knowledge. But clearly the iPhone is capable of displaying a TV service. So perhaps the problem is getting the service to the iPhone. I refer to a paragraph in this article on Digital Trends:

“AT&T does say that, due to network congestion concerns, it does not want television signals traversing its cellular network to iPhones…”

Given the trouble AT&T has had with network congestion, this makes a lot of sense. But this is a paid TV service, not YouTube. There is distinct value in bringing the three screen vision to life for AT&T subscribers.

So what if the U-Verse service was delivered to the iPhone over Wi-Fi?

The U-Verse controller has built-in Wi-Fi, so by definition, homes with U-Verse are homes with Wi-Fi. Plus, using Wi-Fi would keep the TV congestion off the 3G network. Finally, people are likely to watch TV when they are stationary (at least in the US), so that covers places like the home, office and hotspots.

It’s probably more complicated that simply ‘streaming U-Verse over Wi-Fi.’ So what are some of the likely requirements for AT&T to deliver the U-Verse service over Wi-Fi?

  • User authentication. Just setting a ‘user name/password’ over the Wi-Fi network doesn’t provide enough authentication for a service as valuable as streaming TV. An ideal solution would validate the user based on the SIM credentials of the iPhone against AT&T’s database of U-Verse subscribers to ensure that members of a specific U-Verse household are actually the ones accessing the service.
  • Security. Delivering U-Verse over Wi-Fi means delivering it over the public Internet. Therefore, a true security solution must be employed.
  • Location. Undoubtedly there are would be location restrictions on where a user could actually watch their U-Verse service, probably within the US. Thus the service must be able to accurately identify the iPhone’s location (not too hard).

Well, as you might have guessed, there is already a 3GPP approved specification for solving this problem. The GAN specification was designed by mobile operators specifically to address the problems associated with delivering services over the public internet.

The 3GPP GAN standard provides:

  • SIM-based user authentication over Wi-Fi. A GAN client in the iPhone would use the iPhone’s SIM credentials to authenticate the device against AT&T’s HLR and establish a secure connection over the Internet (nice transition …).
  • IPSec VPN secure tunnel. GAN transports voice and packet (U-Verse) services between the iPhone and the AT&T network encapsulated in an IPSec VPN to ensure a secure connection.
  • Operator managed location access. With the iPhone, there are many ways to access and monitor the location, via cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS. When establishing the GAN connection, the operator (AT&T) is presented with all the data needed to decide to enable (or reject) service based on the current location of the handset.

There are so many datapoints, it’s absolutely a no-brainer for AT&T to add GAN to the iPhone.

There is no doubt that other operators with iPhones and their own streaming IP TV service (actually nearly any incumbent mobile/video provider) would benefit as well. If we get started now, maybe we can have it in time for Christmas.

PS - I blatantly copied an image and imitated prose from Dr. Suess's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." This is one of my family's favorite Christmas books. I can identify with it because I often find that " puzzler is sore..." too.