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July 9, 2008 9:13 AM

Reviewing AT&T;'s PEG System with the Alliance for Community Media

Yesterday I had the unique opportunity to sit in on a meeting between AT&T; and some members of the board of directors for the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), which represents more than 3000 PEG access centers and is holding their annual conference in DC this week which I will be attending.

The event was presented to me as an effort by AT&T; to engage these leaders of the PEG community in a dialog, to walk them through their U-Verse PEG application, address the PEG community's concerns over its shortcomings, and solicit feedback on how it can be improved.

As we were given a demonstration by Chris Boyer of AT&T;, all of the complaints that have been aired online about the U-Verse PEG application came out. In no particular order, here are the main ones:

- The video's lower quality as it's encoded at 1.25Mbps for PEG instead of the 1.5-2Mbps that standard definition channels using MPEG-4 are typically encoded at.

- All PEG channels are listed in a separate application under channel 99, so it takes some clicking through menus to get to the PEG content.

- There's a significant delay of more than 20 seconds in getting the PEG application launched.

- It can't handle closed captions for the hearing impaired.

- You can't record PEG channels using the U-Verse DVR.

During our conversation, Boyer was upfront and frank in addressing these limitations, and shared examples of how AT&T; has taken this feedback to heart, including:

- PEG video used to be encoded at 1Mbps, but in response to complaints AT&T; bumped it up to 1.25Mbps. While this does make a noticeable difference, not everyone is satisfied as exemplified by the comments of Matt Schuster, Channel Manager for Louisville's MetroTV and chairman of ACM's board of directors, who pointed out that his city as well as others have invested in broadcast-quality production equipment and therefore have a hard time swallowing having to distribute that video at a much lower quality.

- Boyer admitted that the reason all PEG channels are lumped under channel 99 is because of technical limitations.

- To help make PEG channels more easily accessible, Boyer pointed out that AT&T; had listened to critics and added a direct link to the PEG application from their main menu.

- With regards to the delay in launching, Boyer explained that the reason it exists is because their PEG application is actually running in the network and not on the set-top box. He acknowledged this delay is a problem and informed us that a forthcoming upgrade to the box will reduce that delay to 8 seconds. Also he shared that the next update after that will bring the PEG application onto the box, which should eliminate that delay entirely.

- The lack of closed captions is another technical limitation of the IPTV platform that AT&T; has to address with Microsoft.

- Finally, he admitted that because PEG channels are under channel 99, it makes enabling a traditional DVR scenario quite troublesome.

But that leads us to the phase of this conversation I found most interesting: discussing what potential features could be added to AT&T;'s PEG system to push the PEG paradigm into the 21st century.

The DVR issue is a perfect place to start. I've long felt DVRs are a stopgap technology. As we touched on AT&T;'s PEG DVR limitation, I put forth the suggestion that couldn't an on-demand PEG system that let's you watch whatever videos whenever you want overcome this limitation?

While I didn't quite get overwhelming support for the idea that DVR-functionality isn't necessary, I did get strong support for the PEG community's interest in being able to deliver videos on-demand through the TV system. And Boyer hinted that enabling PEG on-demand is something AT&T; is exploring.

As we continued to chat, here are some of the other features that first came to mind from this crowd of PEG luminaries:

- Making content searchable. Some specifically cited government webcasting provider Granicus for how it allows users to click on agenda items and be taken right to a particular point in a meeting. Everyone seemed eager to get this type of functionality on the TV, including things like keyword search.

- Adding interactivity seemed like a holy grail for this group. This could mean things like allowing someone the ability to contact public officials while watching local government meetings to give feedback on different issues.

- Along similar lines, there was a suggestion of adding social features that would allow for viewers to know who else is watching PEG content and to communicate with them about what they're watching through things like chat. This could mean through the TV, or over the Internet in an integrated experience with what's being watched on TV.

- Finally these thoughts took on the big picture of introducing the concept of a community media server where everyone could be uploading video to share through PEG.

In the end this seemed like a positive conversation for all involved.

The ACM representatives appeared to really appreciate AT&T;'s efforts to reach out and engage them directly in both listening to the concerns of their constituents and brainstorming new ways to expand the platform.

And I know in talking with Chris Boyer afterwards he was ecstatic to have the opportunity to start talking about what PEG 2.0 can mean as he admitted that almost all of the focus to date from both sides of the table has been on how can we recreate the PEG 1.0 paradigm within AT&T;'s new IPTV system.

Where this will ultimately lead is still up in the air, though. Boyer promised to raise many of the ideas and concerns brought out at this meeting up the ladder, but couldn't make any promises regarding specific launch dates of new features and on some issues was unable to guarantee any changes will be made at all.

But at least people are talking with each other and not at each other. I consider that alone on any telecom-related issue to be a huge step in the right direction.

And in the meantime, I'm excited to see what the ACM's conference has to offer for expanding my understanding of where PEG stands today and what it can mean tomorrow. All of the ACM representatives in attendance proved themselves to be not only well-informed but passionate about PEG. Plus they all seem like really nice people who I'm eager to chat with further.

Look forward to more PEG-related thoughts to come later this week.

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Comments (8)

"- Boyer admitted that the reason all PEG channels are lumped under channel 99 is because of technical limitations of the IPTV platform from Microsoft that limits the total number of channels it can support in its guide."

Boyer lied.

The reason all PEG channels are lumped together is purely financial. AT&T; does not want to invest in the equipment necessary to allow each PEG channel in a community the full bandwidth and appropriate channel that it deserves.

It's easy to blame this on Microsoft, but it's not Microsoft's fault, for once.

Posted by Elliott MITCHELL on July 10, 2008 7:30 AM

I think that the AT&T; meeting with AM is a positive direction and would encourage all ACM members and others interested in the PEG future to be sure to check in on ACM's SSWG Video File Sharing Social Network. As mentioned in Geoff's article, this is another in a direction which can effectively lead to an interpretation of the 6th Circuit Court's Ruling on local franchising and the PEG support necessary as a level playing field is established in this "growing" competitive environment.

Posted by marc pease on July 10, 2008 7:21 PM


* The video's lower quality as it's encoded at 1.25Mbps for PEG instead of the 1.5-2Mbps that standard definition channels using MPEG-4 are typically encoded at.
* It can't handle closed captions for the hearing impaired.
* You can't record PEG channels using the U-Verse DVR.

Golly, special grouping of PEG channels?

Gosh, why don't they group all their movie, sports, shopping, political, childrens, music and religious channels into unique single channel portals?

The "special" franchises they operate under do a disservice to the communities they serve, or should we say, the carefully selected areas they decide to serve in a specific community.

Posted by JMcHugh on July 11, 2008 12:30 PM

Let me clarify the Alliance for Community Media's position on AT&T;'s provision of the service. The Alliance does not feel that the U-Verse solution for PEG access is acceptable. The channels are treated in a sub-standard inferior manner to broadcast and commercial channels. PEG Channels must be treated in an equitable or identical manner to other channels on the system.

The possibility of interactive features and services does not make up for sub-standard treatment of PEG channels on the U-Verse platform.

Matt Schuster
Chair, ACM Board of Directors

Posted by Matt Schuster on July 15, 2008 10:17 AM

Let's be honest, AT&T; has no interest in PEG 2.0, what they really are interested in is PEG 0.0

Posted by John Rocco on July 15, 2008 1:45 PM

I don't think AT&T; has any interest in removing PEG from its channel lineups - that seems pretty paranoid (like thinking that this blog is a shill for AT&T;). Their real beef with PEG is having to cough up the franchise monies, and the overwhelming stench of entitlement coming from the ACM.

It is clearly in their interest to have content which is available through them (like PEG) and has some local value (real or simply perceived value).

Obvoiusly PEG won't have a bargaining chip for premium channel position unless the content is compelling and really provides something of value to their subscribers. Local carry is pretty cheap (without the franchise payments).

So it's on us as PEG producers and programmers to make our content and programing spectrum as good as possible - find, distrbute, and produce good, compeling, local media.

It's pretty funny to me to imagine some old ACM guys berating AT&T; for giving them a lower quality bitstream - are they actually watching the channels they produce and air? Simple fact - it IS lower quality programming, technically and operationally (the only place in the broadcast universe where VHS and U-Matic are still alive and well). If they knew what the heck they were talking about (technically and operationally), they would let that one slide and concentrate thier cannonade on something which actually makes some sense.

It doesn't look like U-verse or FIOS televisual offerings will have the "flip-around with the remote control" kind of paradigm, and I think this is the ultimate death-knell for traditional PEG - if people didn't have to flip past it and see people or events they already knew, they probably would never watch PEG in the first place. And without viewers (and with actual viewer stats), the existing PEG can't compete with other offerings.

Posted by Matthew Galvin on July 15, 2008 8:50 PM

Matt Galvin wrote: " Their real beef with PEG is having to cough up the franchise monies, and the overwhelming stench of entitlement coming from the ACM."

One thing is clear to anyone who understands the cable business: Customers pay for every channel they watch.

That model is obvious in the case of pay channels like HBO, it's less obvious for basic cable channels, but it's still true: customers, through the cable company, pay fees to those channels to keep them running and visible. These fees are about to be widely applied to over-the-air stations on cable, meaning cable customers will be literally paying the stations they used to watch for free.

I have yet to hear a convincing argument that PEG stations should have to work under a different model, that government should pay the freight or that PEG stations should be self-supporting through whatever limited means they may have at their disposal.

If that smells like a sense of entitlement to the previous author, then I would submit that his involvement in commercial television is limited.

Posted by Elliott MITCHELL on July 16, 2008 6:37 AM

If AT&T; ran fiber optics right to the house like Vios does there would not be a problem

They are trying to get in the market without spending the money

Now they have issues of the boxes blowing up that downconvert the signals.

So they have the capability but the politicians don't understand the technology and let them install an anolog type system in a digital world

Posted by JET on July 20, 2008 6:15 PM

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