By Adil James, MMNS
As Tracy Thompson-West explains it, Talfazat and its sister stations, TV-Desi, and Kylin TV, were born from the union of NeuLion (whose specialty is in IPTV), and JumpTV (whose specialty was Arabic programming). Ms. West is the Chief Executive of International Business for NeuLion, Inc. The marriage has led to the birth of several discrete and independent television networks, serving discrete niche markets–the Arabic, Chinese, and Desi markets.
Like NeuLion and JumpTV, Ms. West has an impressive resume, having worked for 20 years in the US and European satellite industry–where she had a hand in building Dishâ€™s industry leading collection of international channels.
IPTV is still a mystery to most American consumers–in fact IPTV television providers in this country are far behind their counterparts in Europe.
Even the television services that are available via IPTV are not defined as such–Netflix, AT&Tâ€™s U-verse (still with fewer than 100,000 customers), and now JumpTV and its subsidiaries–usually refer to themselves as sources of television, alternatives to satellite and cable.
In Europe however, the largest IPTV service provider (Franceâ€™s Iliad) had over 1,000,000 customers as of January of 2008. Its nine closest competitors, none of whom are American, all have more than 100,000 customers each.
The Talfazat box is simply a set top box (STB) that plugs into the internet and your television. It uses proprietary technology developed by NeuLion to transfer video signals through the internet to your TV, and is controlled by an ordinary remote control.
The technology is impressive. NeuLion provides professional business-to-business display of major sports. The pedigree as listed by Ms. West is simply unimpeachable–NFL, NHL, AHL. If those guys trust NeuLion, you know their product is top-of-the-line.
The box that you install in your home speaks over the internet with NeuLionâ€™s servers and accesses the content you want to watch. It needs a connection, according to Ms. West, of only one Mbs, and a 2 Mbs DSL connection nowadays is pretty standard. With upcoming improvements in the internet network in the United States, especially for Fiber optics (like Verizon FIOS, for example), speeds ten times as fast will become very standard.
Talfazat offers about 30 Arabic channels, including as far as I can tell all of the ones offered by Dish Network–with perhaps the exception of Dubai Sports. The news channels are all available, including Al-Jazeera, Al-Jazeera English, and Al-Arabiya.
TV-Desi is offered in several discrete packages, each tailored to a particular language group. Their are Hindi, Bangla, and Pakistan-focused channels. The channel list includes some news channels however some of the major Bollywood blockbuster movie websites are still missing, although Ms. West of JumpTV indicated to me that JumpTV was working in the direction of making those channels available in the future.
Potential future pitfalls with the technology include the increasing rumors and movements of internet service providers towards limiting bandwidth. This controversy, frowned on by major net presences like Google, businesses that benefit and in fact need people to access the internet freely, is known by the name â€œnet neutralityâ€ and is increasingly coming up in legislative debates at the federal level–although until now it is unclear whether the movements toward bandwidth caps by ISPs AT&T and Comcast will later be widely implemented.
Asked about this potential problem, Mr. Alyas Ali of Talfazat explained that one of his Canadian customers, whose ISP is Rogers, faced bandwidth overages (which come into effect after 60 gigabits) and was charged for them. Yet the total maximum fee charged by Rogers for those overages, even when added to his Talfazat bill, is still less than what he would have to pay for Bell ExpressVu Arabic channels.
The Roku box may be the most similar single service. Roku offers access to Netflix. You pay $99 and your payments to Roku are finished forever, but you get to enjoy Netflix instant views as long as you have a subscription.
There are free online IPTV sources, but the most professional services that provide IPTV are formed as walled gardens. Explains Alyas Ali of Talfazat, â€œWe want to provide a clean product that people are willing to pay for.â€
Similar services exist from other providers. AT&T has launched their U-Verse plan, which offers roughly the same channels you would expect from Dish Network. Unfortunately AT&T has done a really awful job of marketing U-Verse. Nobody knows that it exists. If people know about U-Verse, most of them think that it is actually AT&Tâ€™s satellite service through its partner (was Dish Network, now DirecTV).
If you find out about U-Verse, you may not want to buy it because AT&T has priced it at the same level as Dish Network–which is already the most expensive satellite network and fast losing market share as a result. What could they have been thinking? And on top of that AT&T is maintaining a partnership with their own competitor, DirecTV.
The wild web, however, has much to offer if you can winnow the wheat from the chaff. Despite its many nonsense or bad-spirited or generally poor quality channels, many fun and interesting videos are available on Youtube. Services providing free IPTV include Joost, Hulu, Justin.TV, ChannelChooser, and WWITV. Of these, Hulu may be the most professional, although the focus of Hulu is more on mainstream American shows. And it is possible to construct an imitation of the walled gardens but without losing the wild and free content–either by connecting a PC running Boxee (and thus indirectly also Hulu) or by hacking an AppleTV box to run Boxee (and thus Hulu). Surely other hacks will emerge as time passes, but for now the $200 AppleTV (which you buy once and never again pay for) in connection with Boxee is the most cost effective means of accessing free IPTV content.
The price structure of Talfazat and her sisters is middle of the road–but by comparison with other services that are available it is at a fair market rate. For $30 a month, you can have 30 Arabic channels piped into your house. Compared to Dish Network this is pennies. Compared to the freely available content via satellite perhaps it is a little bit expensive–but perhaps the difference in price is made up for in ease of access and professionalism of the end product.
Considering that the price for Dish Networkâ€™s foreign content is simply outrageous (on average you would have to pay about $15 for only one foreign channel on Dish), NeuLion is in a strong position to secure customers escaping from long contracts, or sometimes mediocre customer service, and perhaps will recapture some of the former pirates who have been chased away from Dish Network recently by its increasingly aggressive anti-piracy encryption.
DirecTV, Ms. West explained, has just cancelled all its Arabic channels–perhaps a concession to Dish Network, which in fact provides a very decent array of international programming.
The Indian channels available in a standard package from TV-Desi are rather minimal, only roughly four or five from each package–yet if you are from a foreign country and you have access to the four channels you used to watch at home that might be more than enough–especially when TV-Desi is poised to expand into other channels.
Another competitive point emphasized by Ms. West is the ease of installation. The box is mailed to you, you unpack it, plug in an ethernet cord, a power cord, and turn it on, and you are in business. Unlike a satellite or cable install, which might require you to stay home from work when â€œa satellite guy or a cable guy has to come into your houseâ€ and install it.
Talfazat and her sisters offer limited American channels–about 30 of the JV American channels including Fox News and Discovery, for a nominal fee. They plan to expand their coverage in this area, as they do in their ethnic channel repertoire.
Customer service through Talfazat seems excellent. In a brief call to explore the available service, I encountered excellent, knowledgeable and friendly customer service from an Arabic-speaking customer service representative. This is a level of niche marketing that, even with some effort, Dish Network or your local cable company will be unlikely to find a willingness to compete with.
As far as quality of the picture, Talfazat is excellent. Ms. West claims there is no buffering if a customer has a pipe of 1 Mbs. The box is HD-ready, although regional programming in HD is slim-to-none. What looks like an S-Video jack in the back of the Talfazat box is actually a plug for a dongle that can accept HD-ready HDMI or component plugs to connect to your television.
NeuLion did not discuss the potential impact of the higher quality picture on bandwidth, but presumably that will push them beyond their current 1Mbs.
Presumably NeuLion are experts at providing HD content, since their expertise has been developed through years of servicing the sports leagues which thrive in large part based on their HD filming.
But the brilliance of the NeuLion team is not only in the quality and availability of their product, it is also in their clever marketing to an available niche, at a marketable price, through friendly customer service.
Note: Talfazat is a valued advertiser in this newspaper.