Video-on-demand to

After almost a decade of fits and starts, it appears Canadian consumers are finally going to see the advent of video-on-demand services they have been promised for so long.

Vancouver’s Telus Corp., Canada’s second-largest telecommunications firm next to Bell Canada, recently announced a partnership with Blockbuster Inc. and Enron Broadband Services that will see the three companies make Hollywood movies available to Telus’s ADSL (asymetric digital subscriber line) customers for instant download.

“At this point in time, we are essentially running a trial, and the trial will involve 3,500 to 5,000 customers in British Columbia, probably down in Vancouver, and we’ll probably run it out of three, maybe four wire centres (or central offices) in Vancouver,” said Mark Schnarr, the vice-president of Internet Services for Telus.

According to Schnarr, Blockbuster – a subsidiary of entertainment giant Viacom Inc. and manager of the popular chain of video rental stores – will make its library of movies available for Enron to digitize and make “Net ready.” Enron will then deliver the content to Telus, who will in turn send it across its network to its DSL customers, either through telephone wires attached to a set top box sitting on top of the television or via a wireless device connecting the PC to the TV.

Schnarr said Telus is looking to do two things out of the trial, which will begin in the new year.

The first is to gauge customer interest, including finding out how viewers want to search for a specific movie title. Although Telus will only offer between 300 and 500 movies during the trial, Schnarr said Blockbuster has literally tens of thousands of movies that will be made available in the future. Not only that, he said Blockbuster is only one of a 100,000 companies offering video content over the Internet.

“We’ve got to think through how to organize (the content) for everybody,” Schnarr said.

Second, Telus will be assessing the impacts of increased video traffic over its network.

“We are looking at placing edge devices, or video servers, here in Vancouver to ensure quality people expect, but also to ensure (the traffic) doesn’t melt down the PSTN (public switched telephone network),” Schnarr said.

Jordan Worth, a telecommunications analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said he is skeptical Telus’s network will be able to handle large-scale video downloads.

“My reservation is about network capacity, the ability for the network to handle a lot of video streaming, which at this point I’m not convinced it is,” he explained.

“Even with ADSL, I just really got to wonder about the quality of (the transmission),” he continued. “Especially because Telus is having such a problem rolling out ADSL to its customers in B.C. anyways. There’s an incredible backlog. They just have way too much demand.”

Scnarr said Telus is targeting to have 80,000 DSL customers by the end of this year, all of whom receive about 1Mbps to 1.5Mbps download speed. Enough, he said, to view video content.

He added the company is committed to putting DSL in every major urban centre in Western Canada with more than 250,000 people. Telus has even dropped its idea of building a duplicate cable network offering video services.

“We have shut down the interactive multimedia cable trials in [Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary], and now we’re concentrating on what kind of video services we can offer over DSL,” Schnarr said.

Despite acknowledging the length of time it has taken for video-on-demand to get to market, Schnarr said he was surprised by the interest that greeted his company’s announcement.

He also said he imagines numerous enterprise applications for the technology.

“I can see lots of video services that businesses themselves are going to want to offer, in particular to advertise their own products,” he suggested.