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Streaming TV - The future of television as we know it?

Streaming TV - The future of television as we know it?

Streaming TV - The future of television as we know it?

A lot has been said about the future of television, in the 80s we saw the change from three to four TV channels and as the 80s turned to the 90s we saw more choice with channels from Sky and others and later the launch of Sky digital, Channel 5 and more recently Freeview (assuming you live in an area that can get it) giving even more choice. HD is starting to become more popular, more shows are being shot in HD and some like the original series of Star Trek are being re-mastered in HD because they were filmed on 35mm, sales of LCD and Plasma TV`s are increasing and the TVs themselves are getting ever bigger and cheaper, sometimes too big for the room for those who watch The IT Crowd. Now we are starting to see a new source of TV emerge - the broadband connection. One of the current limitations of broadcast and satellite TV is that the schedule of shows is set by the broadcaster rather than the viewer. I know you have Sky+ and VCRs but you are still reliant on firstly the broadcaster showing the show you want to watch and secondly that you remember to watch or record it in advance. Channels like Channel 4+1 give you an hour to remember and some shows and films get multistart but they don't help if you miss them or if you want to watch a previous episode of the series. How many people stop watching shows like Lost because they miss a few episodes and find it hard to catch up. Which is where we'll start to see the Internet coming in. Services like iTunes in the USA allow you to buy episodes of TV series like Lost the day after they've been broadcast and so offer that chance to catch up. Apple have just launched a TV download service in the UK, at the moment it doesn't offer the same kind of catch up facility unfortunately but the potential can be seen. At the moment streaming TV is more in the early adoption, even experimental era than "mainstream". Sites like YouTube have really taken off in the last 18 months or so with the availability of faster connections with YouTube itself now accounting for something like 10% of all traffic across the Internet around the world. Ellacoya say that HTTP traffic recently overtook P2P traffic for the first time in years in part because of the increase in video content. But can you call YouTube streaming TV? Does it represent any more than a massive clip show viewed in a small window or low resolution, a worldwide You've Been Framed so to speak? What we've got to look at isn't just YouTube, but the next evolution on from YouTube and then the next one again. YouTube is big now and still growing but it's small fry compared to what could be upcoming. What's going to be coming up are more services that offer higher resolution, better quality and more choice in the way of content. We'll also see more services that can be used with a set-top box rather than relying on a PC. We've spoken about the iPlayer before and expect to start seeing set-top boxes that support it soon, from there I sure it won't be long before we start to see TV's with the necessary kit built in and you just connect the TV direct to your router or even wirelessly. Although I hope that some kind of scheduler is built in. So looking at it from the PlusNet perspective for the moment one thing that's for sure is that as the content providers develop their services and as our customers begin using them more and more the amount of bandwidth being used is going to increase. Think about the content you watch now, if a YouTube clip breaks up or judders a bit, like me you'll probably just think "yeah whatever" and move on. You'll likely think nothing of it if the next clip is fine (it'd be a different story if every clip was problematic but I'm just talking about the odd one). But if you're sat in front of your TV watching the England football game and the picture does the same just as Andrew Johnson is about to score it's a different story altogether. More than a second or two and you'll flicking over to the terrestrial broadcast and cursing. This is where our traffic management and product designs will come in to play. We've talked before about the priority of different types of traffic, the priority given to streaming traffic is set at the high priority of gold, which is above non-interactive traffic like P2P and Usenet, in order to stop it from slowing down when the network gets busier. Without these priorities, then as the network gets busier there's potential for any and all types of traffic to see slow downs, ping spikes and packet loss, for P2P and Usenet traffic this will just reduce the speed but for streaming it will cause buffering and judders in the video and sound. With our priorities we can ensure that at the busy times only the non-interactive P2P and Usenet, the lower priority traffic gets affected and the higher priority traffic like streaming runs as normal. There are limits though, constant hours of high quality video just isn't a viable prospect under the current IPStream product, not today and not tomorrow. The most realistic model is one of a mixed delivery system using a hybrid device (TV, Media Centre PC or set-top box) which uses a combination of Freeview and/or Sky for the majority of peak time and "live" broadcasts. A Digital Video Recorder, along the lines of Sky+ for recording shows in advance as well as streaming "Pay as You Go" type content (think more along the lines of iTunes than Sky Box Office) and the free services like iPlayer and 4OD filling in the gaps with catch-up services. The "from the archives" services could fit into either the Pay as you Go or free services depending, but anything more than moderate usage of these type of services start to either become unsustainable and/or customers start to very large monthly bills for the bandwidth costs. The product design of our Broadband Your Way accounts are also key, we design and market our products with certain amounts of usage and clearly explain the amount that comes with each product and why we do it this way. This means that as the average usage on BBYW increases so too does the revenue whether that's from people upgrading or purchasing additional gigabytes. We model the amount of bandwidth we require based on the customer make-up, for simplification you can imagine that if all customers were on BBYW Option 1 using 2/3rds of the allowance we'd need less capacity than if the same number were BBYW Option 1 all purchasing 1 extra GB, which would be less than if they were all on BBYW Option 4 and using on average 2/3rds of the allowance. The real product makeup is of course more complicated than that but I hope you get the idea, as there is growth in the numbers and revenue there can be growth in capacity. Similarly changes in the wholesale charges can bring about either different products, like the BBYW Products have done, or could bring about changes in usage allowance or price. All this is very important when you compare our product design against others. As the average usage goes up if you market your products as "unlimited" at some point you reach a point where the costs exceed the revenue (even though people are using more they are still paying the same amount) and you have to take action to protect the experience of the majority or absorb the loss. And usage is only going to grow and grow. As I say, a lot of the services available now in the experimental stage, but they are only going to get bigger, better and more widely used. Some people now download films and TV shows via P2P and Usenet but others don't because of legal issues, because of the complexity or don't know how or just because they don't want to. Chances are though that many of these would be interested in an easy to use legal service and would use their Internet connection for watching TV. I like to step forward a few years and consider what we could be seeing in the future. Imagine the TV of 2012 and what choice you could have. Hardware-wise it'll be HD, have built in Freeview, possibly built in Sky+, DVD and/or HDD recorder and there'll be a ethernet and wireless to connect to your router. The choice of TV to watch will be Sky and Freeview with a selection of several hundred TV and radio channels with first run shows, sporting events and movies. There will also be catch-up TV services for the shows you've missed, on demand movie services and access to TV shows from the archives, all provided over your broadband connection. I picked 2012 because it fits nicely with the London Olympics, imagine the kind of coverage you could have if that becomes a reality. HD streams of every event both live and on-demand so you can mix and match what you want to watch and when you want to watch it. Of course it's a long way to go to get there, from BT Wholesale we'll be seeing the rollout of 21CN and ADSL2+, we'll see developments in content delivery and developments in the way we can manage traffic. I'd like to think that we'll see advances in FTTC and VDSL2 and maybe multicast. Image the amount of bandwidth used if an England football game was shown live online but not on TV, multicast today would cut the traffic between the ISP and the broadcaster but not between the ISP and the customers. With the current IPStream model that we use it wouldn't take many customers watching the game at the same time to use all the available bandwidth. If the stream was 2Mbps then at the current capacity about 1600 customers would be able to view the game and the remaining 190,000 customers (ignoring LLU for the time being) would have little or no bandwidth to use. With BT Central capacity costing around £179 per Mbps it would cost us an extra £359 per month for each additional customer to provision the necessary peak time bandwidth, and that's not counting the bandwidth for those customers who wouldn't be watching the game. The following document makes for an interesting read about the costs of delivering HDTV (PDF). A network like RIN would handle this better by delivering one stream to each of about 20 Point of Presences (PoPs) but you still have individual streams from the PoPs to every customer and the massive bandwidth requirement and cost. A multicast service to the exchange would solve that, if you could have 6,000 streams from the broadcaster to each local exchange then anyone can watch the match as there's no danger of contention on the copper run. Plus, if the copper run's been upgraded to VDSL2 speeds you could watch the match in HD too. This all ties in well with the Net Neutrality post to us the actual content itself makes little difference, it's the type of traffic it is and how much it costs to deliver that traffic in an appropriate way. As the content quality and resolution increase so does the cost of delivering it, but as mentioned earlier part of the design of BBYW is that as a customer's usage goes up above the included amount so too will the revenue (assuming they have chosen to Pay as they Go). We therefore believe that we are well placed to deliver the future TV services to our customers. By looking at and answering the tough questions and keeping on top of our network and product design we believe we can deliver the quality of service necessary, the quality of service that is key for these services to work. As I said at the beginning comparing a bit of buffering on a YouTube clip compared with a bit of buffering on the live football on TV is a very different kettle of fish. The network has to be able to deliver the quality of service for these services to work if people are going to use them. Traffic prioritisation can help with the delivery but it isn't the complete be all and end all solution to the problem. The point is though, if this is the situation we are in, imagine what others in the industry must be thinking - Our customers are in a better place than most people, but it's going to take some compromise on both sides to avoid people getting frustrated until the industry as a whole has moved sufficiently to make the capacity needed available and that could be years away. Interesting times ahead I hope you'll agree and there's probably a lot more we could say on this, discussion is more than welcome in our forums. The TV is one of the most obvious devices to connect to broadband, but why stop at one, no reason why you can't use wireless to stream TV around the house and also connect other devices like your fridge to order the weekly shopping or your lights so you can make it look like someone is at home, your mobile phone for VoIP, the central heating so switch the radiators on before you get home or a whole host of other devices. Dave Tomlinson

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