September 16, 2014 Jessica Sims
IPTV: Broadband’s Promise of a Better Way to Experience TV

IPTV: Broadband’s Promise of a Better Way to Experience TV

Broadband can be extremely useful for a great number of reasons, but one that stands out for many reasons is that of media distribution.  Initially, the connotation of receiving media over the Internet meant illegal file sharing, but these days it means something completely different: television channels being broadcast over specialized broadband services.  This form of broadcasting is referred to as IPTV, and it has the potential to change the way television is viewed and purchased forever.  Before getting into the details of just how existing IPTV networks and offerings have changed the broadcasting industry or what the future may hold for IPTV and broadband, it helps to understand the fundamentals of how broadband connections can deliver digital television in real-time without compromises.

Video files purchased from services such as iTunes or ripped from dics are static, meaning that they do not change, but they are large.  Downloading whole videos, even 30-minute long shows, in high-definition would require a handful of minutes on even the fastest consumer-grade broadband connection.  Due to the fact that IPTV services could not hope to compete with traditional broadcasts if consumers had to wait several minutes to watch a show, and several minutes after a live event to allow for compression and transmission, IPTV services employ streaming technology.  Streaming technology essentially allows the video to be played as it is downloaded continuously, keeping only a portion of the video file in memory.

Real-time streaming of IPTV requires a large amount of bandwidth, but modern broadband connections are more than up to the task of handling a few streams, but there are still limits to be considered.  One of the most obvious limits is that of bandwidth and the fact that HD channels can consume several Mbps of bandwidth each, but there are less obvious issues than this to contend with.  A major technological hurdle is latency, followed closely by packet loss.  In essence, the real-time nature of IPTV broadcasting puts far more emphasis on network stability and quality of service (QoS) than on bandwidth.

Circumventing the Bandwidth Problem: All About Communication

Coaxial-based networks deliver scores of HD and SD channels without running into bandwidth problems, but they have an advantage: they are mono-directional.  This means that data along these networks only travels in one direction: outward from the central network backbone.  A good analogy for the data transferring over a traditional coaxial network would be the New York Marathon, where hundreds of people come to run in a single direction.  They may cross the finish line in a stream, and a few might not make it all the way, but the entire event happens efficiently and quickly given the distance involved.  The Internet, unfortunately, is a place more akin to a crowded shopping mall during the holiday season than it is a well-marked marathon route; people bump into each other, slow one another down unintentionally (most of the time), and occasionally even trample one another in an attempt to get some precious gift before it is sold out.

Faster consumer broadband access helps make storefronts bigger in this analogy, but that might just drive more consumers to shop.  Investment in network infrastructure results in bigger, more spacious malls, but it would take an unfathomable financial investment to allow marathon-class speed to be conducted inside a shopping center, especially with so many people with so many different needs and wants to serve.  This means that getting all of the runners from the starting line to the finish line in a timely manner is not possible when the racecourse is not clearly marked and other people are free to use it.  One idea would be to reduce the number of races from hundreds to a mere handful and shorten the distance they need to run so that they can sprint.

Such an approach would ease congestion and allow for easier management, but would reduce the number of active channels being received.  It also entails a very brief, almost unnoticeable, pause when switching channels.  This pause is attributable to the bi-directional nature of Internet being used to send data from the set top box (STB) to the local server owned by the IPTV provider and request a new data stream and receive the first few data packets in the new stream.  Remember that unlike normal digital broadcasts, only a limited number of streams can be effectively sent at one time; it is all part of the exchange required to transmit real-time video over the Internet.

Data Needs vs. the Network

Due to the fact that IPTV is transmitted over the Internet, there are many issues to contend with, and some of these issues may be holding broader further IPTV adoption back.  The first issue is, ironically, the competition for broadband services themselves.  IPTV providers such as AT&T and Verizon have to allocate a portion of their bandwidth for the reception of IPTV data packets.  This in turn lowers the amount of available bandwidth that they can advertise and sell without risking legal entanglements.  Further exacerbating this problem is the trade-off to be made when it comes to latency and bandwidth.

What Are the Benefits of IPTV?

So far IPTV sounds like just a series of trade-offs, but that is far from the truth.  One major benefit of current IPTV systems such as AT&T’s U-verse and Verizon’s Fios system is that they are interactive.  Verizon has released a handful of interesting widgets that combine data services that integrate seamlessly with their Fios digital cable service, providing additional functionality.  AT&T has announced plans for an app store that will service their wireless customers and their U-verse customers, which should be nothing short of amazing.  On demand features and effectively limitless channel selections are also possibilities, but there are many other offerings on tap for the future of IP.

Obviously DVR capabilities are to be expected, but because streams are served, it is also possible to pause and even transfer streams to other devices.  AT&T’s U-verse system has already demonstrated this capability, and it is almost impossible to go back to watching television with out.  It would be nice to see this capable extended to more than just the television set, however, and that too is possibly coming in the form of AT&T’s upcoming U-verse support for the Xbox 360 gaming platform.  What would be truly amazing would be the ability to view, pause, and transfer streams between any compatible networked device; laptops, PCs, televisions, even tablets.

What Will Tomorrow Bring?

The future of IPTV could be amazing, especially if different studios and content providers can agree on a uniform standard for the delivery of media.  One possibility is that future generic STBs will be able to subscribe directly to content from certain channels and/or providers, which is not very different than the vision of Fox’s parent company, News Corp.  Anyone with a broadband connection would be able to access whatever content they wanted, which would leave major cable companies to serve an unknown role.  Given the size and influence cable carriers have, it is unlikely that they would disappear altogether, but rather that their role would change in some way.

While the future of IPTV and its influence on a well-established industry is unclear, there is one thing that is crystal clear: bi-directional communication allows for some impressive alterations to the way that people view television.  Considering just how impressive the relatively nascent forms of IPTV already are, it would seem safe to assume that great things are yet to come.  Mature solutions are even more impressive, and offer even greater promise for future improvements.  Hopefully these improvements will not only come to traditional wire and fiber optic-based networks, but to wireless broadband networks as well.

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