A very experienced broadcast technical manager once said to me,
What did he mean?
The last few years has seen a push toward IPTV, online video streaming, VOD (Video On Demand) and general connected media and devices. There’s a new – and increasingly popular – concept of ‘cord-cutting’, an American term referring to freeing yourself from paying for traditional television services – cable and satellite – as ‘television’ can be found online for free. The traditional concept of watching television at home in your living room, via an aerial on your roof, is changing. New and emerging technology in video streaming and the increasing popularity of connected devices such as smart phones and 3G tablets has helped offer not only the possibility and capability of watching videos, films and television through mediums other than traditional television but it’s also begun to alter users viewing habits.
The ability to watch TV on your mac or pc has been around for a couple of years now but take up has been relatively slow. Free television streaming and on-demand websites like surfthechannel.com and tvcatchup.com do just that – they allow you to watch TV using your Internet broadband connection. TVCatchup takes things one step further and works on your iPhone or your iPad via either a WiFi or 3G connection.
LOVEFiLM (part of Amazon) is another example – what started out as an alternative to renting videos and DVDs from your local Blockbuster (and potentially resulted in damaging the traditional independent video rental shop) – now lets you stream TV and movies direct to your computer or PS3.
Even broadcasters have caught on – all the terrestrial broadcasters have on-demand services. BBC iPlayer, 4OD, Demand 5, ITV Player all allow you to watch terrestrial television programmes online (after they’ve been broadcast on TV). BBC iPlayer now even has an ios app. However, what’s preventing these services taking off and becoming the norm is the amount of bandwidth needed for them. Streaming video is bandwidth heavy. We’ve all been there – watching a video online (of a savoury nature) and every thirty seconds, you have to wait another ten seconds for it to ‘buffer’ before you can carry on… For the consumer, they won’t buy into technology like that. Although, it’s not the technology that’s letting the side down, it’s bandwidth.
The adoption of ‘pvrs’, Sky+ and ‘time-shift TV’ – freeing viewers from TV schedule slavery – is also ever increasing. Freeview and, later Freeview+ was the primary driver of digital growth in this area and marked the end of analogue TV. By the end of 2012, the UK analogue television signal will be completely switched off. But Freeview is essentially still an ‘old’ technology – the delivery method of Freeview (albeit ‘digital’) relies on an RF signal via an aerial on your roof. Is this just slightly archaic?
The alternatives are some form of cable or satellite TV such as Virgin Media, Sky TV or BT Vision, or the aforementioned internet streaming services.
Virgin Media, Sky TV and BT Vision have been quick to catch on to the ‘streaming’ angle – and are no doubt aware of the shelf life of satellite and cable television – and now also offer ‘on-demand’ services. Sky also has an online on demand service – Sky Player. We shouldn’t forget Apple as well – Apple TV and iTunes have a large share of the on demand market and it’s companies like Apple and Virgin who offer blended services and bundled communication services that will eventually prevail in this relatively new territory.
On demand viewing is on the up. Virgin Media reported a ‘record’ 900 million programmes were watched using their on demand service in 2010 and predicts on demand views will exceed one billion in 2011. Cindy Rose, Virgin Media’s Executive Director of Digital Entertainment, said: "In our increasingly time precious lives, more and more people are switching over to On Demand. It’s a chance to catch-up on something you missed earlier in the week or just watch what you really want at a time that suits you. This year looks set to be transformational in terms of how we watch our favourite shows and I expect we’ll break through the milestone of one billion views in the coming months."
If we stop to look at the figures here – Virgin Media have nearly five million TV package subscribers – that’s approximately 12% of the population. Sky TV have around ten million subscribers – 20% of the population. It’s worth noting here, that on-demand and live video streaming in the US is more common than in the UK. US video streaming services like Comcast and Netflix are huge. Netflix has over 20 million users alone. A statistic last year alluded to 70% of the population of the US, stream video of some form. This is all a clear indication that traditional and conventional viewing habits and methods are changing. So the way we watch ‘TV’ is changing. ‘TV’ itself is changing, both in terms of programmes and the way it’s made.
Live webcasting has increased considerably in the last year or two – for both the broadcaster and the end-user. Literally, anyone can sign up with a free account from justin.tv or Livestream and stream live video from their webcam or connected video camera to… well the whole world. Ok, the quality might not be great – but conceptually, ‘live video streaming’ – from anywhere, to anywhere is a gamechanger for the future of broadcasting. With new tools at broadcasters disposal, such as 3G and 4G bonded techology – allowing you to transmit live video over 3G and 4G networks – and as encoding and compression technology advances, it’s pushing broadcasters toward a streaming and ip based production model. The viewer will also reap the benefit of better encoding and compression technology as it means higher quality video can be streamed online at smaller bit-rates, further enabled by adaptive bitrate technology.
Further evidence of the gradual transition to an IPTV model and the growing scope of video streaming has been acknowledged in recent months in the news – Facebook announced they are to offer a live video streaming service to users and YouTube declared they are not only streaming the Royal Wedding live but are also streaming a live interview with the crew members of the space shuttle Endeavour while they are in space on May 2.
Fujitsu – backed by Virgin Media, Talk Talk and Cisco – recently announced plans to build a 1Gbps network for rural UK. At the same time, Virgin Media themselves have suggested they’re about to commence a trial of broadband download speeds up to 1.5 Gbps (and upload speeds of 150Mbps). This last piece of staggering news could potentially be the final nail in the coffin for traditional broadcasting. In theory, with a dedicated 1.5Gbps broadband connection, you could stream uncompressed HD video over the internet.
But for now, that’s not the reality. The average broadband speed in the UK is 6.2Mbps and this we should point out is, less than half the actual advertised speed. The two big players in high bandwidth broadband – and leading the way in the next generation of superfast broadband services - are BT with their 40Mbps BT Infinity service and Virgin Media with broadband packages up to 100Mbps. Both are fibre based which can provide much higher bandwidth than traditional copper based networks.
Currently, approximately only 45,000 users have BT Infinity – a relatively new product and service from BT. One million users have Virgin Media’s 100Mbps broadband package. Here at Trickbox TV headquarters, we have Virgin’s 50Mbps fibre broadband, so for us, and for other users with fibre broadband, we can happily stream any movie or TV programme we like, but for most of the UK that’s not the case. When BBC iPlayer was first launched, Internet service providers (ISPs) were immediately concerned that streaming services like BBC iPlayer would ‘eat up’ the available bandwidth. A great quote from Mary Turner, the chief executive of Tiscali UK, says it all: "The internet was not set up with a view to distributing video. We have been improving our capacity, but the bandwidth we have is not infinite. If the iPlayer really takes off, consumers accessing the internet will get very slow service and will call their ISPs to complain."
BBC iPlayer streams it’s on demand programmes at a bitrate of around 500 kbps – 800kbps, which may not sound like very much when you compare it to native, uncompressed video or even when you relate it to your 8Mbps broadband connection. But if everyone on your street is also streaming video online at the same time, that bandwidth is being shared too. Plus, your friendly ISP can actively ‘throttle’ your bandwidth if you’re over-using. They call it traffic management…
No, not really. As encoding and compression technology advances and a nationwide fibre network is implemented, ‘streaming video online’ will become commonplace.
But what’s the future for ‘television’ viewing methods? Time will tell but it’s unlikely families across the world will end up all crowding round a 15" laptop on the dining room table, watching EastEnders. Computers are computers. The development of ‘connected’ TV’s and devices and the progression of blended services is more likely to win the war. For the viewer, the viewing experience won’t be too different from what they’ve been used to – we’ll still all be sat on our sofas watching a big screen but the delivery method is likely to be completely different – it’ll be ‘on demand’ programming via a superfast broadband connection. Television scheduling will probably be a thing of the past, too. Just pick what you want to watch, when you want to watch it. But none of that will be possible until every home has a broadband connection with enough bandwidth to support it. Because, remember, bandwidth is king.
We just want to leave you with one lasting thought – during our research for this article, we stumbled across some interesting information that apparently you can actually break the Internet – watch this video to find out how….