Internet as infrastructure for TV broadcasts

Posted on October 31, 2006 by

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P2P streaming technologies can help broadcasters and content providers overcome the hitches of live streaming.

After Disney announced last week that they are launching a special web portal, SOAPNETIC, a dedicated web-TV channel for broadcasting their most popular TV shows such as Desperate Housewives, Commander in Chief and Lost, journalists and bloggers alike have been questioning whether it is even possible to do this kind of broadcasting online. However, online content delivery could be made possible with a little help from peer streaming technologies.

Technology has always been a vital part of broadcasting and this is even more so today as the digital revolution is driving a convergence of all media; TV, radio and newspapers alike. Digitization allows many kinds of content to be delivered over different networks, and the Internet has become a global infrastructure for communication, opening up myriad possibilities for new industries and services. Convergence between devices picks up speed as technology gaps between TV and PC diminishes: “Finally it seems PCs and TVs will talk the same digital language making it significantly easier to download digital video content over the internet to a PC and then play it back on the TV” (Paul Taylor for FT.com 11/04/06).

With an increasing percentage of the population viewing and listening to rich media distributed via the Internet, broadcasters are expected by the public to provide the same (or better!) service online as offline (i.e. TV and Radio), but the reality is that online activities has been considered as a side-track or something “additional”, and it has not been the focus of the broadcasters attention. However, this is about to change as important players see opportunities for using internet as a content delivery platform. Advertisers for example find themselves threatened by inventions such as TIVO which allows you to record and play content commercial-free, thus the classic model with set times of broadcasting interrupted by 30 seconds of commercials does not seem to be able to survive. The internet on the other hand is perfectly designed for commercials, and can actually enable a real time purchase by simply clicking on the ad.

Broadcasters also see an opportunity to get a larger share of the advertising income by distributing the content themselves over the internet rather than simply licensing the content to cable and satellite providers. Thus, in an attempt to “bake their cake and eat it too”, the world’s top national and commercial broadcasters now announce new Internet based services nearly on a daily basis. Their strategy is monetizing their content, whilst building loyal online communities in order to compete with established user driven content communities, such as myspace.com, and peer based networks where consumers illegally share the latest films, music and TV shows (Limewire, Bittorrent, Kazaa etc). An example of this is the Disney-ABC Television Group April announcement of a launch of a special web portal, SOAPNETIC, dedicated to broadcasting their most popular TV shows such as Desperate Housewives, Commander in Chief and Lost online. However, sceptics warn broadcasters against this move towards online streaming. For example Financial times journalist Richard Waters wrote that “the design of the internet is unsuited to the sort of “live” online television services announced by Walt Disney” (FT, 11/04/06).

The sceptics may be right in some respects, but it is not “the design of internet” in itself that is the root of the problem. The internet has actually proven itself as a viable content delivery infrastructure (just look at Itunes!), but indeed, there are two issues at hand here: First of all, broadband penetration in the internet population is too low: According to statistics published by the OECD in late 2005, there are 158 million broadband subscribers worldwide, and the three of the four countries with the highest penetration rates are Iceland, Korea, the Netherlands and Denmark which all have more than 25 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. The United States is the country with most subscribers at 49 million, which accounts for 31% of the broadband population worldwide. This may seem impressive, but considering that broadband can be anything from a 512 kbps connection up to more than 26 mbps, the actual available bandwidth is not optimal. This needs to be addressed by governments and ISPs globally. Interestingly, if the Disney offering gets a large enough audience that could actually be the push needed force the ISP industry to invest in a new infrastructure that is capable of supporting a large mass market online video streaming

Second of all, the current infrastructure of online broadcasting is not built to handle this new digital demand. One of the main problems of streaming live content over the internet is expanding reach whilst achieving economies of scale advantages, and the cost of increased capacity is high. As the size of the audience participating in a live Internet broadcast increases, the bandwidth required for that broadcast increases proportionally. Until now there have been two ways to manage this cost; limitation of audience size or reduction of quality. However, P2P (“peer-to-peer”) enabled streaming may be the solution to a large portion of the problems associated with online broadcasting.

A peer-to-peer (or P2P) computer network is a network that relies on the computing power and bandwidth of the participants in the network rather than concentrating it in a relatively low number of servers. In practice, many of the files shared on peer-to-peer networks are copies of copyrighted popular music and movies. Thus, some media companies conclude that the networks themselves pose grave threats to the established distribution model. This is now changing, and P2P streaming has become an important issue on broadcasters’ agenda. Even big national broadcasters such as the BBC are currently testing different solutions for using peering technologies in their streaming. When using this technology, the bandwidth requirement of the broadcast is intelligently distributed over the entire network of participants, instead of being centralised at the broadcasts origin: As the audience grows so do the network resources available to distribute that broadcast without adding any additional bandwidth costs. This makes broadcasting over the Internet completely scalable and eliminates the success penalty broadcasters normally experience. RawFlow Inc. is one of the leading suppliers of P2P software solutions today.

Peer enabled streaming helps broadcasters get around bottlenecks and minimizes bandwidth costs, but at the same time it is relying heavily on the upload capacity in the network, and therefore there is a limit on the quality of the stream. Thus, it is not yet possible to stream full-quality movies live. However, we can expect that the high-speed internet penetration in the population will increase dramatically within a short timeframe, as demonstrated by a recent offer in the UK of “free” broadband packages from vendor Carphone Warehouse certainly got the public’s attention as 25,000 people were reported to have signed up just days after its launch (information from Reuters.co.uk). Combined with increased bandwidth, it seems likely that peer enabled streaming technologies is more than a “quick-fix” and can overcome the hitches of live streaming. This has potential to turn the whole broadcasting industry up-side down, and drive content providers who cannot keep up out of business.

Posted in: Streaming