Television over IP: Where does it fit in?
By Allen Mornington-West
Simply because we can put the terms DVB, IP and television together in a sentence implies that we can say that the technology to deliver DVB content in packets over IP already exists. The terms DVB, IP, Internet, MPEG-4, broadband and television are not interchangeable. Digital television, at least here, refers to the delivery of broadcast-quality image and sound. In technical shorthand, this would be the ability to provide a 576-line digital picture, but this need not be a real-time signal as long as the viewer can experience true broadcast quality television.
Trading off speed, quality and latency in delivery
Defining television may set the criteria for quality of coding and decoding, but it allows the delivery to run at any rate we like, from real time to faster or slower than real time. Subterranean, terrestrial or celestial transmission can satisfy the real time requirement, and outside of this, we can use Internet IP-based technologies for handling DVB packets containing conventional MPEG-2 video and audio streams.
The distribution optimum seems to be the broadband capacity provided by telcos since they supply the bulk of the capacity of the European Union (EU). Recent figures suggest 5.3 million broadband connections already exist, with some 97 percent provided by the incumbent telco operators. But with as many as 45 million homes in the EU estimated to have broadband connections by 2005, there is a potential to service a sizeable market.
The delivery rate of broadband is contentious and ranges from an increasingly common value of around 500kb/s to 10Mb/s. Dribbling content means that an obscure 1-hour movie might take the afternoon to arrive, while downloads of regular content, such as soaps, can take place at an even slower rate in the background. 'Dribblivery,' as we might call it, seems to be the necessary approach to populating the parched hectares of hard disks.
Dribblivery requires local storage for the encoded television content. Methods other than DVB and MPEG could be used, but there is little benefit in terms of efficiency at the broadcast-quality level, and there is a considerable advantage to operators relying on a universal technology for coding and decoding. There is no business rule that says the consumer must buy yet another set-top box (STB) and add yet another name to the 'friends and family' phone list just because a proprietary technology and a paranoid sense of security is part of a business plan. Curiously enough, the viewer buys services rather than technology.
Acquiring and controlling the content
Extending the scope of controlled access systems to cover copying and time-shifted viewing is likely to be contentious. For it to become part of the accepted canon of consumer behavior for home-delivered media, some social reprogramming may be needed. Copy protection is only a valid pursuit if the content is worth copying. The advent of cheap DVD players means that any home has access to DVD-quality images at low cost. Preventing domestic copying is perhaps much more of an emotive, if not disingenuous, bleat as the major real piracy losses take place on an industrial basis in regions of the world where respect and policing of copyright is not well practiced. Unlike our material goods, when knowledge and experience is gained, it cannot be retrieved. The current thinking may be flawed, and a new paradigm is needed that understands knowledge as something other than an analog of a physical chattel.
The future for content aggregators, just as for the conventional scheduled broadcast operators, is still rosy. There will always be reasons why viewers would use a local provider, perhaps because of the language or the quality of service. True business operators here will evolve to occupy this space and to provide some added value for the viewer. Meanwhile, the major content rights owners are aiming to gain direct access to the viewer right down to specifying the encapsulation and hardware needed. On the wisdom of specifying yet a further closed proprietary consumer system, let us be mute for a bit.
The future for television, the PC and the viewer
Confusing the ability of the PC to handle moving images on the desktop with the ability of the television in the home to engage in an experience ignores the impact on anticipated quality caused by increasing numbers of viewers who are installing 16:9 wide screen displays of 81cm and more. The TV display is still the social focus and the primary point of entertainment in the household.
The viability of the PC as the prime terminal device and as the means of distribution around the home needs thinking through as a domestic proposition. Storage could be provided by the service operator at the nearby exchange, but the quality of currently typical video-on-demand is unlikely to justify premium prices for content.
As the competition has to be engaged on the grounds of a wide range of choice and on the anticipation of enjoyment, it needs to include the four S words used in selling; neceSsity, concupiScence, inSecurity and Sex. If the service cannot appeal to necessity, entice the desire to own through delivery latency or through sex -- which is difficult as sales of adult NVoD experiences tell us it only lasts two minutes -- then all you are left with is insecurity. The service with its content has to be marketed as something exclusive and valuable.
Telco and cable operators that do not add value to content have only a 'bearer' role to play. Telcos have not made successful inroads into content acquisition in recent times, and few cable companies have done little more than aggregate television services from selected content providers.
There is a future for dribblivery using IP to bear DVB-coded television, but the confluence of growing anticipations of quality, driven partly by increasingly better display systems and partly by the availability of quality content via DVD means that understanding what drives the viewer's concupiscence is essential. The role of automatically personalized guidance systems may help in the long run, and these will be valued, provided that they are not egregiously intruded on by advertisers.
The viewer requires a service, and the technology is a secondary issue. A single decoding unit could be an item that is owned, while access to any of a range of services is facilitated by simple-to-use methods. It is doubtful that viewers would realistically be expected to use PCs as a means of capturing and viewing true televisual content. We can no more expect a combination of a PC to become the demotic television receiver in any household than we can expect the STB to double-up as an Internet terminal. You do not see many microwave and spin-dryer combos, so the white goods manufacturers clearly know a thing or two about consumers, service and the market. Meanwhile, the killer application for digital television still seems to be television.
Allen Mornington-West is a director of BPI, a company offering specialist advice for business and technology in digital media.