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Room for you?

In the television business, 2006 may well be remembered as the year of YouTube. Yet another in the long list of Internet phenomena, YouTube was founded in February 2005 and became Time magazine's Invention of the Year in 2006. Rounding out the year on a high note, YouTube was acquired by another Internet up-and-comer, Google, for $1.65 billion in October.

Along a similar thought line, Time magazine awarded its annual Person of the Year honors to — you — the masses who claimed the Internet as your own, putting the you in YouTube and the my in MySpace.

Time noted that the story of 2006 is one of community and collaboration on a scale never seen before: “It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”

Controlling you

Unfortunately, some things seem to have the indomitable will to resist change. The ability to control the flow of information and entertainment in the United States appears to be one of them.

On Feb. 2, Viacom sent a letter to Google demanding that the company remove 100,000 video clips containing content from Viacom companies. By the end of the day, Google complied. These actions followed an attempt for the companies to reach terms on a redistribution agreement.

The following Wednesday, a story in Reuters set off a firestorm of controversy with a quote made by Google's head of TV technology Vincent Dureau during his speech to the Cable Europe Congress. “The Web infrastructure, and even Google's [infrastructure] doesn't scale. It's not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect,” he said.

The Reuters story went on to say that Google offered to work with cable operators to combine its technology for searching for video and TV footage and its tailored advertising with the cable networks' high-quality delivery of shows.

Seems like something is rotten in the state of Denmark, or more accurately, Amsterdam — the site of the Cable Europe Congress. Just when you thought the Internet may eventually become the bypass technology to resolve ever increasing subscriber fees for cable and DBS, one of the Internet's leaders seems to suggest that the Web infrastructure cannot scale to the task. (After all, despite the fact that you — the average Joe and Jane — created two of this year's Super Bowl commercials doesn't mean you are ready to redefine high-quality entertainment as watching a sitcom created by your neighbor's kids.) And, even worse, it seems that Google may be getting cozy with industries that now control more than 90 percent of all high-quality content creation and distribution.

Subsequent news reports suggest that the story was overblown. Several days later, a Google spokesperson responded, saying, “Some remarks from Vincent Dureau's well-received speech at the Cable Europe Congress were quoted out of context in news reports.” The spokesperson claimed that Google's infrastructure scales are just fine, and there is no problem watching TV on the Web. You decide.

Super-scale me

The question of whether the Web can scale to deliver video is barely relevant. Experts have been claiming that one aspect or another of the Internet infrastructure, upon which the World Wide Web relies, cannot scale for more than a decade.

Somehow the infrastructure has scaled to meet each new challenge. The ability to watch low-quality streaming video via a broadband connection is now routine. We may not yet have HD-quality streaming; however, non-real-time HD downloads are not only feasible today, they are becoming commonplace.

The question of scalability as it relates to the delivery of IPTV is highly dependent on the kind of service that you envision. Any content delivered to any Web appliance on demand is the scenario that does not scale well.

Cable systems have spent billions to provision their networks to offer VOD, complete with the ability to pause and rewind the content. The DBS systems cannot compete in this space due to bandwidth limitations. But they have been doing a pretty good business with near VOD, which provides access points every 15 or 30 minutes for popular movie titles. And Netflix has delivered more than 1 billion movies to consumers using — unbelievably — the U.S. mail. OK, so the bits are on a DVD, but you get the idea.

In September's column, I attempted to define the acronym IPTV. (See “Web links.”) While many people use the term to describe the entire emerging landscape of television delivered via IP networks, others insist that IPTV refers only to the walled garden services now offered by the telcos competing against the well-entrenched cable and DBS systems.

There is a sound technical reason for this distinction. The ability to maintain the same level of image and service quality as cable and DBS is not easily achieved using traditional broadband services and the public Internet.

This is not an issue with non-real-time downloads. The hurdle is real-time streaming. However, the cable and telco networks are optimized for this application. The real-time streaming problem can be mitigated using IP multicast techniques. At the most simplistic level, rather than setting up individual sessions with each viewer, everyone tunes into the same stream of bits. This drastically reduces the bandwidth needed on the Internet backbones. The crunch then moves to the links between the local point of Internet access and the viewer.

Some of the telco IPTV systems use IP multicast techniques to deliver all of their streaming channels to your neighborhood. A router in the neighborhood that serves 25 to 50 homes then forwards the streams requested by each TV in each home. If more than one home is watching the same stream, it only needs to be routed once.

So it is not only possible to deliver your choice of several hundred channels to a TV; it is already being done. Scaling this up to support thousands of channels is certainly possible. The issue is investing in the necessary bandwidth in each segment of the network.

And this is the problem the Google representative was trying to address. Given the reality that the pipes into your home are controlled by a handful of companies that also want to sell you TV services, how realistic is it to believe that they will scale up their networks so you can bypass their TV services?

The network neutrality debate

Google is one of many companies lobbying for network neutrality. In case you are unfamiliar with this term, it boils down to this: The network makes its best effort to move everyone's IP packets without any preferential treatment.

This is how the Internet works today, basically. The one major caveat: Your Internet access level, or speed, is determined by what you need, can afford or can get. Dial-up is painfully slow. Broadband comes in many flavors with varying speeds for uploading and downloading IP packets. Internet routers typically negotiate a transfer rate between the server and your computer, based largely on the speed of your connection.

But what would happen if those routers started to negotiate the quality of your service based on what the server operator is willing to pay AT&T, for example, in addition to the basic Internet connection charges? What if AT&T went to Google and said, we need more money to deliver your bits? You can feel free to draw the conclusion that they would not charge more money to deliver bits from an AT&T IPTV system.

Or imagine what might happen if Google and AT&T decided to work together in the way that some reporters read into the comments of Google's Vincent Dureau. For a small premium per month, you can access YouTube with the same level of quality that you now expect from ESPN, HGTV or those pesky local broadcasters.

This may seem far-fetched, but here's my point: Powerful interests have their eyes on a very tasty pie — the global market for television entertainment. Some of these companies are doing everything in their power to protect their share of the pie. Some are trying to get a slice of the pie. And others are trying to get rich off of the crumbs the others leave behind.

If you are getting the impression that some companies are still hoping to build tollbooths on the information superhighway we call the Internet, you get it.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

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