Internet HD? Don't Hold Your Breath

Suddenly, the Internet is changing the way traditional television does business and the way consumers use the medium -- mostly for the tiny screen in mobile settings and for more convenient time shifting. Yet, even with the fat pipes afforded by broadband ("fat" at least compared to the old dial-up regime), the tech gurus at online magazine Slate say current Internet infrastructure will not allow acceptable HD video online anytime soon.

The reasons are basically the same ones that explain why the Internet has exploded in popularity in the first place: Generally speaking, the online world does not "play favorites" when it comes to spectrum dedication.

The publication points out that all data packets are basically handled in the same way; none gets preferential treatment for faster delivery. That's fine for most types of traffic, but not for the heavy demands of HD formats. While a miniscule fraction-of-a-second delay due to online congestion has no practical impact on an e-mail or downloads (even the big ones), it would have a dramatic effect on HD video on the open network, unlike the closed, protected networks of broadcasters and other TV content providers.

Until Internet II (or some other second player comes along), it is technically possible to change how today's Internet operates, using new and improved routing equipment that's "smart" enough to analyze the contents of data packets nearly instantaneously, and to assign each one an appropriate priority level, Slate says. But installing such routers across the global Internet would require a colossal, expensive upgrade (not to mention requiring companies that build and operate online systems to fully agree on how to hand off data throughout the entire infrastructure). Not likely.

The best "motivator" for eventually getting reliable HD online (and other innovations) will be money, says Slate, which is what already separates today's broadband customers from lingering dial-up patrons. But, the online publication argues, even with a way to prioritize streaming for those who pay more, the Internet will need a lot more bandwidth to deliver acceptable SD TV, let alone HD.