IPTV/VoD: The world that's on its way
Part one: Hitting the brakes before the crash
Industry comment Imagine travelling down a motorway at 110 miles per hour, passing hundreds of signs with half of you feeling you just want a leisurely drive and the other half panicking that you're late.
Some of the other cars are crashing into the central reservation or veering off the left lane violently never to be seen again, some are just sitting behind you watching what you'll do, and some are cruising with you in parallel so they can wave at you from the other window. Others are just parked in the hard shoulder doing nothing.
You're so busy trying to keep up your speed, answer calls on your mobile, work out when you'll need to put more gas in and fend off what the other cars are doing that you’ve also forgotten the most important thing: the one thing you thought you already knew and couldn't set off on the journey without. You know where you started, but you don't know where the road leads. You're all racing so fast that nobody knows where they are going. Point B is a mystery. All that seems to matter is the mile of distance ahead, but no one has looked at the map and or taken much notice of the road signs. Nobody has any realistic idea of what's down that long road or what it will take to both get and stay there.
Technology moves at such a breathtaking speed that we almost always lose track of everything but the race. Westminster village is unfortunately the same. NHK, the Japanese inventor of the new Ultra HD (U-HDTV) video system invented high definition video over 30 years ago, although it was first introduced in the 1990s and still is yet to see significant deployment at this precise moment in time, despite the predictions of its ubiquity by market analysts. Their latest thinking is that U-HDTV won't see any practical consumer installations for the next generation, or at least 25 years.
Business without mission or purpose is like life without purpose, with the additional consideration of having to be able to react to change quickly and follow the money to survive. Many companies talk mission, but it's lip service to flashy self-help consultancy doublespeak or a meaningless gesture that does very little to encourage their employees in the way they think it will. Business is about people, and companies are made up of people. Without mission or purpose, there is little chance for momentum to speed up or innovation to blossom. People react to vision as it touches their soul, not simply their need to pay the bills.
In just 10 years, the internet has come to control almost all of our lives in the Western world. Websites, email, TCP/IP and web applications have taken over as the preferred way for human systems to communicate. The bridging of international telecoms networks has created a truly globalised community and marketplace for the first time in human history. It crosses country borders and allows instant collaboration across cultures, languages and races. The more able we are to communicate, the faster we evolve. Exponential evolution of our species is closer than it has ever been.
There is one key feature of the internet that is to thank for its growth, and it is a dire warning to those who tout proprietary computer systems and networks. That secret is its neutrality and openness. Sharing and collaborating for the greater good has spawned billions of dollars and inspired an unprecedented wave of innovation. On the internet, everyone is equal; the small shopkeeper can compete with the large supermarket on a level footing for a slice of a global customer base. No one has to build their own web or DNS servers, they just get on straight away with the business of putting great ideas to work, almost for free. It is transforming the economies of third world nations.
But the future of internet is not certain. What we do know is that all electronic devices are now evolving to have internet connectivity, and at critical mass that means any machine or device can talk to any other. We also know the US guardianship of the overall network is reaching its dusk and that there are many companies out there who will do whatever they can to carve off parts of it for their own vested interests and financial control without regard to the bigger picture. The growth in social networking and so-called Web 2.0 has demonstrated that our interactions and demands are becoming considerably more complex.
We also know that the era of simplistic "first come, first served" information delivery is no longer enough, as it has been for websites, email, and radio. The advent of broadband connectivity has opened the door to telephony, music distribution and the early seeds of worldwide video delivery. The web's chaotic evolution may just be the 50 tonne boulder in the middle of the road that we spend years crashing into until we find a way to go round it.
Put simply, we've outgrown the old internet. The next generation is the transfer of information across the world more intelligently, and the jewel in that crown is the ability to transmit live, picture-perfect HD-quality multi-channel television across the backbone and migrate away from satellite, cable, and terrestrial broadcast TV systems.
Point B is live broadcast television and universal internet connectivity between all devices. Without vision we are lost and blind.
That's no easy task. In fact, some might say it's completely impossible considering the state we are in today. But it is the next step, whether we like it or not. Naysayers and cynics will have a field day with all the barriers in place to stop us from getting there, as it's an uphill struggle that will require massive investment and risk.
All sorts of stepping stones are helping us to dip our toes in the proverbial waters, such as closed/managed IPTV networks, video download services, P2P distribution systems, download-to-own, and flash streaming websites (YouTube, Google Video etc). Most are free for providers and cost consumers a modest subscription fee.
Live television and high-definition radio have huge implications both commercially and technically. The first is the necessity for efficient delivery, which guarantees the consumer a familiar, high-quality and compelling entertainment experience and maintains the integrity of the results of content producers' efforts and investment. The second is for a change in the nature of the traditional entertainment business models to accommodate the globalised nature of widened multimedia distribution and support the production of new intellectual property. The third is the desperate need to create new ways to discover, promote, navigate, and consume the sheer mass of digital content being made available.
The current internet cannot handle live multi-channel television, despite the proliferation of pseudo-alternatives such as "internet TV", streaming media, and clip playback on websites. Peer to peer systems will only get us so far as they address the problem by re-balancing the bottlenecks on the network to its edge rather than its core.
Technically, live broadcast media means multicast distribution, quality of service (QoS) enablement and a last mile that is high-speed and virtually uncontended. The network environment needs extensive work to incorporate intelligent caching and localisation that minimises the traffic load on the core network backbone by only sending large video files once, or only when they are needed.
The trouble is that the internet is a garbled spaghetti mess of proprietary networks that are all set up in a completely different way. These networks meet at junctions (public or private peering points) to form the internet and conspire to deliver information in the quickest and most efficient way possible from one point to another. Some are multicast and QoS-enabled, some are not. There's no way to tell which route a piece of data will take when it makes it journey across the web of networks, and hence no way to guarantee its prompt delivery. There is very little standardisation between the operators of these networks, and efforts to unify them (such as the Mbone) have abjectly failed.
The irony is that most of these individual MPLS networks can do live television as it is. They already offer quality-guaranteed delivery of video from one place on their network to another. These point-to-point services are sold at a premium to private clients who want to get their TV signal from A to B reliably, for which the operators use multicast and common QoS systems, both of which are comparatively old technologies. Traffic running across these networks is generally "tagged" into two separate groups – public internet traffic, and private traffic. A private connection is typically implemented as a virtual private network (VPN) and can also use virtual local area network (VLAN) technology.
There is also more than enough capacity in transoceanic fiber to be to withstand the onslaught of live television and unicast video-on-demand. The fiber itself is already laid, but the cost comes through the capital expenditure for equipment to "light up" additional wavelength capacity at termination points. Scientific improvements in fiber-optic technology mean that this equipment gets more efficient as the years go on, that the demand strips its price and we can keep squeezing more and more bandwidth out of the same cable. Conservative anecdotal evidence suggests that less than six per cent of the available fiber is currently being used, and of that, only 60 per cent (~4 per cent of the total) is constantly at work. In third world countries, they are buying it for pennies by the metre and stringing it up in the air between individual houses.
To put this into perspective, the highest reported simultaneous traffic load passing through the LINX exchange in London's docklands is just over 100Gbit/s. To transmit all the visible channels on the Sky Digital platform in MPEG-4 AVC, you would need around 1Gbit/s (this of course excludes test channels, interactive applications, additional video tracks/camera angles and other hidden transmission variables). The first iteration of unicast video-on-demand being succeeded with new super-scalar multicast variants also means that if 1,000 people are all requesting the same movie title within the same 15 mins, less than 20 unique streams are needed to feed the rest of the audience parasitically. Unfortunately, the vested interests of the vendors lie with shipping as many units as possible, so efficiency doesn't do them many favours.
But unfortunately proprietary, money-grabbing, risk-aversion fever has gripped the carriers. They make more money selling private point-to-point video connections on their shiny MPLS networks and have very little interest in working with their competitors to interconnect live television services across the internet. Their primary goal is turning video carriage into a premium service that content providers and consumers pay through the nose for so they can appease investors and squeeze the last drop out of their past capital investments in infrastructure. For the next generation of the internet (and hence the next generation of profits), we need video to be a commodity.
On the surface it's a perfectly reasonable business decision. But look further down the road, and it's absurd. These companies are in business today because of co-operation, integration, and interoperation alone. If we'd have adopted the same policy at the beginnings of the internet it wouldn't exist. We'd all be trying to connect to JANET because of a similar campaign by all of the individuals to monopolise the network. And back then, investment in a new fangled communications technologies such as the internet was far riskier when the demand or "proof" was just blue sky conjecture.
Openness, neutrality and interoperation got them where they are today, and are the only things that will get them to point B. Resisting it is like turning over and ignoring everything that's come before and sabotaging your own salvation. Telecoms is a fast-moving and risky business, and they are making a catastrophic mistake doing nothing about it - as everyone is doing the same like lemmings running to a cliff edge. It's short-sighted madness.
Digital TX Limited is a London-based provider of technology and consultancy solutions for interactive digital television and broadband media. Alexander Cameron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As well as co-ordinating the birth of the IPTV Consortium (IPTVC), Alex is now offering a great value one-day workshop course on IPTV and Video On-Demand (VoD) specifically for web and media professionals. It can help you get up to speed on the latest technologies, content deals, operators and applications across the world, and offer immense value in identifying both new opportunities and threats for your business and personal career. If you would like more information, call Alex on 07986 373177 or email email@example.com. Readers who quote The Register as their source will receive a 10 per cent discount on the course fees.