Profound as it may be, the Internet revolution still pales in comparison to that earlier revolution that first brought screens in millions of homes: the TV revolution. Americans still spend more of their non-sleep, non-work time on watching TV than on any other activity. And now the immovable object (the couch potato) and the irresistible force (the business-model destroying Internet) are colliding.
For decades, the limitations of technology only allowed viewers to watch TV programs as they were broadcast. Although limiting, this way of watching TV has the benefit of simplicity: the viewer only has to turn on the set and select a channel. They then get to see what was deemed broadcast-worthy at that particular time. This is the exact opposite of the Web, where users type a search query or click a link and get their content whenever they want. Unsurprisingly, TV over the Internet, a combination that adds Web-like instant gratification to the TV experience, has seen an enormous growth in popularity since broadband became fast enough to deliver decent quality video. So is the Internet going to wreck TV, or is TV going to wreck the Internet? Arguments can certainly be made either way.
The process of distributing TV over a data network such as the Internet, a process often called IPTV, is a little more complex than just sending files back and forth. Unless, that is, a TV broadcast is recorded and turned into a file. The latter, file-based model is one that Apple has embraced with its iTunes Store, where shows are simply downloaded like any other file. This has the advantage that shows can be watched later, even when there is no longer a network connection available, but the download model doesn’t exactly lend itself to live broadcasts—or instant gratification, for that matter.
Most of the new IPTV services, like Netflix and Hulu, and all types of live broadcasts use a streaming model. Here, the program is set out in real time. The computer—or, usually by way of a set-top-box, the TV—decodes the incoming stream of audio and video and then displays it pretty much immediately. This has the advantage that the video starts within seconds. However, it also means that the network must be fast enough to carry the audio/video at the bitrate that it was encoded with. The bitrate can vary a lot depending on the type of program—talking heads compress a lot better than car crashes—but for standard definition (SD) video, think two megabits per second (Mbps).
To get a sense just how significant this 2Mbps number is, it’s worth placing it in the context of the history of the Internet, as it has moved from transmitting text to images to audio and video. A page of text that takes a minute to read is a few kilobytes in size. Images are tens to a few hundred kilobytes. High quality audio starts at about 128 kilobits per second (kbps), or about a megabyte per minute. SD TV can be shoehorned in some two megabits per second (Mbps), or about 15 megabytes per minute. HDTV starts around 5Mbps, 40 megabytes per minute. So someone watching HDTV over the Internet uses about the same bandwidth as half a million early-1990s text-only Web surfers. Even today, watching video uses at least ten times as much bandwidth as non-video use of the network.
In addition to raw capacity, streaming video also places other demands on the network. Most applications communicate through TCP, a layer in the network stack that takes care of retransmitting lost data and delivering data to the receiving application in the right order. This is despite the fact that the IP packets that do TCP’s bidding may arrive out of order. And when the network gets congested, TCP’s congestion control algorithms slow down the transmission rate at the sender, so the network remains usable.
However, for real-time audio and video, TCP isn’t such a good match. If a fraction of a second of audio or part of a video frame gets lost, it’s much better to just skip over the lost data and continue with what follows, rather than wait for a retransmission to arrive. So streaming audio and video tended to run on top of UDP rather than TCP. UDP is the thinnest possible layer on top of IP and doesn’t care about lost packets and such. But UDP also means that TCP’s congestion control is out the door, so a video stream may continue at full speed even though the network is overloaded and many packets—also from other users—get lost. However, more advanced streaming solutions are able to switch to lower quality video when network conditions worsen. And Apple has developed a way to stream video using standard HTTP on top of TCP, by splitting the stream into small files that are downloaded individually. Should a file fail to download because of network problems, it can be skipped, continuing playback with the next file.
Where are the servers? Follow the money
Like any Internet application, streaming of TV content can happen from across town or across the world. However, as the number of users increases, the costs of sending such large amounts of data over large distances become significant. For this reason, content delivery networks (CDNs), of which Akamai is probably the most well-known, try to place servers as close to the end-users as possible, either close to important interconnect locations where lots of Internet traffic comes together, or actually inside the networks of large ISPs.
Interestingly, it appears that CDNs are actually paying large ISPs for this privilege. This makes the IPTV business a lot like the cable TV business. On the Internet, the assumption is that both ends (the consumer and the provider of over-the-Internet services) pay their own ISPs for the traffic costs, and the ISPs just transport the bits and aren’t involved otherwise. In the cable TV world, this is very different. An ISP provides access to the entire Internet; a cable TV provider doesn’t provide access to all possible TV channels. Often, the cable companies pay for access to content.
A recent dispute between Level3 and Comcast can be interpreted as evidence of a power struggle between the CDNs and the ISPs in the IPTV arena.
For services like Netflix or Hulu, where everyone is watching their own movie or their own show, streaming makes a lot of sense. Not so much with live broadcasts.
So far, we’ve only been looking at IPTV over the public Internet. However, many ISPs around the world already provide cable-like service on top of ADSL or Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH). With such complete solutions, the ISPs can control the whole service, from streaming servers to the set-top box that decodes the IPTV data and delivers it to a TV. This “walled garden” type of IPTV typically provides a better and more TV-like experience—changing channels is faster, image quality is better, and the service is more reliable.
Such an IPTV Internet access service is a lot like what cable networks provide, but there is a crucial difference: with cable, the bandwidth of the analog cable signal is split into channels, which can be used for analog or digital TV broadcasts or for data. TV and data don’t get in each other’s way. With IPTV on the other hand, TV and Internet data are communication vessels: what is used by one is unavailable to the other. And to ensure a good experience, IPTV packets are given higher priority than other packets. When bandwidth is plentiful, this isn’t an issue, but when a network fills up to the point that Internet packets regularly have to take a backseat to IPTV packets, this could easily become a network neutrality headache.
Multicast to the rescue
Speaking of networks that fill up: for services like Netflix or Hulu, where everyone is watching their own movie or their own show, streaming makes a lot of sense. Not so much with live broadcasts. If 30 million people were to tune into Dancing with the Stars using streaming, that means 30 million copies of each IPTV packet must flow down the tubes. That’s not very efficient, especially given that routers and switches have the capability to take one packet and deliver a copy to anyone who’s interested. This ability to make multiple copies of a packet is called multicast, and it occupies territory between broadcasts, which go to everyone, and regular communications (called unicast), which go to only one recipient. Multicast packets are addressed to a special group address. Only systems listening for the right group address get a copy of the packet.
Multicast is already used in some private IPTV networks, but it has never gained traction on the public Internet. Partially, this is a chicken/egg situation, where there is no demand because there is no supply and vice versa. But multicast is also hard to make work as the network gets larger and the number of multicast groups increases. However, multicast is very well suited to broadcast type network infrastructures, such as cable networks and satellite transmission. Launching multiple satellites that just send thousands of copies of the same packets to thousands of individual users would be a waste of perfectly good rockets.
Peer-to-peer and downloading
Converging to a single IP network that can carry the Web, other data services, telephony, and TV seems like a no-brainer.
Multicast works well for a relatively limited number of streams that are each watched by a reasonably sized group of people—but having very many multicast groups takes up too much memory in routers and switches. For less popular content, there’s another delivery method that requires no or few streaming servers: peer-to-peer streaming. This was the technology used by the Joost service in 2007 and 2008. With peer-to-peer streaming, all the systems interested in a given stream get blocks of audio/video data from upstream peers, and then send those on to downstream peers. This approach has two downsides: the bandwidth of the stream has to be limited to fit within the upload capacity of most peers, and changing channels is a very slow process because a whole new set of peers must be contacted.
For less time-critical content, downloading can work very well. Especially in a form like podcasts, where an RSS feed allows a computer to download new episodes of shows without user intervention. It’s possible to imagine a system where regular network TV shows are made available for download one or two days before they air—but in encrypted form. Then, “airing” the show would just entail distributing the decryption keys to viewers. This could leverage unused network capacity at night. Downloads might also happen using IP packets with a lower priority, so they don’t get in the way of interactive network use.
IP addresses and home networks
A possible issue with IPTV could be the extra IP addresses required. There are basically two approaches to handling this issue: the one where the user is in full control, and the one where an IPTV service provider (usually the ISP) has some control. In the former case, streaming and downloading happens through the user’s home network and no extra addresses are required. However, wireless home networks may not be able to provide bandwidth with enough consistency to make streaming work well, so pulling Ethernet cabling may be required.
When the IPTV provider provides a set-top box, it’s often necessary to address packets toward that set-top box, so the box must be addressable in some way. This can eat up a lot of addresses, which is a problem in these IPv4-starved times. For really large ISPs, the private address ranges in IPv4 may not even be sufficient to provide a unique address to every customer. Issues in this area are why Comcast has been working on adopting IPv6 in the non-public part of its network for many years. When an IPTV provider provides a home gateway, this gateway is often outfitted with special quality-of-service mechanisms that make (wireless) streaming work better than run-of-the-mill home gateways that treat all packets the same.
Predicting the future
Converging to a single IP network that can carry the Web, other data services, telephony, and TV seems like a no-brainer. The phone companies have been working on this for years because that will allow them to buy cheap off-the-shelf routers and switches, rather than the specialty equipment they use now. So it seems highly likely that in the future, we’ll be watching our TV shows over the Internet—or at least over an IP network of some sort. The extra bandwidth required is going to be significant, but so far, the Internet has been able to meet all challenges thrown at it in this area. Looking at the technologies, it would make sense to combine nightly pushed downloads for popular non-live content, multicast for popular live content, and regular streaming or peer-to-peer streaming for back catalog shows and obscure live content.
However, the channel flipping model of TV consumption has proven to be quite popular over the past half century, and many consumers may want to stick with it—for at least part of their TV viewing time. If nothing else, this provides an easy way to discover new shows. The networks are also unlikely to move away from this model voluntarily, because there is no way they’ll be able to sell 16 minutes of commercials per hour using most of the other delivery methods. However, we may see some innovations. For instance, if you stumble upon a show in progress, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go back to the beginning? In the end, TV isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the Internet, so they’ll have to find a way to live together.
Correction: The original article incorrectly stated that cable providers get paid by TV networks. For broadcast networks, cable operators are required by the law’s “must carry” provisions to carry all of the TV stations broadcast in a market. Ars regrets the error.