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Next generation TV over the Internet: This revolution will be televised

By Leonard A. Giuliano, co-chair of the MBONED Working Group at the IETF, special to Network World
January 05, 2011 04:39 PM ET

Network World - While television and the Internet have both reshaped the way we consume information, there has been very little interaction between the two.

Like seventh-grade boys and girls attending their first dance, these two dominant forms of mass communication have stood awkwardly apart at opposite sides of the dance floor. Knowing they are supposed to mix, knowing they eventually will mix, they nonetheless aren't quite sure how to mix.

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We will examine the technical factors that have caused this segregation and the new and evolved tools that will make true integration of television and the Internet possible. We will explore what that new world of integration will look like, point out the winners and losers, and provide a road map for success. We will also ponder the revolutionary impact this integration will have on society.

Take a look at the cable box sitting beneath your TV. What do you see? Bulky, heavy, dated, and perhaps emanating an annoying buzz from the spinning hard drive of a DVR. Its appearance and operation, with the exception of the DVR functionality, seems largely unchanged from its predecessors of the '80s (watch 1980s Solid Gold). Now take a look at your mobile phone. Light, sleek, futuristic, like something straight out of Star Trek.

Now imagine your mobile phone as your cable box. I'm not talking just about grainy YouTube videos of someone's cat playing the piano, I mean really watching TV- NBC, ESPN, HBO. But instead of being limited to the 200 or so channels offered by your cable TV provider, you can connect your smartphone to your TV and watch your choice of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of channels all delivered over the Internet.

Over the last decade and a half, we've seen all forms of media, information, entertainment and commerce migrate to the Internet. Yet television has been the lone holdout, principally because the technology to deliver television in a scalable and reliable way just wasn't mature enough ... until now. We now stand at a point in time where a nexus of enabling technologies are all available to deliver this vision. Will it happen? Recent history has shown that once the Internet becomes capable of carrying a particular medium, it inevitably becomes a dominant platform for that medium. It's not a question of if, but rather when.

The implications of this next generation of television - NextGenTV- go well beyond the absurdity of complaints that "there's nothing on TV." The impact of NextGenTV on societies across the globe will be seismic as this revolution will be televised.

A nexus of enabling technologies

The recent availability of new, as well as evolved technologies in consumer devices and networking capability, makes the long-theorized possibility of the NextGenTV truly a reality today. Let's examine each of the components that comprise this vision.

First, the availability of smartphones and other inexpensive Internet-connected consumer devices like Slingboxes have made it possible to deliver technical functionality that most had never dreamed of. The combination of low-cost hardware components, the ubiquity of Ethernet and Wi-Fi availability within most homes, plus common, open software platforms like the Android operating system, are accelerating the pace of innovation. The functionality found in a cable box is actually quite trivial compared to the computational flexibility that smartphones and other inexpensive consumer devices are delivering already. Outputting an Internet-based video stream can be done today without having these devices break a sweat.

The next barrier has always been the greatest - the last-mile of Internet access. In the days of dialup and low-speed DSL access, video of any decent quality was a pipe dream. However, current DSL and cable modem speeds routinely deliver 10M to 20Mbps for roughly $50 per month. Add to that the recent introduction of 4G wireless availability, and delivering one or two high-definition TV streams of reasonable quality is well within the realm of possibility for the typical consumer.

The lack of low-cost consumer video output devices and insufficient last-mile bandwidth masked another major deficiency that prevented the possibility of TV over the Internet: the Internet was not up to the task. The Internet, based on a delivery mechanism known as unicast, simply could not deliver a high-bandwidth video stream to millions of simultaneous viewers in an economical manner. However, recent protocol advancements, which simplify multicasting, have enabled the Internet infrastructure to support high-bandwidth content to arbitrarily large audiences at minimal cost to the content provider. To understand this critical component of NextGenTV, let's take a closer look at unicast, broadcast and multicast data delivery.

Unicast, broadcast, multicast

The majority of Internet traffic uses unicast data delivery. In unicast, a server transmits data directly to the client requesting it. Each client requesting data gets its own stream from the server. The cost of unicast delivery increases linearly with the audience size, as the source must be powerful enough to transmit a duplicate stream to every interested end device, and the links on the network must have enough bandwidth to handle all the duplicate streams.

By contrast, broadcast data delivery allows a server to send a single stream to the network, which will be received by all end users (whether they are interested in the data or not). For example, an old-fashioned over-the-air radio station broadcasts its signal to all radios within a given area. If a radio station were to use unicast delivery, it would transmit a separate signal to each interested listener. If there were 100 interested listeners, a "unicast" radio station would have to transmit 100 different signals. Instead, a radio station broadcasts a single signal that all radios receive.

The benefit of broadcasting traffic is most obvious for the owner of content - whether there is one listener or 1 million listeners, the cost to transmit remains the same. The disadvantage is that the traffic is sent to all users, whether they are interested or not. By comparison, unicast traffic is delivered only to users that explicitly request it. Unicast traffic will not be flooded to uninterested users.

Broadcast works well in limited geographic areas or on small networks. However, on the Internet, which connects millions of networks and billions of end devices, broadcasting traffic to all those end devices is simply not feasible. Hence, unicast is much better suited to the Internet, even if it is inefficient in delivering multi-destination traffic.

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