Internet TV: IPTV and net TV
It’s important to make one distinction clear from the start. While people bandy around the terms internet TV and IPTV interchangeably, they’re actually not the same thing. IPTV means using an IP network to distribute a TV stream, normally to a set-top-box rather than a PC. In a sense, it’s no different from cable, although it theoretically has advantages in terms of providing video-on-demand. Therefore, what BT is doing with its BT Vision set-top box (www.btvision.bt.com) is quite different from what the BBC is doing with its iPlayer software, or Channel 4’s 4oD, which stands for 4 on Demand (www.channel4.com/4od).
IPTV isn’t expected to hit the mainstream that hard. According to predictions from Jupiter Research, IPTV will penetrate only 6% of digital television households in Europe by 2011, for the simple reason that other technologies have the ground so well covered already. Even BT expects Vision to be a niche product at first.
Internet TV services are different. They don’t replace your current TV provision; they augment it to offer viewers more choice. The BBC’s iPlayer, which is expected to be released by the middle of this year, is arguably the most ambitious of these services. In its planned state, it combines a catch-up TV download service for your PC, whereby the vast majority of the BBC’s TV and radio output would be available for up to 30 days after broadcast, with an internet simulcast of the BBC’s channels.
The scale of the BBC’s ambition has caused controversy. In its recent report on iPlayer, Ofcom gave the service a wary thumbs-up, but raised concerns on a number of counts, including fears that “series stacking” – storing every episode of a series for later playback – might prove detrimental to sales of DVDs. There are also worries about bandwidth costs for viewers, and that the service’s reliance on Microsoft’s DRM technology will exclude Linux and Mac users.
4 on Demand takes a slightly different approach: it allows viewers to download selected highlights from Channel 4’s schedule for varying periods after broadcast, plus a number of classic programmes and films, mostly on a rights-managed, pay-per-view basis. Last week’s Shipwrecked, for instance, might be free, but an older episode of Ugly Betty may cost 99p. It isn’t dissimilar to the existing movie rental download service offered by Lovefilm (www.lovefilm.com), where £2.99 to £3.49 buys you a time-restricted rental from a growing library of films.
Sky has also launched its own on-demand service, Sky Anytime (http://anytime.sky.com), enabling Sky subscribers to watch subscription content on the PC or even mobile phones. Sky Movies subscribers can download movies from a formidable library, mostly for free, with a few offered on a £3.49 pay-per-view basis. Sky One programmes are also available, as are highlights of Sky’s sports coverage.
Do these services offer convenience and choice? Certainly. We’re talking video-after-a-significant-delay (up to 90 minutes in some cases) rather than instant video-on-demand, but it does give you freedom to watch many programmes at your leisure. However, there are prices to be paid. Downloading 352MB for a 48-minute programme is going to hit your ADSL usage hard if done regularly, particularly when you realise that most of these services are based on P2P technology and so come with a hidden upload “cost”. Second, you’re not getting TV quality. Downloaded films and programmes look fine when shown in a smallish window, but blow them up to full-screen and the heavy compression used to shrink programmes into downloadable chunks soon becomes apparent.