Would you compromise on your TV picture?

A project I recently worked on looked at the concept of IPTV and web-enabled TV services. It was a great project that, since it was commissioned and thus proprietary, I sadly can’t go into details on. However the issues involved are fascinating, and pose some difficult questions for companies looking to operate in this space.

Background

Traditionally, TV pictures are transmitted via a designated area of spectrum. There is a finite amount of space that channels can purchase, and then their content is broadcast to anyone within range.

IPTV sees the bottleneck reversed. There is near limitless space to upload content to and then transmit, but the delivery – via broadband pipes – is finite and limited.

The issue

When we watch TV, we expect a certain standard of delivery. And our expectations are pretty high. Unlike computers -with viruses, server downtime and dodgy connections – TVs just work.We have a good, uninterrupted picture, and the hardware shouldn”t fail us.

What constitutes a decent picture on our TV sets is pretty subjective. We all have different standards, and the picture we are used to receiving depends on a couple of factors

  • Method of transmission: Satellite generally broadcasts in higher quality than terrestrial, which is more variable
  • Quality broadcast in: As well as standard definition, we have varying qualities labelled as high definition (I believe 1080p is the benchmark?), while people watching on their computers will be used to lower quality
  • Size of the screen: The bigger the TV screen, the worse the picture (in terms of sharpness) as the same amount of information is stretched over a larger area

The picture you receive becomes a problem if IPTV becomes popular. With more people using their broadband to view TV shows more often, there is a chance that the broadband will reach capacity, and that the transmission will stall or fail.

There is essentially a trade-off between the quality of the picture you receive and the likelihood that the service will fail. The lower the picture resolution, the less data is transmitted and the less chance that capacity is reached at your local broadband exchange.

FYI: In terms of the picture we currently receive; on standard TV it is 2500-3000KB/s (I don’t know the exact number). Online it is generally anything from 500KB/s upwards (though there may be services offering rates below this)

The options

A trade-off isn’t necessarily the right word, because the issue doesn’t rest on an A vs B matter. The situation could be potentially resolved by any of the following:

  • Offering IPTV at a continual lower standard than “regular” TV
  • Offering IPTV at regular definition with viewers accepting transmission may be intermittent
  • Using a technique called adaptive bit rate where the quality of a stream varies according to your broadband speed (though this could result in noticeably poor quality at times)
  • Innovating other areas of delivery, such as viewers having to partially or fully download a programme before watching
  • Forcing other programmes using the internet connection (e.g. online gaming, torrents) offline to give IPTV sole access
  • Restricting access to IPTV only to those that have a certain broadband speed (e.g. 8MB/s)
  • Restricting access to IPTV to a finite number of people on a first-come first-served basis

These all have benefits and drawbacks. But would any be acceptable to the viewing public? These measures run contrary to the trends of hi-definition pictures on massive flatscreen TVs – can IPTV take off?

Largely, it depends on what the IPTV service is. If people are buying a new service on the promise of thousands of channels, then they may be a bit disappointed to find that Youtube XL is still broadcast in grainy quality. But if it is an additional channel or service on an already existing platform (and most platforms have, or are getting, internet connectivity) then they may be more forgiving.

A solution?

What would I choose? I couldn’t stand an intermittent service and I am in favour of everyone having the right to choose. A decent picture is important when watching TV, but if I really want to watch something I will tolerate it (case in point: watching England-Andorra in 500KB/s on ITV.com). So I’d actively choose and use lower, or adaptive, quality.

Would you watch IPTV if it meant having to compromise on what you were seeing on your TV screen?

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31333486@N00/

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7 Responses

  1. For me it’s like the old music bootleg: of course the ideal would be a high quality recording of that particular track or cover song played at a gig on the other side of the world, but if the option is hear the song in low quality versus not hearing it at all, I always pick the former.

    It’s the same with IPTV & quality for myself, but I also suspect it’s totally a generational divide too. Because of how the younger generations (i.e. half of X, all of Y, and all of whatever is after that) have been looking for so long at things like poor quality YouTube content, we’ll be a _little_ more excepting of less than stellar quality video delivered via the TV. In contrast though, for older generations that relationship between TV and all those qualities you mention above is far more rigid, so they’ll struggle to accept either lower quality, or stuttering playback. (Another reason for VM & Sky especially to rapidly improve their push VOD offerings.)

  2. Hi Andrew – you’re spot on about the generational divide. Another reason behind it is that older people are generally more affluent and so may invest more in high-spec AV equipment. Compromising on sound or picture quality then becomes even more galling

    For most consumers, push and pull VOD are no different. So if Sky Anytime can be viewed in perfect quality, why can’t any other IPTV or “catch-up” service?

  3. The real problem here is the bandwidth issue and the way ISPs have sold their services. If I pay for a service that’s described as unlimited high speed broadband over a fibre-optic network, then I don’t expect to struggle with a couple of hours of streaming video if I have been sold a broadband connection based on an advert that says I could download a TV show in 26 minutes on a 2Mb connection (as Virgin were advertising not too long ago), I don’t expect to find myself with a stuttering experience on a 10 Mb connection from the same supplier!

    Adaptive quality is a tricky area- it’s all well and good where connection speed is limited, but it’s also a cop-out for the ISPs to provide access to a limited version of a service which then places the blame in the consumers’ eyes on the supplier of the service (ie. if iPlayer looks bad on a BT broadband connection, people will blame the BBC rather than BT.) I’m sure you will have seen the story on the BBC site; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8077839.stm

    And of course, if I can access the service via Virgin Media’s catch-up TV but not through my high speed internet connection (or not at the same quality), then it raises questions about whether my internet speed is being capped to keep me as a paying TV customer…

    To me, the solution lies in a combination of pre-downloading content you want to watch and P2P sharing to take the load off the central server. But the real problem is that the ISPs are being backed into a corner because they are now being expected to actually deliver on what they have been promising for the last few years- and trying to pass the buck by asking content providers to pay for the bandwidth that their customers have already paid for.

    I suspect that the “net neutrality” debate which has been a reasonably hot topic amongst the techy-minded in the US might well be about to rear it’s head in the UK…

  4. Thanks for your thoughts. It is a tricky issue. While disingenuous of the ISPs to promote a certain level of service, the alternative (you may get speeds of x, but usually speeds of around y and occasionally z) would be too complicated. It seems inevitable that the infrastructure needs to be updated at some point – unlike the tube that can be fixed with bandaids to compensate for a creaking service, broadband needs wholesale change in order to keep “up to speed” with other services internationally

  5. Don’t know if you’ve seen it Simon, but Ofcom in their Technology Research report last week put a figure on that wholesale update to broadband networks – they est it would equate to an increase of £1 – £3 per month per broadband subscription – http://ofcom.org.uk/research/technology/overview/randd0809/

  6. Cheers Andrew; I hadn’t seen that. Not sure about you, but for me that seems a reasonable price for a better service…

  7. One alternative would be “you get speeds of X Mb/s, and a daily allowance of Y MB”- effectively that’s what Virgin provide anyway. (Just not what they explicitly sell…)

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