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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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