This is about Internet television, how it came to be, and what’s wrong with it. Start with some history.
Fifty years ago, when I first became acquainted with cable television, the concept was quite simple. You wanted TV, you put up an antenna and pulled the signal out of the air. You were limited by your distance from the transmitting tower. Cable TV solved that problem, and more. They just took the signals from various transmitting stations and fed them all into a single coaxial cable, routing them to your house. Multiple carrier frequencies were mixed together in the cable, and your TV tuner unmixed them, just as it unmixed the signals from the air.
There was more. Signals from far away sources were brought in and added to the mix. So now you could also watch WGN out of Chicago. Stations that never saw the air became available. CNN, which stands for Cable News Network, appeared in the early 1980s as an all-news station, and others soon appeared. The business model of cable TV became difficult to decipher.
Fifty years ago I was paying an extra (less than 10) few dollars a month for the convenience of a clear and reliable signal that was free over the airwaves. When cable offerings hit 200 and sped on by without pausing, the business model became even more difficult to decipher. Per month charges quickly challenged the $100 mark. For what?
My reasoning was that, for example, I was paying to watch CNN, and I was still getting hit with 20 minutes of ads every hour. It had been hoped that by paying I could avoid the ads, the otherwise source of income to the providers.
Anyhow, my household struggled with Time Warner’s aggressive price hikes until a breaking point was reached. There had to be a better way of watching what we wanted to watch (not The Food Network). Friends clued me in.
Greg mentioned Roku. It is an Internet TV portal. You purchase the Roku box and hook it into your home network. You still need to have something like Time Warner Internet service, but you can disconnect their TV service and pay much less. The Roku box pulls streaming video from any number of providers and feeds them to your TV set. You don’t pay for a Roku service, but you will likely have to pay to access tier-one providers. You do this by getting a contract with the provider, not Roku, and you have accomplished what you wanted in the first place. You pay for what you watch.
We didn’t start with a Roku box. Last March we hauled our Time Warner cable boxes back to the store and turned them in. Then we drove to Bust Buy and purchased two identical Internet-ready Blu-ray players and placed them between the Time Warner Internet connection and our two TV sets. Our Blu-ray boxes have the built in capability and hook to our Wi-Fi network. The interface looks like this:
You use the Blu-ray player’s remote control up-down and left-right buttons to navigate to the service you want and hit Select. That establishes an Internet connection to the service, and, if you have registered your player with the service, your screen is filled with a control panel for that service. For example, Hulu offers movies, old movies, classic movies, news programs, very old TV programs, quite new TV programs. They charge by the month. If you pay extra, they skip all the commercials and feed you uninterrupted programming.
Amazon is much the same. If you already have an Amazon account for purchasing books and household appliances, then that same account will get you Amazon’s TV service, for a flat rate per year.
YouTube is free, but there are some YouTube channels that require a subscription. And here’s the kicker. Although YouTube is traditionally a repository of pre-recorded video, some providers upload their stream in real time. If you know how to find it you can watch CNN live on YouTube at no charge. Take notice: you will still get the provider’s commercials, and YouTube sells ads on top of their feed, and these ads can be annoying, as they often pop up when you least want to see them. Good news is that YouTube ads can usually be truncated after you have watched the first few seconds.
So that’s very cool you might think. But all is not rosey. The Internet is not a friendly environment for video on demand. Full disclosure: years ago when I was gainfully employed I worked for a telecommunications company, and we did research into video on demand. In the course of this work I got a good view of what’s going on, and I wound up with two patents related to the technology. That said, I came away with the conclusion that video on demand is fatally flawed. I will explain.
Remember, 50 years ago cable TV was just broadcast signals injected into a coaxial cable and fed to your house. The Internet is not that way. The Internet is packet-based. Packets of data are given a destination address and then injected into the network (the Internet). It is up to the Internet to deliver each packet to the destination address, eventually. No guarantee is made as to when a packet will arrive. The bugaboo is network congestion.
Individual packets enter the network and are routed from node (router) to node until they eventually arrive at the receiving device—your computer, your phone, your Roku box. If it’s an email, no problem. The packet containing the preamble and the salutation arrives, and your computer banks it, waiting for more. Another packet arrives and another. Eventually your computer gets notice that all packets have arrived, and up pops your message. This can be milliseconds, and you don’t notice the disjuncture.
In the case of a video stream you will notice. You will definitely notice if an actor starts to open a door and then pauses before completing the action. It’s disturbing.
It can get worse. If a video packet is so delayed that it is of no further use in the video stream, then the practice is to continue the video stream without the late packet, discarding it entirely. Some of the research I engaged in was what to do when a packet is too late to be used. That’s where my two patents come in. The technology had already been developed to reconstruct a video stream without the missing packet. The result is not optimal but is considered by some (not me) to be acceptable. My contribution involved figuring out how to determine which packet was best to drop in case one needed to be dropped.
The real crises is with real-time video. Once a moment in a live broadcast is lost it cannot be recovered. If you are watching a movie, and there’s a hiccup, then you can rewind and replay. Annoying, but something modern humans may have to learn to live with.
I found all this so ironic, since the company I worked for was in the business of developing high-capacity communication networks. I would have thought my company would push for increasing data capacity rather than figuring out how to live with limited bandwidth. But nobody listened to me, which is probably why I soon found myself working for another concern.
Anyhow, discussion is invited. Share your experiences with me, and I will pass the word around. The technology is still developing, and we have not yet seen the end.