The internet is not going to be the primary delivery mechanism for video to your television.
For the foreseeable future, the internet will not be the primary means of delivery of video to your television. Why can I say this? Primarily because Google says that the IP architecture necessary to deliver video does not scale. “The Web infrastructure, and even Google’s [infrastructure] doesn’t scale. It’s not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect,” Vincent Dureau, Google’s head of TV technology, said at the Cable Europe Congress.”
Mark Cuban has echoed these thoughts numerous times. “Then of course there is the consideration that if broadband will replace TV, what happens when we go High Def? Lets see we can get by with the lowest quality and only 6mbs of bandwidth (and all you “we have a better codec people, your stuff still looks like crap doing HDTV at 6mbs). If its a challenge and costs a fortune to delivery 300k streams at 350k, DVD quality, how long do you think it will be before we can do the same over the internet with 6mbs or the required 8mbs for low end and 12 mbs for high end content? It ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Not this year. Not next. Not 5 years. Not 10 years. Want to deliver the Super Bowl or American Idol in HD in real time to 10s of millions of simultaneous viewers? Not in this lifetime without some breakthrough technology that hasn’t been invented yet.”
Basic Video Specs
What does it mean that internet video does not scale? First, examine a few basic facts about video files:
- Today’s internet video streams max out at about 1.3 mbps (megabits per second).
- A regular 480i DVD is approximately 6 GBs of data and is either 2, 5, or 8 mbps. Modern dual-layer 8 GB DVD releases are between 5 mbps and 8 mbps.
- A high definition movie (1280×720 resolution) is approximately 20 GBs of data. Providing a single true high-definition stream to the home will require a minimum of 8mbs, and probably as much 12mbs. IPTV requires 16 mbps per HD Channel.
- Downloading a single half hour TV show consumes more bandwidth than 75,000 emails.
- Downloading a single high definition movie consumes more is the equivalent of downloading 2,300 songs.
Thus, the difference between today’s internet downloads and what we are ultimately looking for, true-high definition video, is stark. Just to stream a single 480i dvd quality video at 8 mbs would require data to pass over the internet about six times faster than it currently does. High Def streams at 16 mbs will require twelve times the speed. Then, you have to add in the bandwidth necessary to meet your surfing needs while you watch that video.
And what about the other people in the house? Are they going to watch what you’re watching? Unlikely. So, with many households, you’re going to need two to three times the bandwidth that you alone are using. What does that mean? 40mbs? 60 mbs?
We’re not going to get that kind of bandwidth anytime soon. Verizon’s Fios service, by running fiber optic cable all the way to the home, is expected to eventually be able to provide 50 mbs. AT&T is expected to provide 20 mbps with its U-verse service. Cable companies however, even after having spent $100 billion upgrading their networks since 1996, are running out of bandwidth in local, metropolitan areas.
Do We Have Enough Bandwidth?
This is not to say that the internet is running out of bandwidth overall. There is still plenty of room left on the Internet. Approximately 15% of the fiber that was buried in the ground during the telecom buildout of the 1990’s is “lit.” Even the lit fibers themselves still have plenty of room in them. The problem is that the available capacity is not where it is needed to be.
During the 1990’s telecom companies spent hundreds of billions of dollars building a high-speed interstate network. Unfortunately, unlike the highway system, the telecom companies haven’t built the necessary infrastructure within metropolitan areas. With the internet, the highway ends in the suburbs.
Where does that leave us then? The internet backbone is free flowing and more than half empty. Once inside the metropolitan areas however, it slows to a crawl. This situation leaves potential providers of internet video with a problem. How do you provide video to the home when the roads are clogged?
Google, Microsoft and a few others have taken what they see as the best approach, the creation of massive datacenters around the world. These datacenters consist of hundreds of thousands of processors networked together via owned and leased fiber optic networks. These networks are connected to the internet at every possible peering point.
And therein lies the problem for these companies. They have essentially created their own private interstate highway system. But once again, that network can only reach so far into the city center. At some point, they have to connect to the public internet. They don’t have a connection directly to your home.
Its a critical distinction that they only have fiber to peering points rather than having direct access to homes. First, in a world with net neutrality, it means Google has the fastest access to common points connecting to the last mile than anyone else. More importantly, it throttles how much bandwidth they can deliver to the home. You can lead a 10mbs stream to a peering point, but you can’t make the ISP drink it. Sure it will pass through, but there are no quality of service requirements at that peering point. Google can put some beautiful HD content out on their servers, and it will be perfect.. until it gets to the peering points, at which point it loses all its priority and becomes just another packet. Which is the downside of net neutrality. Google can’t buy their way to having their packets given priority, so those who expect big bandwidth video to the home from Google Video…as both Google and I mentioned in this post, it aint gonna happen the way things stand today. (
I’ll translate that last paragraph for you: “The last mile, and thus the ability to provide fast video streams, is and will be solely in the hands of whatever ISPs have wires running to your home. Google can’t do it. Microsoft can’t do it. Get use to it.”
I hate to write that sentence just as much as you hate to read it. But it appears to be true.
Intranets are Faster than the Internet
The internet is a large computer network linking smaller commercial, educational and governmental computer networks using TCP/IP protocols. An intranet is a privately maintained computer network with restricted access that uses software and protocols developed for the internet. The internet is comprised of lots of small and large, often geographically overlapping, intranets.
These intranets are fast. Extremely fast.
The typical provider throttles you down from the maximum not because they can’t support more speed on their network, but because they can’t deliver more speed on to the INTERNET. If you get your Internet access from the same provider that you get digital TV from, that provider is already providing you more than 1gbs of throughput of service. Yep, there are 10s of millions of people who get more than 1gbs of throughput of traffic to their home. We just call it digital TV. All those channels that you can flip to take up a huge amount of bandwidth in aggregate. The limit on the amount of bandwidth they give you for Internet is not a physical limit, its a limit based on software, technology and business decisions.
Even within AT&T’s optimized networks however, there is a limit to how much traffic can be on the road before they become congested like the 405 or the Kennedy in rush hour. Information can be transmitted in a variety of ways, each of which has its benefits and drawbacks. By way of example, lets examine a 6 GB video file watched by 1,000 people.
Broadcast vs. Unicast
Television, of course, has traditionally been broadcast. Broadcasting means that everyone gets the same information and you pick and choose what you want to consume from that slice of data. Because it is broadcast, the total amount of space consumed by this data is much smaller. Broadcasting 6 GBs of data to 1,000 people results in 6 GBs of data of being transferred. This leaves plenty of bandwidth available to be used to transmit other videos.
The downside to this of course is that there is still some limit on the amount of data that can be broadcast. Even worse, in the age of the internet, there are large companies making the decision of what information to broadcast.
If those 1,000 people were to use the internet to watch that same 6 GB video, that video would be transfered via unicast. Unicast servers provide a stream to a single user at a time. It is thus the opposite of broadcasting.
It is impossible for the amount of data that is broadcast in your cable television package to be transmitted in Unicast. In a unicast system, the size of the data is multiplied by the number of users. One viewer of a 6 GB video requires 6 GB’s of data to be transferred over the system. One thousand viewers of a 6 GB video is 6,000 GB’s of data. And so on.
For simplicity purposes, think of it like this: Unicasting is the equivalent of everyone driving their own car. Broadcast is the equivalent of taking the train. The train provides only a certain number stations but it is highly efficient. Driving your car allows you to go wherever you want, but if everyone uses their car, the roads become clogged.
The IPTV services that AT&T and Verizon are implementing will use yet another form of data transfer: multicasting. Multicasting, which is the equivalent of the bus, will be used to transmit data to a DSLAM, which can be analogized to a bus station.
These IPTV services work on a localized level within their network, not on the internet. Essentially, the ISPs goal is to place the bus station (the DSLAM) as close as possible to your house.
Within their networks, data is multicast (i.e. takes the bus) out to the DSLAM (the bus station). Once at the bus station, data is unicast to the home over a pair of copper cables or, if you’re lucky, fiber. How close AT&T will be able to put the DSLAM/bus station to your home will substantially influence how fast a connection they will be able to provide you. As you can see, the data rate falls quickly after 5,000 feet.
- 25 Mbit/s at 1,000 feet (~300 m)
- 24 Mbit/s at 2,000 feet (~600 m)
- 23 Mbit/s at 3,000 feet (~900 m)
- 22 Mbit/s at 4,000 feet (~1.2 km)
- 21 Mbit/s at 5,000 feet (~1.5 km)
- 19 Mbit/s at 6,000 feet (~1.8 km)
- 16 Mbit/s at 7,000 feet (~2.1 km)
- 1.5 Mbit/s at 15,000 feet (4.5 km)
- 800 kbit/s at 17,000 feet (~5.2 km)
This is why AT&T’s U-Verse service intends to install miniature DSLAMs within a mile of their customers. This will allow them to provide a 20 mbs DSL connection that can support a single 16 mbps unicast HD IPTV stream, in addition to access to the Internet.
Let’s try another analogy. This analogy is especially poingent for people that live in a downtown area like I do in Chicago. The ISPs are trying to implement a system of corner grocery stores or kwik-e-marts. They know that if they are able to establish stores of video that are close enough to the customers homes and which have enough of a selection, then most customers will end up doing a lot of shopping there.
The key for the carriers is that they are the only companies able to place their stores close to the customers house. Google may be able to set up Wal-Mart size superstores/data centers but those superstores are necessarily located much further away from the customer. Without an efficient, reliable transportation system between your house and the Google superstore, most of the daily shopping will need to be done at the AT&T corner grocery.
And that’s the rub. It sounds great that AT&T’s U-verse service is going to provide you with approximately 20 mbs of bandwidth. Unfortunately, 15 mbs or so of that bandwidth is basically going to be restricted to accessing the data that is multiplexed to or cached at the DSLAM. AT&T U-verse FAQs tell us that, currently, AT&T Yahoo! High-speed Internet U-verse Enabled service is offered in three speed tiers:
- Express – Download Speed: Up to 1.5 Mbps, Upstream Speed: Up to 1.0 Mbps
- Pro – Download Speed: Up to 3.0 Mbps, Upstream Speed: Up to 1.0 Mbps
- Elite – Download Speed: Up to 6.0 Mbps, Upstream Speed: Up to 1.0 Mbps
For the foreseeable future, shopping at AT&T’s corner store will be approximately three times as fast shopping at the Google superstore.