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Why should someone you’ve never met decide what you can watch on TV and when you can watch it? True, there’s always a choice of channels, but the selection is still quite limited and unless you record programs in advance, you can only watch them when they’re broadcast. Wouldn’t it be better if watching TV were more like browsing the Web so you could pick the program you wanted to watch whenever and wherever you felt like watching it? That’s one of the promises of IPTV (Internet Protocol Television), which uses Internet technology to deliver TV programs “on demand.” How does it work? What benefits will it bring us? What challenges will the broadcasters and telephone companies face delivering these new services?

What is IPTV

From a TV watcher’s point of view, IPTV is very simple: instead of receiving TV programs as broadcast signals that enter your home from a rooftop antenna, satellite dish, or fiber-optic cable, you get them streamed (downloaded and played almost simultaneously) through your Internet connection. Not the kind of connection you have today, which can probably handle only 1–10 Mbps (million bits per second—roughly the amount of information in an average novel entering your computer every second!), but a broadband line with about 10 times higher bandwidth (information carrying capacity) of maybe 10–100Mbps. You watch the program either on your computer or with a set-top box (a kind of adapter that fits between your Internet connection and your existing television receiver, decoding incoming signals so your TV can display Internet programs). You can for example watch football streaming, ice hockey streaming and much more.

From the viewpoint of a broadcaster or telephone company, IPTV is somewhat more complex. You need a sophisticated storage system for all the videos you want to make available and a web-style interface that allows people to select the programs they want. Once a viewer has selected a program, you need to be able to encode the video file in a suitable format for streaming, encryptit (encoding it so only people who’ve paid can decode and receive it), embed advertisements (especially if the program is free), and stream it across the Internet to anything from one person to (potentially) thousands or millions of people at a time. Furthermore, you have to figure out how to do this to provide a consistently high-quality picture (especially if you’re delivering advertising with your programming—because that’s what your paying advertisers will certainly expect).

Storing programs

Live programs are streamed as they’re produced, but prerecorded programs and movies need to be stored in such a way that they can be selected and streamed on demand. Some VOD services limit the number of programs they make available not because they’re short of storage space but because that’s one way to limit the overall bandwidth of their service and its impact on the Internet. (For example, if the BBC made available every program it’s ever produced on its iPlayer, which is free to use, a significant proportion of the entire UK Internet bandwidth would be taken up streaming TV soap operas and sitcoms, potentially slowing down the network for every other kind of Net traffic.)

Preparing programs

First, the TV program (either prerecorded or captured live with a video camera) has to be converted into a digital format that can be delivered as packets using the Internet protocol. Sometimes the original program will be in digital format already; sometimes it will be in the form of a standard, analog TV picture (known as SD format) that needs an extra bit of processing (analog-to-digital conversion) to turn it into digital format. With current limitations on bandwidth, videos also need to be compressed (made into smaller files) so they can stream smoothly without buffering (periodic delays caused as the receiver builds up incoming packets). In practice, this means programs are encoded in either MPEG2 or MPEG4 format (MPEG4 is a newer form of video compression that gives higher quality for a similar bandwidth and requires only half as much bandwidth for carrying an SD picture as MPEG2). Once that’s done, advertisements have to be inserted, and the information has to be encrypted.

Future of Television

There’s no great clamor from ordinary TV viewers for IPTV, although that’s not unusual where new inventions and innovations are concerned; no-one can truly appreciate something they haven’t yet experienced. But the huge popularity of VOD websites such as BBC iPlayer and time-shifting personal video recorders (PVRs) such as TiVO (and Sky+ in the UK) strongly suggest TV will move increasingly away from broadly defined channels and rigid schedules to more narrowly focused, pay-per-view programming.

Even so, consumer demand won’t be the main driving force in the transition from 20th-century broadcast TV to 21st-century IPTV—at least, not to begin with. In the last decade or so, traditional telephone companies, faced with competition from cable-based rivals, have had no choice but to redefine themselves as information service providers, offering Internet connectivity as well as phone services. The more powerful and enterprising among them now see a further business opportunity by redefining themselves so they offer telephone, Internet, and TV services simultaneously. Cable companies already offer all three services in attractive bundles; IPTV makes it possible for telephone providers and broadcasters to join forces and compete. In the longer term, who knows whether people will even regard TV, telephone, and the Internet as separate entities, or whether they will continue to converge and merge?

Delivering IPTV sounds easier than it may prove in practice. The biggest inhibitor at the moment is that too few homes have broadband connections with enough capacity to handle a single high-quality TV stream, never mind several simultaneous streams (if there are several TVs in the same home). Upgrading ordinary broadband connections to fiber-optic broadband, so they routinely provide homes with 10–100Mbps, will take time and considerable investment. Until that happens, IPTV providers will not be able to guarantee a “quality of service” (often referred to as QoS or sometimes a “quality of experience,” QoE) as good as TV delivered through cable, satellite, or across the airwaves. Latency (delays in packet arrival) and packet loss are problems enough for VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) telephones, and they become much more of an issue when broadcast-quality video is added into the stream. Since IPTV uses compressed video formats such as MPEG2 and MPEG4, packet loss has a much more serious effect than it would have on uncompressed video or audio streams: the higher the compression rate, the bigger the effect every lost packet has on the picture you see.

With luck, IPTV may take off in exactly the same way as broadband Internet did in the early 2000s: back then, as more people used the Internet, they felt hampered by the limitations of dial-up connectivity, demanded (and showed they were willing to pay for) higher-quality broadband, and provided enough revenue for the telecommunications companies to upgrade their networks. Once viewers start to experience the convenience, control, and interactivity of IPTV, higher bandwidth Internet connections that make it possible seem certain to follow.

View Programs

Everyone who has a computer and a broadband Internet connection can watch IPTV, but most of us don’t want to watch television on a crude laptop screen. That’s why the future of IPTV is likely to involve viewers buying set-top boxes (sometimes called STBs) that receive input from your Internet connection (either via an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi), decode the signal, and display a picture on your high-definition, widescreen TV. STBs are effectively standalone computers programmed to do only one thing: receive packets of streamed video, decrypt them, convert them back to video files (MPEG2, MPEG4, or whatever format they were in originally), and then display them as high-quality TV pictures. Apple TV works broadly this way, using a set-top box to run simple apps on a slimmed-down operating system (tvOS), which manages the process of streaming video via the Internet.

As a simple, more compact, and much more discreet alternative to a set-top box, you can use what’s called a dongle, which looks a bit like a USB flash-memory stick, but allows secure access to Internet TV programs. The dongle plugs into an HDMI (high-speed, high-definition digital video) socket on your TV and connects via Wi-Fi to the Internet to stream TV programs, movies, and music directly. Some dongles are entirely self-sufficient: Roku and Amazon Fire work this way without any help from a computer or mobile device. Google’s Chromecast is a little bit different: generally, you get it going with your computer, tablet, or smartphone (which effectively becomes a remote control), after which it directly streams your movie or TV program from the Internet.

What’s the difference between a set-top-box and a dongle? It’s pretty much this simple: a set-top system is a bigger box that contains a faster processor with more memory, so it can give higher quality video output; that makes it better for things like high-performance gaming. Some companies, such as Amazon and Roku, offer a choice of either a simple, relatively expensive dongle or a more expensive, higher-spec set-top box.

Disclaimer: We do not verify the legality or security of any add-ons, apps or services mentioned on this site. Also, we do not promote, host or link to copyright-protected streams. We highly discourage piracy and strictly advise our readers to avoid it at all costs. We are strictly against any type of content piracy, and we request and warn our readers to avoid it by all means. Watching Copyrighted material is against the law. Whenever we mention free streaming on our site, it means we are referring to contents that are freely available and doesn’t break any law.