Olympic Diary: Games Fever Turns the Lords on to Online Video

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Following on from my report about the apparent success of the Olympic Opening Ceremony stream from a network traffic management perspective, it looks like I wasn't the only party impressed. Reports on Broadband TV News and The Guardian  indicate that the UK's higher parliament is feeling pretty positive about the UK's internet video space.

A House of Lords communications committee has proposed that the long-term strategy for broadcast in the UK be focused exclusively on internet video distribution. "Broadband for all" is cited in one of the articles, emphasising access over speed, which makes sense. From plenty of personal involvement in these issues, I know that the politicans tend to focus heavily on the urban vote, waxing lyrical about "speed, speed, speed," leaving out the minority groups on the fringes of the IP footprints who are still more concerned about "access, access, access."

In fact I recently attended a policy meeting where I drove a strong argument about video needing 2 to 3Mbps max per person, which means that a typical household could be more than adequately served by a 10Mbps service, where the 'superfast' politicians' lobby is pushing for 100Mbps. I had to ask the group why they would want a 100Mbps link? Was it to download 30 copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica every hour?

I tend to agree with "broadband for all," but its also not just a matter of access. It's also about ensuring (from my argument above) a 10Mbps level for a typical house (4 users). And if you want to move mass-market broadcast online, as the House of Lords suggests, the networks simply must adopt Multicast to the home.

During the Olympics we are seeing absolutely excellent service from the BBC iPlayer. Why is the UK internet not melting down? Because the OTA (over the air), digital, cable, and satellite services are doing their job of broadcast distribution very well. So when several million want to watch a particular event they are not watching online—they are watching on a traditional broadcast medium.

And this leaves the internet free to service the geeks like me who want to watch the Fencing final.

However if the Lords get their way, they'll be moving mass-market audience online for over-the-top (OTT) distribution (not IPTV as the Broadband TV News incorrectly termed it). OTT to mass market is a different issue. Even with extensive operator CDNs in place I don't think any CDN or network in the UK would want to be told "Tomorrow you will be the only point of access for the EastEnders audience, so get ready for 8 million viewers."

Now I don't think there have been many events that have attracted a linear live audience of 8 million expecting HD video online. In fact I don't think there have been any (although I'm sure several in this audience will claim they have exceeded that!).

Add to that all the other channels, then try to combine all the VoD streams that are already being delivered, and that is a lot of traffic. A lot of traffic.

However if the UK networks were mandated to be IP Multicast-aware, then 8 million users would have minimal impact over today's traffic. Now, given that, in the UK you have to have a TV license (the means by which the BBC is funded) in order to have a TV connection, there's an opportunity for funding synergy. I also see that, in order to share in some of the license revenue, ISPs may have to show some form of compliance, which would be the place for a "multicast mandate."

Naturally the most interesting thing for the government is the fact that this would further free up radio spectrum for auction—one of the best fundraising games in the politicians' world these days—and it does seem, reading between the lines, that this may be the bit that they have thought through as they arrived at the point where they have asked OfCom and the industry try to work out how to do this.

Personally I do think that purely for commoditisation reasons, IP delivered video will become the norm in the broadcast sector. I think that will take time, but will inevitably happen.

On the other hand, I am also critically aware that OTA broadcasting has been incredibly successful because it is very good at what it does. Giving that up for a new technology will take quite a lot of change management—unless so many good online services appear that no one tunes into the old broadcasts any longer.

I think this is the start of an extremely interesting debate. I will be getting more deeply engaged in it at the Parliament & Internet event where this topic will be central to the debate. And yes, I'll be streaming it online on a Handycam budget.

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