Monday, 27 February 2012

The net neutrality debate, with a difference

In a twist on traditional discussions about bandwidth use, Korea Telecom recently restricted internet access for Samsung connected TVs. This isn’t a new discussion: the net neutrality debates in the US over the last couple of years are covering many of the same issues. However, what’s different this time is that it’s about devices rather than applications.

In the US, the discussion was largely about how VOD services such as Netflix were saturating the networks of many large ISPs – Netflix and YouTube between them account for over 40% of peak bandwidth use in the US according to a report last year form Sandvine. In Korea, it’s the devices running those services that are drawing the ire of the telcos. It may not seem like much of a difference, but this is a core shift in the discussion.

Traditionally, PCs have been the main platform for these services, but the action by Korea Telecom has shown that consumer devices are gaining enough market share for telcos to be worried. And it’s the type of IP traffic generated by these devices that’s causing this worry.

Unlike a PC, TVs and consumer devices are almost exclusively used for streaming video and audio. Use of VOD services is growing at a phenomenal rate, and so as consumer devices gain market share they will probably be one of the fastest-growing sources of IP traffic worldwide. The Sandvine report showed that PCs were only accounting for 45% of video traffic by volume in the US, and this is why the focus of the net neutrality debate has started to shift from services to devices.

It’s still not clear how this will play out – bringing the device manufacturers into the net neutrality debate can only complicate it, especially when (like Korea Telecom) a telco has their own IPTV service that could be seen to compete with the OTT services offered by smart TVs. One thing is sure – the issue needs resolving. ISPs and telcos need to find a business model that can cope with the changing way the Internet is being used.


Update - 3 March 2012

Following up on this post, we see that it’s not just Korean ISPs that are suffering from traffic problems caused by streaming video. Be Broadband, a UK ISP owned by O2, admitted yesterday that demand for iPlayer saturated its available bandwidth and left many users struggling to access web sites and iPlayer content.

What’s different about this case is that the problem wasn’t caused by issues in Be’s network itself: in this case, the culprit was Be’s link to the Akamai content distribution network. The Akamai CDN is intended to accelerate delivery of web content belonging to its partners by transparently mirroring web sites on its own worldwide network of servers and intelligently routing requests for that content. So that end-users access content from servers that are closest to them, rather than always having to access the original version of the content.

The BBC uses Akamai to deliver iPlayer content in an attempt to avoid bandwidth bottlenecks – in this case, the bottleneck was Be’s connection to Akamai, which became saturated when there was heavy demand for iPlayer.

Be have partially resolved the issue by working with other network providers to act as peers for connecting to Akamai, but this is not a permanent solution. With a full fix not due until the end of April, Be customers may be looking at slow access to iPlayer for several weeks.

Monday, 20 February 2012

BBC R&D investigate mood-based content discovery

With the explosive growth in the amount of content available to viewers, especially through connected TVs, the importance of finding good ways of discovering and navigating that content has grown as well. A personalised experience has gone from being a “nice to have” feature to being vital for helping viewers find what they want to watch.

Personalisation is not a new topic, and there are already many companies offering products that support a personalised experience or technologies to provide that experience. Traditionally, personalised content recommendations are based around factors such as genre, keywords or aggregated viewing habits.

BBC Research and Development is studying this issue from a slightly different perspective, using the user’s mood to steer the recommendation process as well as more traditional factors. This may help users discover content in a way that’s more suited for the “lean back” TV experience, in the same way that streaming audio services such as Pandora do. The BBC use five separate “mood scales” for classifying a TV show, and while this may not seem very high this additional level of classification may be enough to offer new opportunities for recommendations. One of the most powerful features of a good recommendation system is serendipity – those times when it throws up something unexpected that happens to be exactly what you want to watch or listen to. This additional information may give recommendation services better ways of making these less-obvious connections between programmes.

The BBC are the first to admit that mood alone is not enough to drive recommendations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a valuable tool in the toolbox.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The growth of multi-screen iPlayer

As a new iPad owner, one of the biggest advantages I’ve found is the convenience it offers over a laptop – especially for casual use such as watching video online. With an almost 600% increase year-on-year in the number of requests made to iPlayer from tablets, a lot of other people seem to agree with me. For connected TVs, the numbers are even more impressive – a year-on-year increase of over 1000%.

While the majority of requests are still made from PCs, the growth in alternative ways of consuming content isn’t too surprising if you think about the TV-watching experience itself. Watching TV tends to be both casual and social; smart TVs and tablets both offer a more suitable form factor than a laptop for this kind of experience, albeit in different ways. Smart TVs and iPlayer-equipped games consoles enable on-demand viewing to be more social, while tablets offer a better multi-screen experience than laptops due to their weight and form factor.

By making iPlayer available on these devices, the BBC has been able to offer an experience that is closer to that of watching live TV, and they’re now seeing the benefits of this. It’s taken a lot of effort on the part of the BBC to make iPlayer available on so many platforms, but with other broadcasters such as ITV, Channel 4 and Sky offering multi-screen catch-up services the benefits of this strategy are becoming more and more obvious.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Starting the standard-definition switch-off?

A recent report from Digital TV Research suggests that the penetration of HD-ready televisions is high enough that operators may be able consider switching off some standard-definition channels in the near future in some countries.

There are several possible reasons why this may not be a good idea, though. While the report considers some of these, there are others that may be less obvious:

• HD-ready doesn’t mean people are watching HD channels. My own TV is HD-ready, but I don’t have an HD set-top box from my pay TV provider. There’s nothing technical stopping me from getting one, but for me the benefits are outweighed by the costs (which don’t have to be financial)

• A number of households may watch HD programmes, but only record SD programmes. There are a lot of standard-definition PVR set-top boxes already deployed, which people may not want to replace. Cost is part of that, but so is the loss of any recordings they want to keep: this is primarily what’s stopping me from upgrading

• A household having one HD-ready TV doesn’t mean that they don’t have other TVs or set-top boxes that are only SD-capable

80% penetration of HD-ready TVs by 2016, and less than 40% of people actively watching

HD by the same date, still leaves a lot of people who don’t watch HD. These are only predicted averages, and some pay TV providers may have substantially higher penetration rates, but switching off SD channels may still disappoint many viewers.

We’ve seen how long the conversion from analogue to digital has taken in a number of countries. While the move from SD to HD is not quite so radical, there will still be a great deal of public education needed and a great deal of equipment to replace. Following so rapidly on the heels of the move to digital, how many people will want to replace their equipment again?

SD switch-off for digital TVs may seem like a good idea, but it’s still a long way from being a reality.