This Sunday’s showing of the much-awaited 5th season premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones grimdark fantasy drama was anxiously watched, and not just by avid fans. The wildly-popular series also provided an excellent real-life test case of just how good Internet streaming could be in the wake of the FCC’s historic decision to support Net Neutrality.
The results were highly encouraging. The episode topped cable charts for the week, hauling in an estimated 7,997,000 viewers. Only pro wrestling came near. And despite rampant piracy, including the first four episodes of the new season leaking on the Internet, Game of Thrones broke its own audience record.
The event was also a test case for HBO’s brand-new standalone streaming service, HBO Now, aimed only at Apple users, which survived without crashing. However, Dish TV’s Sling streaming service was not so lucky, with users citing delays signing in, not being able to get the show or even any other Sling channels on various platforms, including Roku and Xbox.
Sling is Dish TV’s service for those unwilling to subscribe to cable, but this is not the first time it has had problems. March Madness basketball’s semi-final game also caused the service to falter. The basic reason is the hidden difference between TV and the Internet.
As we’ve written before, TV and the Internet work by completely different and opposite models. TV, even cable and satellite, is a broadcast medium – content is sent out willy-nilly and can be captured by any capable device, without any feedback. The Internet is not broadcast, and indeed cannot be, any more than the Post Office: using a packet-switching model, content is divided up, emailed to the individual recipient, and confirmed by the recipient before the next packet is sent on the fly.
There are ways around this. The attack on Net Neutrality was one way, by guaranteeing fast lanes and priorities to certain packets. Now that that’s been decided (but far from settled) other schemes, such as massively caching content in servers by CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) nearer the destination, may alleviate congestion and slow-downs.
But for real-time events that affect everyone, scheduled and unscheduled, from terrorist attacks and news flashes to World Cup soccer, the Internet has a long way to go still before it can approach the immediacy, universal range, and widespread accessibility of radio and television. In today’s anxiety-filled world, that is something to keep in mind before abandoning the venerable old technologies of our parents.