There’s a little old lady in Sweden who can surf the Internet at the astonishing speed of 40 gigabits per second. Thanks to an experimental technique developed by her son Peter, Sigbritt Lothberg has the fastest home Internet connection anywhere on the planet. She could download an entire movie in less than 2 seconds, many thousands of times faster than with most residential connections. But she only uses it to read web-based newspapers.
Those who watch movies and TV programs over the Net can only be envious at this point. Someday, incredible broadband speeds like Ms. Lothberg’s may be commonly available, but not any time soon. A consortium of leading research institutions called Internet2 is developing one of the fastest networks around. It blazes along at “only” 10 gigabits along the “Abilene backbone”, a mere quarter of her speed. Like the original Internet, these links are restricted to universities and research labs for crunching vast amounts of data, for applications in fields like particle physics and imaging.
However, regional telephone and Internet access providers have not yet announced any plans for increasing home DSL speeds beyond the snail-like-in-comparison 10-20 megabits per second currently offered. For super-fast links between major hubs is just part of the problem. Delivering such speeds down into the home is another matter. Effectively using such speeds is yet another issue.
Speed is one of the major hurdles in using the Internet to provide seamless video content, but far from being the only one. The biggest quandary of all may be the Internet itself. The Internet is not television. Despite blatant similarities, computers are altogether different beasts from TV sets. These deep, hidden disparities will have a huge but largely unsuspected impact on the shape of both television and the Internet.
Computers v. TVs
For instance, nowadays the screens of televisions and computers look almost identical, with gorgeous colors, crisp graphics, and smooth motion. The only way to tell them apart may be by checking out what’s hooked up to them. It wasn’t always that way. But monitors and TV screens are still built to different specifications and therefore can’t be easily interchanged.
Though each technological generation has brought monitors and TV sets ever closer, it wasn’t until 2009 when broadcast TV in America finally went digital that the two technologies really started to converge. Ultimately this coming together will result in interactive TV programs and smart TVs with full keyboards and Net access indistinguishable from media-loving tablets, smartphones and laptops.
An improvement in cabling also helps. Modern HDTV has a far greater resolution than pre-digital television – up to 1080 vertical lines as opposed to the original 480 visible scan lines. But now just a single cable, called an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface), is needed to connect an HDTV to a laptop, instead of the multiple cables and adapters previously required between an analog TV and a PC. HDMI cables can replace up to 11 separate wires for connecting home theatre components, and ultimately is intended for use with 3D TV.
Obviously, one big difference between computers and television are the input devices. Even the most sophisticated remote control is very limited compared to a full keyboard and mouse. But some new HDTVs designed for Net access do have those capabilities. Over time, all TV remotes will get ever more complex. Already smartphones and tables have remote control apps that work with some TVs.
Memory is another clear difference. Unlike the gigabytes in a modern laptop, old TVs had barely enough memory to hold half a picture frame only long enough to get it on the screen. They could store nothing. That too is rapidly changing, often with add-on DVRs like TiVo with big hard drives capable of managing and storing even incoming HDTV data, making it possible to pause and even fast-forward to catch up during live events like sports or concerts on the big home screen.
But these differences are trivial compared to how the displays actually acquire their pictures. Broadcast television is transmitted through the air using radio waves. The same continuous signal stream is picked up by separate receivers simultaneously. Since there is no kind of confirmation needed or possible, it doesn’t technically matter if there’s a single set tuned in or a million. Cable and satellite provide somewhat different ways for the signal to reach the audience’s receivers. But the model works the same: one signal one way, no feedback – at least beyond being able to order pay-per-view.
Streaming video v. Broadcast
The Internet was never designed to work that way at all. The Net does not allow broadcast: it’s based entirely on packet switching and data flowing in both directions at once. Feedback is essential.
On the Net, each video is sliced up into tiny data packages, every one sent forth to find its own way across the networks to finally be rebuilt into moving pictures in the receiving computer. Sender and receiver must work together. Instead of downloading the whole file, the video is thrown on the computer screen after just a small portion has been received. So the moving image barely keeps ahead of incoming data. It’s generally not saved as a file. It also helps if the frame size is small, which is why many YouTube videos tend look like they were produced for cell phones rather than PCs, although more HD videos are appearing as bigger bandwidths become available.
Trying to watch a movie over the Internet is anything but simple. In physical terms, it would be like calling up the studio, having them cut the film up into thousands of tiny strips and individually mail each one to the viewer. On the other end, the viewer would have to check that each segment arrived, send a message back to the studio confirming this or asking it to resend missing ones, and then reassemble all of them in the right sequence before he or she could watch the film. And it all must be done on the fly.
It’s amazing the scheme would work even for just one viewer. Imagine that there are millions all wanting the same show. But each viewer started watching at different times, with a variety of devices all clamoring for data at once. It’s a recipe for an unimaginable digital traffic jam.
Only the incredible and ever-increasing speed of modern electronics makes it possible at all. But various clever tricks are still needed to stream video, including caching video streams on servers. Preventing noticeable delays still requires very swift connections to handle all that incoming data. Far larger ones will be essential for streaming HDTV, and even more for 3DTV.
How well this scheme works in practice can be easily seen in how often a YouTube video pauses and the little thingie spins round while the next segment frantically loads. Judging by how frequent this is even using the best connections, there’s still a long, long way to go. This is why extremely fast speeds are so desirable. However, before it gets here, the competition for bandwidth might change the nature of the Internet forever.
TV, broadcast, satellite, or cable, all use distinct channels for different outlets. Fox has its own, Disney another, even though locations may vary by system and region. The FCC has carefully divided up the spectrum and the map so that nobody’s signal jams another.
But on the Internet there’s no such distinction. Every provider relies upon the same wires, just like all the telephone companies. Under the traditional system of Net Neutrality, even though big chunks of the network are owned by competing companies, it’s all been regarded as a single uniform information superhighway. All traffic was treated the same.
However, video streaming is like filling that highway up with impatient fleets of vehicles, leading to traffic jams and slowdowns. This naturally causes resentment among corporations when their data flowing across their own sections of the network gets delayed or detoured by that of rivals hogging the same connections.
Big business naturally exists to make money. It aims to turn the Internet into a consumer medium, another means of pushing goods and services exactly like it did with TV. It doesn’t matter if a company’s competitors are Netflix or illegal file-sharers. The issue is not about legality but commerce. And as a result the superhighway may wind up as a toll road.
The FCC recently issued what it says are its final rules to go into effect at the end of November 2011. Lawsuits have already been filed. Major wireless carriers like Verizon are expected to file, but they’ve been beaten to the punch by the Free Press activist group. They object to the FCC’s adoption of one set of standards for wired connections and another for wireless, which are given much more freedom to stifle competition.
The issue is expected to be fought hard by both sides. Millions of dollars are at stake, and the entire question of who owns the Internet may hang in the balance.