Web TV grows up

The age of streaming TV over the internet is here. How do you take advantage of it?
 
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01 .Introduction

webtv

Dozens of TV channels and still there’s nothing to watch? Just wait – web TV is bringing you much more, wherever and whenever you want. It’s a bandwagon everyone seems to be jumping aboard: broadcasters, ISPs, TV manufacturers and the three giants of the internet – Google, Microsoft and Apple. It’s driven by technology (broadband) and the prospect of substantial profits. Half a century ago, a commercial TV franchise was a “licence to print money”, according to the media baron Lord Thompson, but with the visual broadcast spectrum limited and highly regulated, today it’s the internet that promises to deliver the gold.

But there’s no consensus on how to go about it. The wide range of approaches and the alliances between the various players make the whole thing pretty confusing. To help guide you through this rapidly spreading jungle, we’ll take a look at what’s currently available and how you can use it.

So what’s web TV?

Web TV is also sometimes called IPTV (internet protocol television), although there are some differences between the two. IPTV is a developing standards-based implementation of commercial live and on-demand TV services delivered over the internet. Primarily, the destination of these services is the lounge room TV, though they’re not necessarily restricted to it. By contrast, Web TV can encapsulate some of this but is more commonly used for TV services you might view through a computer, often via a browser.

Regardless of the form, the opportunity is to bring a lot more content into our homes from free-to-air TV through to sporting events, overseas channels, and on-demand movies. Unlike traditional free-to-air TV, web TV provides the ability to pause, rewind, fast forward or replay content as you choose. With the internet as the distribution medium and content stored in digital form, there’s tremendous flexibility in how content can be consumed.

You can access some of this capability through your computer right now without spending a cent, but for the real web TV experience  you’ll need to acquire some new hardware.

Dictionary

These are some of the terms you might come across delving into this topic.

ADSL - asymmetric digital subscriber line, technology to deliver broadband over standard copper phone lines
DRM - digital rights management
EPG - electronic program guide
FTA - free to air, the broadcast TV channels (ABC, 7, 9, 10, SBS)
HD - high definition (video), 720p and above
HDMI - high definition multimedia interface, the highest quality connection standard
HTML5 - hypertext mark-up language, version 5, which includes video
IP - internet protocol
IPTV - internet protocol television
ISP - internet service provider
Podcast - a series of digital media files generally downloaded for later use
PVR - personal video recorder
SD - standard definition (video), below 720
VOD - video on demand
Vodcast - analogous to podcast, specifically for VOD
VPN - virtual private network, using the internet for private connections

For more information on software and online services, or further articles on home entertainment, visit our Technology  section. 

 

 
 

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Watching TV on your computer

All the free-to-air broadcasters in Australia offer content that can be watched via a web browser. The ABC set the trend with its iView service, which lets you view programs you might have missed for a week or two after the broadcast. The commercial channels all have similar services (see the table below). Most of them also have extras like sneak peeks at programs that haven’t aired yet, and retain material available on demand for varying lengths of time. Channel 9, for instance, has quite a large pool of old TV shows, all free. As you might expect, the sites and the TV programs themselves contain advertisements.

Foxtel too offers its content over the internet in a similar way, but, of course, only to its subscribers.

There is sometimes a small downside to these services however. Depending on the service, TV shows can be at a lower resolution than if you watch them on the TV. In a window on a browser you might not notice this so much, but if you zoom the window to full screen, the lack of quality becomes noticeable. You also need to remember to jump on and watch your show as they are usually only available for a short time, and you can’t save the streams for later viewing.

Some ISPs also offer TV channels over IP, often without it being metered against your download limits. They can do this by using multicasting (see Streaming across the world), a way for ISPs and consumers to save on bandwidth.

An example is TPG, offering some 20 extra channels as part of their standard package.

You can link to all these sites from the following table...  

webservices 

abc apple bbc boxee ten 7 9 fetchtv foxtel googletv hulu lg samsung sbs sony telstra tpg leanback

New hardware, richer experience

The technically minded may already hook their PCs or media-streaming boxes up to the TV to watch internet content, but there are easier all-in-one solutions. And, often, these can access commercial paid services as well as the wealth of free content available on the web. Examples are set-top boxes such as Foxtel’s iQ series, Apple’s Apple TV, Dlink’s Boxee Box and Logitech’s Revue, which supports Google TV. Then there are ISP offerings combining the functions of modem and router with those of IPTV such as Telstra’s T-Box and iiNet’s FetchTV. And finally there are smart TVs, wrapping the IPTV capability into the TV itself, much as they did earlier with digital tuners. Sony, Samsung and LG all have TVs that do this. So how do they compare?

Hardware compared

·         Foxtel’s iQ supports video on demand for movies and TV shows, with new releases available pay-per-view through Foxtel’s iQ or iQHD devices or an Xbox 360. If you have a Telstra mobile, you can watch Foxtel on that too, or use any smartphone to view the TV guide and set up remote recording of your favourite shows. Foxtel iQ packages range from $75 per month to $130 per month and include the Foxtel iQ device.

·         Apple TV is a compact box that’ll access anything on iTunes, as well as YouTube, podcasts and internet radio. The box itself is $129, and movie downloads cost $4-$5 – you have seven days to start watching, then 48 hours to view the whole thing.

·         Boxee Box from Dlink is a more open option. Boxee is a software solution – you can build your own Boxee box if you have the time, the skill and the inclination. It integrates your own content with online material from YouTube and other sources accessible through a browser. In the US, that means access to huge repositories of TV shows and movies through services such as Hulu and Netflix, but the content available here is much more limited. The box itself has a quirky design and an unusual QWERTY remote control and costs around $300.

·         Logitech Revue is a Google TV-based device with a similar philosophy to the Boxee Box – it integrates all the content you have into a single interface. Predictably, the interface relies on searching: if you enter a movie title, Google TV will find it for you, if it’s accessible from any of your sources. Those sources can include YouTube’s Leanback facility, which lets you define your own channels. The Revue costs $249, with no ongoing subscription costs.

·         Telstra’s T-Box provides PVR capability, a program guide and access to BigPond’s own movies, TV channels (mainly sport and news) and thousands of on-demand videos. All this and the free-to-air channels are available unmetered. You can access YouTube videos too, but these count as downloads. To boost the offering, Telstra is about to extend the service to include another 30 channels and some 300 video-on-demand titles from Foxtel. The T-Box costs $299 with a package, but price can depend on which agent you buy through.

·         FetchTV is available from iiNet, Internode and (soon) Adam Internet and offers the standard free-to-air channels plus 27 more channels, three tuners and access to interactive sites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as some games on your TV. There’s both TV and movies on demand, some being free and some pay-per-view. iiNet along with Internode, Apex, iPrimus, Adam Internet and Vivid Wireless have also teamed up with TiVo to provide a service around the TiVo PVR providing additional content that’s not metered. The FetchTV box comes as a package of either $14.95 per month or $29.95 per month on top of your current ISP bill.

·         Smart TVs are becoming more common and bundle either Google TV as a solution or a selection of other IPTV sources, as the Boxee Box or Telstra’s T-Box do. For example TVs with LG’s Netcast TV and Samsung internet@TV have the same access to services as Telstra’s T-Box, without the PVR capability. While this makes it easy to get into the IPTV game, you’re tied to whatever services the TV vendor provides.

The Wider World

Overseas content

No matter how many different sources of content there may be, the range often appears to be the same: movies, material from Australian free-to-air channels and a miscellany of strange channels of marginal interest. Even popular TV shows from overseas usually take quite a while to arrive on local channels.

All of which makes people clamour for access to the BBC’s iPlayer and the US site Hulu. For copyright reasons, neither is available here and attempts to access them are blocked. It’s copyright, too, that makes local networks frown on attempts to save downloads from their catch-up sites.

  • The BBC plans to make iPlayer available worldwide, but don’t get too excited. It’s a subscription service for about $10 per month, and only available on an iPad.
  • In the US, Hulu offers content from the major US networks soon after broadcast, either with ads or for a monthly fee. Rumours last year that Channel 9 was negotiating to bring it here seem to have faded, and with the commercial networks dependent on the same content, it’s unlikely to arrive here in the same form, despite Hulu’s stated intention to do so.

What about peer-to-peer - or IPTV?

The wide world of on-demand video also includes Bittorrent and other peer-to-peer networks (P2P), led by so-called pirate sites like The Pirate Bay and Isohunt. However, it’s an efficient mechanism for legitimate content too, and a lesson in ease of use other providers could learn from.

The convergence of TV and the internet seems inevitable, but if you’re not a big TV watcher it may not seem compelling to purchase a smart TV or an IPTV device just yet. For now, you can get much of this web TV content through your browser. However, as these services increasingly become the norm, it will be fascinating to see how the IPTV landscape develops, especially in relation to paid and on-demand content. This is perhaps the most appealing prospect of IPTV – the ability to watch TV on your terms.

Streaming across the world

The internet is really a vast packet delivery network, designed to carry a message from A to B over any route it can find. Consequently, you’d expect that if a whole range of people wanted the same content at the same time, they’d all have a separate copy working its way through the network.

However, the designers of the TCP/IP protocols allowed for this and included something called Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP), which allows for a message to be sent once from the centre to distribution points before it gets fanned out to individual recipients. This has the effect of vastly reducing the total traffic, and enables ISPs to broadcast channels over IP without clogging up the system.

Not for travel

You might think the TV catch-up services would be really handy when you’re travelling overseas – you could catch that vital next episode without waiting until you get back. Unfortunately, they’re not accessible overseas – copyright means access to the services is restricted by region.

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