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[ NNSquad ] Apple -- and a Future of Stuttering Streams?

Apple -- and a Future of Stuttering Streams?

Question: What does Steve Jobs' announcement today of a new, $99 Apple
TV Internet streaming device suggest about the likely impact of such
technologies on the Internet?

Jobs' announced the new Apple TV unit (along with various iPod and
other products) via a live video stream (that used a protocol only
currently viewable mainly on Apple products).  Reports of stuttering,
freezes, and other problems with the live stream were widespread.

The irony of streaming problems affecting the announcement of a streaming
product may be a harbinger of things to come.

The new Apple unit is decidedly not the first to be able to stream
Internet video (including Netflix) -- most TiVos can already do that.
Nor is the Apple device at $99 the least expensive such unit.  Google
TV will very likely be a major player in the streaming video arena as
well.  Televisions with integral Internet video streaming capabilities
are already appearing.

One way or another there's going to be a lot of streaming to big TV
screens, and the implications are pretty dramatic.  From a competitive
standpoint, ISP subscribers will be faced with the choice of buying
movies directly from their ISP Pay-Per-View systems (which won't eat
data from Internet bandwidth/usage caps, when present) or using
external services where unilaterally applied ISP bandwidth/usage caps
do come into play.

But aside from this, we really need to be thinking about the impact
that a veritable explosion of relatively high-bandwidth streams may
have on local Internet infrastructures.

There are several points to keep in mind.  Unlike devices that allow
downloaded movies to be "staged" to a local disk (downloaded late at
night or little by little over longer periods of time) streams are
on-demand and now.  Users expect to treat streams like DVR player
controls and get fast responses.

Streams do have some obvious pluses.  They're instantly available
to play.  You *can* control them like a DVR.  You don't waste time and
bandwidth downloading entire movies to a local disk and then only
watch short segments.  From the standpoint of content owners, streams
are great because you never have entire movies laying around on users'
hard drives where they might (in theory anyway) be subject to various
piracy techniques.

However, an obvious implication of streams -- since they are real-time
in nature -- is that you need sufficient Internet capacity to supply
simultaneous streams for all current viewers at the same time.  Even
with Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) handling the long-haul
aspects, the possible saturation of local Internet access networks,
often already strained during "prime time" (at various levels of the
network infrastructures) is of significant concern.  Think about
Friday and Saturday movie nights, for example.

Another issue -- we can expect the bandwidth required by individual
streams to be growing by leaps and bounds.  Most Internet subscribers'
typical usage consists of a lot of Web browsing -- involving bursts of
inbound data but not continuous flows -- and occasional viewing of
streaming audio and video.

There's going to be a major difference between watching YouTube videos
on a relatively small PC display, vs. feeding streaming movies to a
big screen TV.  Viewers of the latter are going to be demanding very
high quality streams -- pixelation and artifacts easy to ignore on a
little screen stand out like gangbusters on much larger displays.

Higher quality streams means higher data rates, and we have to multiply
that by every affected user trying to watch streams at the same moment.

The widespread deployment of big screen TV Internet video streaming
devices, without sufficient local bandwidth to handle them properly,
could turn into a support nightmare for everyone concerned.  

Customers who have just paid $4.99 (or whatever) to view a streaming
movie on their new giant screen LCD, aren't going to be terribly
tolerant of stuttering or pixelated video, and are likely to strike
out at everyone involved: ISPs, device manufacturers, Internet video
service providers, and probably anyone else unfortunate enough to be
within shouting range.

Whether these streaming devices are viewed as successes or failures
will hinge to an enormous degree not only on their own features
per se, but on Internet access bandwidth capabilities during the
busiest times of the day and evening.

Whether or not U.S. Internet users will end up on the short end of
these bandwidth-related issues -- as they seem to be for so many other
Internet local access matters compared with much of the world --
remains to be seen.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com)
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR (People For Internet Responsibility): http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, NNSquad (Network Neutrality Squad): http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, GCTIP (Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance): 
Founder, PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein
Google Buzz: http://bit.ly/lauren-buzz