Jams tomorrow

This morning’s Observer column.

Coincidentally, in another part of the forest, entrepreneurs Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the guys who founded Kazaa and later Skype (which they sold to eBay in 2005 for $2.6bn) announced their particular variation on IPTV. The service is to be called Joost and combines aspects of file-sharing software and regular broadcast television. Like Skype, Joost requires users to download and install a free ‘client’ program which enables them to browse the internet for channels and clips they’re interested in.

The Joost website is deliciously opaque, riddled with PR-speak about how the new service is, apparently, ‘powered by a secure, efficient, piracy-proof internet platform that enables premium interactive video experiences while guaranteeing copyright protection for content owners and creators’.

In the ordinary course of events, one would be inclined to dismiss this as hype, were it not for the fact that Zennstrom and Friis have a track record of unleashing not one but two disruptive innovations on an unsuspecting world. So let’s suppose for a moment that Joost is for real. What then?

One implication is that if it spreads like Skype (putting on 150,000 new users a day), Joost could eventually strangle the net. Or, more realistically, it would provoke dramatic action from the world’s ISPs to fend off that outcome…

Network impact of Skype TV

Very interesting ArsTechnica post:

Bandwidth usage, however, could prove to be a problem for the project. According to the project’s documentation seen by Ars Technica, watching an hour’s worth of TV consumes an average of 320MB downloaded and 105MB uploaded traffic, due to the service’s P2P architecture. US Government statistics suggest that Americans on average watch about 2.6 hours of TV a day, which in Venice Project terms would equate to 832MB downloaded and 273MB uploaded traffic. In a single month, that would tally to 25GB down, 8GB of uploaded traffic alone.

For users with broadband caps, the Venice Project could easily consume a month’s worth of bandwidth in short order. Even users without caps could be affected if they “trip” unpublished limits on so-called “unlimited” services and get a call from Mr. Friendly ISP. Still, high bandwidth usage is nothing new; we all know someone (maybe even ourselves) pulling down this kind of data every month. What’s different about the Venice Project is that it could explode into The Next Big Thing™, turning more of us into “heavy users.”

The question is: how will ISPs react? The Venice Project founders know a little something about this, because Skype has been through a bit of it. Skype is so threatening to some established players that it sometimes gets blocked at the network level. China Telecom attempted to ban the use of Skype in 2005, and some California universities sought to block the usage of Skype on their local networks for fear of security and bandwidth problems. These blocks didn’t last, in part because the criticism from users was intense. Will the arguments work when it’s TV at stake and not calling mom and dad?

In all reality, the bandwidth that Venice uses is not outrageous—it is on par with downloaded movies encoded in DivX format, which are about 600MB per 2 hour movie, and not too far from the likes of what Apple offers through the iTunes Store. However, as more and more types of video download services (such as iTunes videos or Xbox Live videos) become more popular, especially those using a P2P architecture, it is easy to see how the broadband infrastructure will feel the strain.

In this way, there’s a real chance that the Venice Project will be at the center of net-neutrality debates in the United States in the coming months. In our very limited experience with Venice, we can say that we’re quite impressed. If it really takes off, it’s going to make a number of impressions on the telecommunications companies. How will they react? There will certainly be envy, because everyone wants to build the next YouTube, and the Ed Whitacres of the world don’t want to see anyone gettin’ rich off of “their pipes” (which you pay for). There may also be a little anger involved, for if Venice usage soars, it will definitely consume a notable amount of bandwidth, leaving ISPs in the position of needing to tune their networks. To throttle or not to throttle—that may be the question that fuels another round in the net neutrality debates.

Why P2P is the only way of distributing TV

Very thoughtful column by Bob Cringeley, arguing that the only way we will ever get TV over the Net is by harnessing P2P technology. Excerpt:

Twenty million viewers, on average, watch “Desperate Housewives” each week in about 10 million U.S. households. That’s 210 megabytes times 10 million downloads, or 2.1 petabytes of data to be downloaded per episode. Fortunately for the download business model, not everyone is trying to watch the show at the same time or in real time, so iTunes, in this example, has some time to do all those downloads. Let’s give them three days. The question on the table is what size Internet pipe would it take to transfer 2.1 petabytes in 72 hours? I did the math, and it requires 64 gigabits-per-second, which would require an OC-768 fiber link and two OC-256s to fulfill.

There isn’t an Internet backbone provider with that much capacity, much less excess capacity. Fortunately, it wouldn’t have to all go over a single link and could, instead, be injected centrally into the network and fan out to viewers all over the country, in which case the OC-48 and OC-192 links used by Global Crossing, Sprint, MCI and others just might be enough.

But that’s just one popular show. What will we do, then, with American Idol?

Ah, but remember Moore’s Law, which is going to increase our bandwidth dramatically over time! It doesn’t matter. Throw 250 million viewers watching 180 channels up on the Net, raise the resolution to full broadcast then raise it again to HDTV, and even Moore’s Law won’t catch up. Just carrying all the viewers of “Desperate Housewives” at the current iTunes resolution won’t be economically viable for another decade according to Moore’s Law.

I am no Luddite. IP is the future of global communication on all levels. But adding video to the mix is so bandwidth intensive that using current techniques will push back total IP conversion for decades…

Just one quibble. I don’t think it’s Moore’s Law which is giving us bandwidth increases on the scale we’re seeing, but advances in opto-electronics.

Quote of the day

We think the internet isn’t a web page or a destination for your PC any more. It’s an infrastructure and a delivery vehicle for communications and experiences in entertainment. It’s about ease of use and open platforms that connect the internet to any device that you will be manufacturing.

Terry Semel, Yahoo Chairman, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, January 5, 2006. (Reported in Financial Times January 7 2005.)


John Markoff, reporting from CES for the New York Times

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 6 – What would a world with television coming through the Internet be like?

Instead of tuning into programs preset and determined by the broadcast network or cable or satellite TV provider, viewers would be able to search the Internet and choose from hundreds of thousands of programs sent to them from high-speed connections.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show here this week, a future dominated by Internet Protocol TV, or IPTV, seemed possible, maybe even inevitable.

Giants like Yahoo and Google turned their attentions to offering new Internet programming. Hardware companies like Intel introduced chips and platforms that can push videos sent via an Internet connection to living room screens. And Microsoft looked for alliances that would allow its software to dominate living rooms as well as the home office.

“At one level it’s clear that the dam has broken,” said Paul Otellini, chief executive of Intel. “There’s an inevitable move to use the Internet as a distribution medium, and that’s not going to stop.”

The rapid emergence of the consumer electronics and computer companies as Internet video providers is certain to challenge the control of the cable, telephone and satellite companies, which seek to dominate the distribution of digital content to the home. Competition has intensified as more consumers have upgraded to digital televisions.
Indeed, the easy availability of on-demand content over the Internet is certain to accelerate consumer expectations that they will have more control over digital video content, both to watch programs when they want as well as to move video programs to different types of displays in different rooms of the home.

“Appointment-based television is dead,” said William Randolph Hearst III, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm. “The cable industry is really in danger of becoming commoditized.”