Broadcast television isn't going away just yet

Steve Loughran, discussing media PCs, writes:

One of the subtle implications of this and the mac mini systems is that a wide screen LCD and PC with good broadband connectivity can supplant the TV for a lot of uses. Think about it. If you only had one machine, which would it be: the television or the laptop? More importantly, a lot of the content is coming over the net. If you get your TV from youtube, bittorrent or the Venice Project, why use a television? The TV, you replace with a projector for cinema and gaming, which you hook up the same PC.

For the last 3 years I have had a laptop in my home, broadband internet access, a library of DVDs, but no television. And I agree with one of the points Steve makes here: in terms of capabilities, the distinction between PCs/laptops and televisions is disappearing. They are just different points on a device spectrum. The TV (together with associated boxes such as a DVD player and games console) emphasizes entertainment: it has a big screen, a sofa in front of it, and you usually interact through a remote or games controller. The PC emphasizes work and productivity: it sits on a desk, and you have a keyboard. The laptop emphasizes portability. But the basic capabilities are shared.

On the other hand, I don't think that methods of delivering video are converging so rapidly. Video delivered over the internet, currently in the form of YouTube and BitTorrent, is not yet a complete and adequate replacement for broadcast television, and probably won't be for a while. Here are the reasons:

  • YouTube video clips may seem watchable in a small Flash box in the browser, but the quality is not remotely comparable to television if you expand them to fill a television screen.
  • The minimum channel bandwidth for the DVB-T standard used for digital television in Europe is just under 5Mb/s. Let's take that as the bandwidth required for decent quality video. 5MB/s is 2.2GB an hour. Most video files available on BitTorrent are encoded with much lower data rates.
  • The original ADSL standard has a downstream bandwidth of 8Mb/s, under optimal conditions. So at 5Mb/s for a channel, one person in the house might be able to watch television delivered via ADSL, but two people won't be able to watch different programs. Of course, ADSL2+ fixes this, with a downstream bandwidth of up to 24Mb/s, but availability of ADSL2+ is still limited. For some kinds of television programs, video can be downloaded in advance of viewing, making the ADSL bandwidth limit less of an issue. But other programs, such as news programs, should be watched at the time of broacast.
  • Does the infrastructure exist to stream 5Mb/s video over the internet to large numbers of viewers? BitTorrent may solve this problem for programs which can be watched offline (I assume this is how The Venice Project™ will work). But news programs are not watched offline.
  • This page says that Americans were projected to watch an average of 1669 hours of television per person in 2004. Taking the 5Mb/s figure again, that's about 300GB per month. In the UK, uncapped consumer ADSL packages come with acceptable use policies that don't permit 300GB to be transferred a month (some of them are define “uncapped” as 100GB a month or less). Perhaps this is peculiar to the UK ADSL market, but even then it may give an idea of what telecoms providers are currently able to deliver economically at consumer price levels.
  • And let's not forget the copyright infringement problems surrounding much of the content on YouTube and BitTorrent. The intellectual property issues need to be resolved, and I'm afraid that could involve DRM and its unpleasant side effects. If hardware-enforced DRM is the way of the future, then as a computing professional and user of open source software, I can imagine being forced to use different devices for entertainment and work.

All this points towards video over the internet being used in combination with broadcast television, rather than as an alternative. So if you do want to throw out the TV in favour of your PC or laptop, you might want to invest in a digital TV receiver, such as this one.