Is this the end of the world as we know it ?

Perhaps discussing anything to with television doesn’t really deserve such hyperbole but humour me for a minute or two.

Does our increasing use of IPTV, visual media delivered via internet, give us a glimpse of the future ? Will all visual media be delivered this way, someday ? if so what implications will it have for the way we consume ?

I believe that the answer to the first question is yes, someday, probably in the medium term all visual media will be delivered via IP networks or their successors. It is simply that conventional broadcast networks, either terrestrial or satellite based, are expensive to build, expensive to maintain and can’t deliver the flexibility and choice that IP based networks offer. If you put into the mix the capacity issues that broadcasters continue to face you can only realistically draw the one conclusion. It seems to me that the major broadcasters have all come to the same conclusion, most, if not all offer some form of IPTV services currently and I believe we can expect to see more and more services offered this way.

The owners of IP based networks are among the drivers of the widespread adoption of these services. Compelled by competition to continue building and developing their networks, they need more revenue generating services to layer over them. Visual media distribution has always been a profitable network service. Internet capacity continually grows and at an increasing rate, another demonstration of Moore’s law, and visual media distribution is a service most providers will look to to profit from the increased capacity.

So what are the implications for us, the consumers? Historically visual media distribution has been a highly restricted service. Widespread, generally available television is a little under a hundred years old. The internet, at least the publicly adopted worldwide web version of the internet is little more than 20 years old, yet look at the number of TV channels available to most people in the developed world. A hundred ? 200 ? 500? OK, if I remember correctly SKY TV in the UK list around 700 channels, some are +1 services and there are a lot of duplicates but let’s go with this number, call it a thousand channels, all told. In approximately a hundred years of development television offers the consumer a choice of 1000 channels. How many websites are there available on the internet ? Does anyone know ? Certainly it is several orders of magnitude more than the number of TV channels available. As I said, historically a restricted medium.

There are reasons that the medium is restricted, there are legal restrictions in the form of radio spectrum availability and licensing issues and there are financial restrictions; the cost of developing broadcast networks leads to a very high barrier to entry and very little competition. Distribution of television via the internet is not affected to the same extent as conventional broadcast media. There are few licensing restrictions and the cost of entry is, in practical terms, irrelevant.

I know that, in the current form, IPTV is neither technologically nor economically mature and that it is a wild world out there, largely dominated by pirates, large and small, but it is changing – and neither the technical nor economic challenges are vastly different from those faced by other businesses when confronted by the disruptive influence of the internet.

My vision of the future of television: we are going to see an accelerating breakdown of the quasi-monopolies of the large broadcasters. TV broadcasting will become much more egalitarian.

Our viewing habits will change, become less linear, less group focussed and more individual. We won’t ask “what is on TV?”. We will ask “what do I want to watch and where do I find it?”.

Distribution will focus on services that are user led not provider led. We won’t think of television in terms of channels, our view will be closer in concept to that of a library. From the comfort of our own homes we will select what we want to watch, and when we want to watch it.

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