I Want My, I Want My HD Stream…

Amazon’s new streaming video-on-demand (VOD) service is going head-to-head with Netflix’s streaming Roku and soon, Xbox. But neither service is offering HD content. Why not, and what will it take to get streaming HD content?

When this story was first pitched to my editors, they responded with “fiber.” However, until we can blanket the country in fiber-optic bliss, what needs to happen?

It’s helpful to first think about the process the video must go through. The source (like Amazon or Netflix) has to take the huge, raw video file and compress it, and send it out to your home. Once it gets to you, the data needs to be transcoded, then moved from the set-top box (or whatever device) and transported to your TV. There are a lot of steps in that process and just as many standards/format issues at pretty much every link in that chain.

It’s important to consider, as my colleague Stacey noted, that data pipes get smaller the closer they get to your house. By most industry estimates, you need at least 6 megabits per second of bandwidth to stream HD from the source to your home. With the current ISP infrastructure deployed, this is a speed millions of Americans don’t reach yet.

Techniques like P2P or caching (or a hybrid of the two) can be used to speed up delivery by storing data in the cloud or the last mile. But the debate continues over the best method for delivery and, well, we’ve seen how P2P traffic gets treated by ISPs.

Even if we do get all the stars aligned and we figure out a way to speed up delivery and get the video to your TV, there are still the cable and telcos to deal with. They have their own VOD systems, thank you very much, so there’s an incentive for them to throttle your bandwidth and charge you per use. Go over your monthly cap and that $2.99 movie suddenly costs you $30.

I contacted both Amazon and Netflix about how they plan on streaming this content. Amazon said it’s streaming doesn’t offer HD, and it wouldn’t disclose how many simultaneous streams they can serve, or to which carrier backbones it is connected, or whether or not it has an economic relationship with last-mile providers (i.e. if they get a cut of overage fees from tiered broadband users). Netflix didn’t respond in time for this post, though the Roku has an HDMI connector, which gives me hope.

Stacey Higginbotham and Allan Leinwand contributed to this story.

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