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I Want My, I Want My HD Stream…

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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.

14 Responses to “I Want My, I Want My HD Stream…”

  1. Dale Boyce

    I hope that Ben is wrong about when HD streaming becomes commonplace. My hope is that the transmission model moves away from blasting out 500 channels that are unwatchable to using that bandwidth to stream a single program. It drives me crazy that only 9 – 12 mbs are allocated for an HD channel. You can only watch one at a time. How about a 100 mb pipe for watching HD content over the web and lose all the channels we aren’t watching.

  2. The basic tech to stream live high bandwidth content at scale is here.
    cough Multicast cough Also known as the MCAST-NET with about 226 million addresses or channels in this case, you can ask for.

    Whether or not the content makers choose to take advantage of this is their prerogative. I doubt they will use it unless they can wrap it up with DRM.

  3. Streaming live HD TV is not going to be an option for a number of years to come. The bandwidth required to send as well as receive is not cost effective. Assuming that you take 6mbps as a minimum for HD, Most servers will be overwhelmed at around 50 users. It’s not cost effective to try and stream HD (real HD, not that stuff ABC, CBS, and others pass off as HD on their websites).

    Cable and Sattellite (and OTA) will remain the dominant form of video transmission for at least 10 more years, but over that time downloadable , not streaming, content will start to replace peoples regular shows. This is already happening with shows like The Guild and Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible Sing Along Blog (really is there a better name for a show). These initial forays into downloadable content will lead to a system in which people will download shows like Lost or The Big Bang Theory.

    The issue will be how do content providers overcome the demand for shows at release times. Hundreds of thousands of people all trying to download a show simultaniously will take down any server centric distribution model, so that means they will have to go P2P. That also means that they will probably have to distribute the shows ahead of the official release time and lock it down to prevent it from being played back before its suppose to be.

    Overall, there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed. Maybe we should just stick with VoD from our cable companies :-).