BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2008

  

 

BOOT CAMP 519 (08/04/08)

Internet TV and BBC iPlayer

 

Over the past year or so there has been a minor explosion in the number of broadcasters using the Internet to distribute TV programmes. Of course there is nothing new about sending live and recorded video over computer networks and legend has it the first web TV superstar was actually a coffee pot.

 

The pot in question began its brief career back in 1991, in the Trojan Room of the Computer Laboratory department at the University of Cambridge. The pot was the test subject for the trial of the world’s first network camera or webcam the idea was that coffee drinkers in other parts of the building could keep watch on it, on their computer screens, to see when a new brew was ready and avoid wasted journeys. Judging by the quality and content of some Internet TV services, it has been downhill ever since…

 

Things are getting better, though, and now, web TV services like the BBC iPlayer, which we’ll be taking a close look at over the next couple of weeks, make it possible to watch mainstream television programmes (and listen to radio programmes) on your computer the day after they were broadcast, either straight away, or at your leisure by downloading the program onto your computer, but we are getting ahead of ourselves so let’s see how it is done.

 

In fact there’s no magic or special tricks involved in sending television programmes to home computers via the Internet. In essence they are no different to emails, web pages and music downloads, and they travel around the web as ‘packets’ of data.  There’s nothing new in this but broadband has made it a practical proposition by reducing the amount of time it takes to send the huge volumes of data involved in television pictures and sound. Even on a relatively slow broadband systems (512kb/s – 1Mb/s) it is possible to view a ‘streamed’ program in real time, though the data has to be heavily compressed, to avoid too many interruptions, caused by the packets not coming down the pipe quickly enough. The data has to be ‘buffered’ by the PC and high levels of compression means that the picture has to be quite small; it’s good enough to view on a laptop or desktop monitor but switching to full screen mode reveals the flaws.

 

If you want better picture quality, comparable with normal TV and capable of being viewed on a living room television screen, then you have to download and store a lot of data on your PC, upwards of 600Mb per hour of programme time. Depending on your broadband speed a 30-minute TV program, say, could take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to download to your computer’s hard disc drive.  

 

On its own broadband would not have been enough to make web TV take off as swiftly as it has. Problems would arise if lots of people all tried to download the same program at the same time. The server computers where the data is stored and the data pipelines that connect them to the Internet just couldn’t cope with the demand. The solution is a clever trick known as peer-to-peer (P2P) network sharing, which, you may recall was the technology at the centre of the illegal music-downloading debacle.

 

In principle it’s very simple, instead of storing TV programmes only on centralised server computers, a peer-to-peer network takes advantage of the fact that soon after its release a programme will be on many thousands of computers connected to the Internet. So rather than downloading the entire programme from one location, software on the computer downloads parts of the programme from many different sources, thus spreading the load and reducing data bottlenecks, at least that’s the theory, but more about that next week.

 

The final and most contentious pieces in the Internet TV jigsaw are copyright, licensing and distribution – see also this week’s Top Tip.

 

If we take the BBC as an example, nowadays independent producers account for a very large slice of the corporation’s output, resulting in a tangle of rights; add to that the complexities of who gets what for showing archived material and movies and you can begin to appreciate the scale of the problem.

 

In order to get the project off the ground in a timely manner, retain control over its output and avoid a legal nightmare the BBC had little choice but to use off the shelf software with built-in Digital Rights Management (DRM) but for viewers this has several significant drawbacks.

 

Firstly, whilst you can watch low grade streamed programs on almost any Windows Mac or Linux computer with an Internet connection (and iPhones), you can only download higher quality material on Windows XP and Vista PCs with Windows Media Player, (v9 or later). The BBC are working on Apple Mac and Linux versions of the iPlayer Download Manager software, promised for later this year, but don’t hold your breath. There is a workaround for Linux PCs involving a loophole created by an Apple iPhone viewer but the BBC are trying to stop it from working.

 

The second consequence of DRM is that downloaded programmes self-destruct after 30 days and you can watch them as often as you like whilst the program is available for streaming but after that they’re history. Again there are workarounds but they’re for knowledgeable geeks only.

 

Lastly, DRM stops anyone outside the UK viewing or downloading programmes, much to the annoyance of a great many ex-pats and fans of BBC programmes living overseas. There are convoluted ways to get around that too but the BBC are trying hard to keep a lid on it so don’t expect to be watching episodes of East Enders on a laptop when you are on holiday any time soon.

 

Next Week – Downloading TV and Video from the Web part 2

 

JARGON FILTER

 

BUFFERING

Storing data in a temporary memory by player software, to minimise interruptions caused by slow or interrupted Internet connections

 

PEER TO PEER

Networking configuration where data is stored on and routed by PCs connected to a network, rather than by a central server

 

STREAMING

Technique used to send sound and pictures over the Internet for immediate, real-time playback

 

 

TOP TIP

The one piece of good news concerning Digital Rights Management is that currently you don’t need a TV licence to watch BBC programs on iPlayer as they are not ‘live’. It would certainly be very difficult for them to administrate but the BBC has made it clear that as and when later versions of iPlayer are developed and the service is upgraded to show live programmes then you will need to be a registered licence holder in order to use it.

 

Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at www.pctoptips.co.uk

 

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© R. Maybury 2008, 1903

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