When you think of broadcast TV over a cable system I can’t help but remember back twenty years ago when the majority of the channels on a cable system were analog. I remember when certain channels were snowy, when images were doubled with ghosts and the first couple of channels in the cable system were nearly unwatchable. Today the vast majority of channels on most cable systems are digital, but there are still exceptions. The conversion to digital resulted in a big improvement in transmission quality.
When cable systems introduced HDTV and the quality got even better. I can remember flipping back and forth between the HD and SD versions of the same channel on my Comcast system just to see the huge difference.
This is not to say that cable systems have eliminated quality issues. It’s still common on many cable systems to see pixilation, especially during high action scenes where the background is constantly changing. All cable systems are not the same, so there are differences in quality from one city to the next. All digital video on cable systems is compressed at the head-end and decompressed at the settop box. That process robs a significant amount of quality from a transmission and one only has to compare any cable movie to one from a Blu-ray to realize how much is lost in the translation.
In the on-line world buffered video can be as good as good as cable system video. But on-line video distributors tend to compress video even more than cable systems – something they largely can get away with since a lot of on-line video is watched on smaller screens. And this means that a side-by-side comparison of SD or HD movies would usually favor the cable system. But Netflix, Amazon and a few others have one advantage today with the spectacular quality of their 4K videos – there is nothing comparable on cable networks.
But on-line live-streamed video still has significant issues. I watch sports on-line and the quality is often poor. The major problem with live-streamed video is mostly due to delays in the signal getting to the user. Some of that delay is due to latency – either latency in the backbone network between the video creator and the ISP or latency in the connection between the ISP and the end-user. Unlike downloading a data file where your computer will wait until it has collected all of the needed packets, live-streamed video is sent to end-users with whatever pixels have arrived at the needed time. This creates all sorts of interesting issues when watching live sports. For instance, there is pixilation, but it doesn’t look like the pixilation you see on cable network. Instead parts of the screen often get fuzzy when they aren’t receiving all the pixels. There are also numerous problems with the video. And it’s still not uncommon for the entire picture to freeze for a while, which can cause an agonizing gap when you are watching sports since it always seems to happen at a critical time.
Netflix and Amazon have been working with the Internet backbone providers and the ISPs to fix some of these issues. Latency delays in getting to the ISPs is shrinking and, at least for the major ISPs, will probably not be an issue. But the one issue that still needs to be resolved is the crashes that happen when the Internet gets overloaded when the demand is too high. We’re seeing ISPs bogging down when showing a popular stream like the NBA finals, compared to a normal NBA game that might only be watched by a hundred thousand viewers nationwide.
One thing in the cable system’s favor is that their quality ought to be improving a lot over the next few years. The big cable providers will be implementing the new ATSC 3.0 video standard that is going to result in a significant improvement in picture quality on HD video streams. The FCC approved the new standard earlier this year and we ought to see it implemented in systems starting in 2018. This new standard will allow cable operators to improve the color clarity and contrast on existing HD video. I’ve seen a demo of a lab version of the standard and the difference is pretty dramatic.
One thing we don’t know, of course, is how much picture quality means to the average video user. I know my teenage daughter seems quite happy watching low-quality video made by other teens on Snapchat, YouTube or Facebook Live. Many people, particularly teens, don’t seem to mind watching video on a smartphone. Video quality makes a difference to many people, but time will tell if improved video quality will stem the tide of cord cutting. It seems that most cord cutters are leaving due to the cost of traditional TV as well as the hassle of working with the cable companies and better video might not be a big enough draw to keep them paying the monthly cable bill.