Comparing Streaming and Broadcast Video

One thing that doesn’t get talked about a lot in the battle between broadcast TV and on-line video is video quality. For the most part today broadcast TV still holds the edge over on-line video.

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.

The FTC and Technology

federal-trade-commission-ftc-logo_jpgLast week I wrote about how the Federal Trade Commission was going to start watching the Internet of Things. I will admit that this is maybe only the second or third time in my career that I can recall the FTC being involved in anything related to telecom. So I did some digging and I think we are going to be hearing about them a lot more. The FTC is turning into one of the primary watchdogs of technology.

The FTC was created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 to fight against big trusts. In those days large corporations like Standard Oil and America Tobacco held monopoly power in their industries. The Sherman Act was passed as a way to battle the largest monopolies, but Congress wanted a second mechanism to control the worst practices of all corporations. The FTC was created 100 years ago to protect consumers against the practices of large corporations.

The FTC got their powers expanded in 1938 when Congress gave them explicit authority to combat “unfair methods of competition”. Since then the agency became increasingly active in protecting the public against unfair trade practices.

It is not surprising to see the FTC getting involved with technology since it is becoming the primary way that companies interface with people. The FTC has been engaged for years in a few areas that involve the telecom industry. For instance, they have been the watchdog for years for issues like deceptive advertising, poor billing practices, and violations of customer privacy.

As an example, there have been a number of FTC actions over the years with AT&T. Not that I particularly want to single out AT&T, because the FTC has been engaged with all of the large carriers over the years. However, just last year the FTC got AT&T to refund $80 million to wireless customers who had been crammed with fraudulent third party charges. In 2009, the FTC faulted the company for denying phones to people based upon having poor credit since they had not explained the policy to the public. And now the FTC is going after AT&T for fraudulent advertising since their unlimited mobile data plans are not actually unlimited.

One area of FTC focus for the last few years has been the security of customer data. For example, they have fined a number of companies that had security breaches that released customer credit card and other personal information if those companies had not taken reasonable precautions to protect the data.

While companies sometimes fight the FTC, the more normal response is for the agency and a company to come to a mutually acceptable change in behavior through a consent decree. Following are a few cases related to our industry that were not amicably resolved and that instead resulted in suits by the FTC to stop bad corporate behavior:

  • Amazon. Last year the FTC sued Amazon to get them to stop the practice where children could rack up huge bills on cell phones by purchasing add-ons for computer games without parental approval. There were even game apps for pre-school age kids who clearly cannot yet read that allowed a player to buy extra features of the game by hitting a button.
  • Snapchat. Last year the FTC sued Snapchat because they told customers that their data on the network was private and protected, while it wasn’t.
  • Dish Network. In 2012 the FTC sued Dish Network for making telemarketing calls in violation of the Do Not Call rules.
  • Robocalling. In 2009 the FTC sued to stop numerous companies who were using robocalls to sell fraudulent products.
  • Data Brokers. The FTC sued LeapLab of Arizona for selling consumer data that included details like bank account numbers.
  • Spam. The FTC took legal steps to shut down Triple Fiber Networks (3FN.net) which hosted huge quantities of spam emails.
  • Intel. In 2009 the FTC sued Intel for using its monopoly power to artificially inflate the cost of computer chips.

As privacy and data security become even more important, we will probably see the FTC become very active in our industry. Interestingly, most of the FTC’s work is done quietly and without press. It contacts companies against which there are multiple public complaints. They generally investigate the complaints and try to get companies to change their bad behavior. And most companies agree to make changes. But the FTC has the ability to levy large fines and will do so for companies who repeat bad behavior or who violate a prior consent decree.