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IPTV and Streaming: Distinguishing the Differences

Both streaming and IPTV have been around either as technologies or concepts for more than a decade, yet much of the enthusiasm generated by streaming in the late ’90s seems to have shifted to IPTV over the last couple of years, especially among premium content owners. IPTV and streaming are not two mutually exclusive technologies, and the distinctions between the two become less relevant as bandwidth continues to increase and compression codecs get more efficient. So where are the lines drawn between IPTV and streaming, and where will those lines move in the future?

First things first: defining the technology. "IPTV is a bandwidth-saving, cost-saving switch service that allows a cable provider or telco to offer more services over the same pipe," says Shelly Palmer, president and CEO of Palmer Advanced Media and chair of the Emmy Awards Advanced Media Committee. "IPTV theoretically wants to have a set-top box and be viewed on a television set. Streaming is an almost identical server-side technology that ends up on your computer." This basic tenet also explains why streaming still is a hard sell to broadcasters. "The reason that no one’s talking about streaming at NAB is that streaming is not an important TV technology and doesn’t leverage the TV sets already out there," Palmer continues. "If you’re a TV guy, you’re really not thinking about computers as a part of your world. In fact, you kind of wish they were all dead because they’re taking away your viewers."

IPTV was designed specifically to deliver high-quality content through an Internet pipeline onto a traditional TV set. "To the consumer, IPTV is going to look and feel very similar to the experience they get from cable or satellite," says Ed Graczyk, director of marketing and communications for Microsoft’s TV division. "IPTV is a form of streaming at the very basic level. All of the technology in our solution is built on top of the streaming technologies we developed; at the core of our broadcast server is the Windows Media server. IPTV is a way of taking that technology and adapting it to a new use and a new market. You shouldn’t look at them as two different things. Think of IPTV as broadcast-quality, industrial-strength streaming."

That’s a bit of a misnomer, though, as IPTV and streaming differ in one very specific way. "The difference really is in control," says Ken Pyle, cofounder of Viodi.com. "With IPTV, a network operator controls the whole path from the time they assemble the content to the delivery of that content to the consumer’s home. They can set quality of service; and they can control the security on it. With traditional streaming, the signal might have to traverse different people’s networks. So the network operators don’t have the same bandwidth control." This need for end-to-end control has also affected how IPTV is deployed. "IPTV is being implemented by people who own the entire network," says Pyle. "It’s not really being sent from one end of the world to the other; it’s much more regional or local than streaming service."

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