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IPTV and Streaming: Distinguishing the Differences

Because IPTV is a closed, managed network, it’s able to deliver full-screen, high-quality video content, unlike streaming, which is most often still relegated to small-screen and (relatively) low-quality video. "A lot of providers have to come up to a little bit better capacity to be able to treat streaming media like it needs to be," says Bill DeMuth, VP and CTO for SureWest Communications. And if streaming is to have any hope of keeping up with IPTV and converging somewhere down the line, the issue of network capacity needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. "High-definition TV is going to set another benchmark that streaming media might struggle with," he says.

Palmer suggests another reason for the disparity between picture qualities as well. "Encoding for streaming is an art form, not a science. Just because someone’s transferred something doesn’t mean it’s a good transfer," he says. Plus the visual standards for broadcast TV have had decades to mature while streaming is at a much more primitive stage. "To be honest, the guys in the streaming business for the most part are not video technicians in the way that video operators are," says Palmer. "[With TV] there’s always a video technician at every broadcast. They’re making sure the white balance is correct and so on. Show me that in a streaming environment. Who’s watching the store when it comes to that stuff? That doesn’t happen on IPTV. They treat it like TV, and it looks like it."

But unlike traditional TV, IPTV distribution is not limited to over-the-air broadcasts and cable companies. "We think IPTV is the platform for all future media distribution, whether it’s cable, telco, or a future wireless broadband network," explains Graczyk. For telcos in particular, IPTV presents a ripe opportunity to establish a foothold in the nascent online video distribution market. "IPTV’s the biggest new type of service that they’re going to be offering," Graczyk says. "It’s a proven business model, and it gives them an opportunity to differentiate their services from cable."

"For us being a total integrated communications provider, it’s not just the TV as a part of the equation; we come to the consumer with a bundle of offerings," explains DeMuth. "IPTV is really laying the foundation for us in the future. There are opportunities for feature applications with multimedia services where the voice, data, and video are integrated." Examples of these types of services range from displaying caller ID on a TV set to being able to program a PVR remotely from a handheld device.

While the IPTV model may currently be based on a closed system that doesn’t allow users to watch any and all streams on their TV sets, "ultimately it could be more open," says Pyle. "Surfing the Internet on the TV in my limited experience is kind of a novelty that wears off after a while. But if there’s a way for the [IPTV providers] to create a ‘channelized’ experience out of that Web surfing so that it becomes more like TV, you could add some value to services that might be streaming from all around the Internet."

Plus, as bandwidth increases and "as we continue to compress the content that we use for IPTV," DeMuth says, "I think it becomes close in some regards in terms of what you may want to stream," although in the end, it’s really up to the discretion of the IPTV provider as to whether or not they want to open up the system.

It all comes down to facilitating the best viewing experience for the end user, and "they don’t really care if their content is streamed or sent over IPTV," says Palmer. "What part of all this matters to you as a consumer? I think that’s what happens in our business sometimes: we get caught up in the form factor and forget about the reality that [the consumer] just wants the content."

And this reality also speaks to whether or not streaming and IPTV are competing or complementary technologies. "They only compete at the level that the computer and the TV stay separate in the minds of consumers," he says. "It’s not that streaming’s gone up or down. It’s that IPTV is probably the future of the TV industry, while streaming is very firmly rooted in the computer business.

"I don’t think that anything is going to win; one will not usurp the other," he continues. "TV didn’t kill the movie theater business, and VHS didn’t kill TV. Very rarely does a technology completely obviate another, and you’re not going to see that happen here because the phone company’s going to have their transport mechanism, cable will have theirs, and so on. Everybody’s going to have a way to get something onto your personal device."

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