Next generation TV over the Internet: This revolution will be televised

Those companies who own the end user are well situated to observe, understand and capitalize on the end user experience. The company that provides the intelligent end device delivers NextGenTV to the consumer's television has the ability to see exactly what that consumer watches.

Today, television metering is dominated by the Nielsen ratings, which provide statistical sampling of users. A NextGenTV device would provide far more sophisticated usage data - what exactly is being watched, duration of viewing, demographic info of the viewer along with geographic location. This type of information is extremely valuable for the purpose of targeted advertisement. Rather than expensively blanket an entire medium with advertisements when most viewers are uninterested or possibly unable to purchase a particular product, it is far more effective to send ads only to those who are most likely to use a product.

Making the unforeseen possible

When Timothy Berners-Lee invented the Web, and Marc Andreessen invented the first modern browser to navigate it, users immediately recognized that this was a powerful development. While it was quite clear to early users that the Web and the browser were truly amazing tools of great promise, no one could have predicted eBay, Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, and the other descendant technologies that are integrated today in the daily lives of billions across the planet.

This is a critical characteristic of truly revolutionary developments- not merely augmenting or improving existing functionality, but rather making possible a new array of functionality that was previously unfeasible and paving the way for the inconceivable. Where the Web and the browser were the enabling technologies for the multitude of innovations that we have since experienced with the Internet, multicast will be the critical enabler for an unforeseen world of new functions and services towards which NextGenTV will evolve.

Maybe you're still not convinced about multicast. With all the other components well in place - cheap, intelligent end devices, ample access bandwidth, and willing participants already stepping into the ring (see AppleTV, GoogleTV), it is fair to ask if multicast is really necessary, especially in the on-demand world in which we now live. After all, video seems to sort of work just fine in the unicast-only Internet of today.

While it's true that there is a plethora of video on the Internet today, and the promise of a new wave arriving imminently, the numbers simply do not lie. Unicast delivery of high bandwidth multi-destination content is expensive, while multicast delivery is cheap. What unicast solutions may be able to provide is a certain niche of functionality - content with an audience that is large enough to afford the high cost of duplicate transmission, but small enough that the immutable laws of large numbers make it impossible for the network to deliver.

Such a niche world may indeed find modest success in adoption, but it will serve as only a diversion from what we think of today as television viewing. It could never fully overtake cable television and deliver all the revolutionary features and applications outlined here as NextGenTV. At best, a unicast-only solution could augment or improve existing functionality, but only multicast can deliver the unforeseen.

Where unicast may deliver "good enough, most of the time, for most existing content," it is critical to examine what happens during extraordinary times. After all, television has had its greatest impact during moments such as natural disasters, political speeches, military conflicts, assassinations and other times of great historical significance.

At no time was this more apparent than during the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. As the horrific events were unfolding, most news Web sites quickly became inaccessible due to the high load caused by so many users simultaneously trying to access content. Meanwhile, at Northwestern University, the CNN video feed was streamed over the Internet using multicast and quickly gathered an audience of over 2,000 viewers. At the time it was believed to be the largest audience ever for a single multicast stream. While still a relatively miniscule set of viewers, this demonstrated the power of multicast in its ability to deliver content to an arbitrarily large audience during times of extreme interest.

During such consequential events, a unicast-only television solution would fail miserably to handle the load. "Good enough, most of the time, for most existing content" would yield to "unreliable when it matters" and could provide a crushing blow to confidence in Internet delivery of television, potentially causing a huge setback for the medium.

In addition to the availability of carrier-grade AMT support, ISPs have another motivating opportunity to add multicast support to their networks: IPv6. With IPv4 address availability approaching total exhaustion- some countdown Web sites suggest this will occur in less than a year - IPv6 is finally becoming a reality.

Most ISPs and corporate networks, which held out deploying IPv6 widely in the same way they held out deploying multicast, are finally beginning to take IPv6 deployment seriously. While engineers are already "under the hood" adding IPv6 support to all network equipment, it is a great opportunity to add multicast support. The incremental effort to add multicast is actually much less than adding IPv6 support. Network architects can take this opportunity to add multicast support for IPv6 alone or for both IPv4 and IPv6. Either way, there is no better time to enable multicast, paving the way for the full benefits of NextGenTV.

Giuliano is an engineer in the telecom industry focused on IP Multicast technologies. He coauthored "Interdomain Multicast Routing: Practical Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems Solutions" (Addison-Wesley 2002) and is the co-chair of the Multicast Backbone Deployment (MBONED) Working Group at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). He welcomes all comments to

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This story, "Next generation TV over the Internet: This revolution will be televised" was originally published by Network World.

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