On-demand streaming is up, so ISPs must drag it down

The future of television is streamed content, but we must overcome massive industry inertia first

On-demand streaming is up, so ISPs must drag it down

I welcomed 2016 with a column about events that may come to pass -- or at least substantially grow in significance -- this year. That included a forecast that streaming content will become the norm, not the exception. I don’t mean Netflix or Amazon Prime, but the streaming of traditionally broadcast content, such as first-run shows from CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and the like, along with live sporting events.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other streaming services showcase either original content or a catalog of existing movies and TV shows -- they don’t deal with live content or what we would consider broadcast television, such as the next episode of “Elementary" or cable content such as the return of “The Walking Dead.” That type of content is still delivered in the traditional broadcast method, which today means multicast over a cable network infrastructure.

But the signs that this is changing are everywhere. Major League Baseball is returning with MLB.tv, which allows subscribers to stream games to any device. This includes the ability to stream games and other related content directly to the MLB app running on streaming boxes such as the Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV. You can catch NFL games on a variety of streaming apps as well, including the NFL’s own app for mobile devices and some streaming devices, though the NFL service is not as straightforward as the MLB offering. Other sports are joining the parade too.

ABC, CBS, and NBC all have apps for set-top streaming boxes, and apps were recently released for channels such as Fox Now, Food Network, HGTV, and the Travel Channel. You could already find apps for ESPN, FX, A&E, and others, including premium channels such as HBO, Starz, and Showtime that charge a per-month fee for the privilege. You can even add multichannel bundling services to the mix, such as Sling TV live streaming. The availability of these apps is dependent on the streaming platform, so you might find apps for the Apple TV that aren’t yet available for Roku, but they probably will be at some point.

These apps let users pick and choose from available content and stream it to whatever device they happen to be using. It’s all very convenient -- except that most of these apps require that you sign in with credentials from your cable TV provider. That’s right, you can stream this content -- which usually includes plenty of ads -- but only if you’re paying for cable TV. At some point, we will look back at this fact and shake our heads, much like we do about the fact that we once had to rent our phone from AT&T. Oh, right, we’re still renting elderly cable boxes today -- for the moment.

Clearly, we are in the midst of a free-for-all in the video entertainment industry, with content producers suddenly seeing that there might be end-runs around the cable television gatekeepers, and the cable providers panicking over the realization that their 20th-century business model won't fare well in this new world. Of course, in many places, the cable television provider is also the Internet provider, so it will be concerned that the Internet service it’s providing to customers will be used to undermine its stake in content distribution. But hey, who ever could have foreseen that this would be a problem, right? I mean, some of them are also content producers, so certainly they’ll have the consumer’s best interests in mind with every decision.


Sarcasm aside, what we have now is, frankly, a mess. There’s no coherency to it, as you might be able to run the Lifetime Channel app on one platform but not on another. You might have some content restricted on one platform and not on another. In many ways, the idea of turning on a TV and simply selecting the channel you want to watch seems better. But this is how solutions eventually find their way. There will be coherency at some point. This mess will sort itself out, and those providers that try to force their own path may find themselves out in the cold.

At some point in the near future, you will turn on your TV and simply select the channel you want to watch -- except that instead of broadcast television showing you what happens to be playing, you will have access to that channel’s full catalog, including current shows. This is the obvious resolution to this madness, and it will take time and the reversal of substantial inertia before it’s a reality.

Regardless of how much gnashing of teeth this reality may cause on the content distribution side, the ISP will bear the brunt of this change. Rather than pumping out dozens of multicast streams, serving viewers will involve pushing more and more on-demand content. Of course live events such as sports, concerts, newscasts, and such should still be multicast, but otherwise, this new paradigm will cause a massive rise in unicast streams. I’m certain that this fact will be used as fuel for the big ISPs and cable providers to lobby for special concessions and to argue how bandwidth should be capped and constrained because of the dire consequences of providing on-demand streams to their customers -- except that cable TV has been providing on-demand content for almost two decades in some places.

Big disk is cheap and content caching is easy. If one customer streams “What About Bob?” from a streaming provider at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, and another customer in the same service area streams the same movie starting at 9 p.m., the first movie might originate from the streaming provider, but the second stream could be served locally. This isn’t rocket science. The tech has been around for a long time, but ISPs have on occasion actively refused to use it and instead buried their heads further in the sand.

Weep not for Comcast and the other big ISPs. They’ll be fine, but they sure as hell will bitch and moan about everything that cuts into their monopolistic tendencies and extortionate ways. We shouldn’t expect otherwise.

Make no mistake, the shift to on-demand content delivery is not a matter of if, but a matter of when. Who wins and loses when the dust settles will depend on which parties understand this inevitability and act on it first.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.