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June 2006 Archives

Mark Evans did an interesting post [trackback] on his blog last week about the usefulness of Slingbox. In the example he cites, his fellow Mesher, Stuart MacDonald, used his Slingbox to watch a world cup match while traveling on the train from Toronto to Ottawa. A great way to Sling.

I joined the ranks of the 'Slingers' this past weekend. After a bit of a struggle with my way-too-complex home network, my Slingbox was up and running -- and I am impressed. This is one cool tool! It allows you to control and view your home TV signal on the road (or the train, or, someday, the plane) -- in short, anywhere you have a high-speed internet connection (including a properly-equipped cell phone). If you've got a DVR, that content is available for playback in addition to the live TV streams.

Used as described above, I suspect that this probably constitutes legal (and fair) usage. But the technology doesn't limit the usage of the Slingplayer software to the person who owns the box. The content can be shared with others (albeit, only one viewer at a time -- and is this really a technical limitation or an implementation choice?).

So, what possibilities does this open up? Well, for starters, the usage that jumps out immediately at me is to circumvent localized blackouts. Suppose -- and I'm just making up an example here so please don't take me to task if the specifics of the example are wrong -- the Edmonton Eskimos impose a local blackout on their home games that affects the Edmonton television viewer, making the game unavailable on television in that market but not, let's say, in Calgary. The answer to the problem: find a friend in Calgary who has a Slingbox and will let you use their signal. From a technology point of view, there's nothing to stop that. However, and this is where it gets interesting, this usage i) makes available content to the end user (the 'Slingee'?) for which the sender (the Slinger) has effectively paid only a personal-use license (assuming they acquire the content from cable or satellite), and ii) undermines the intent of the blackout, which is to fill the seats at the stadium in order to support the economic viability of the blacked-out franchise.

Or... what if I pay my cable company for premium programming (for example, movie channels) but decide to share them with a friend who doesn't?

Going a step beyond that, what if I want to watch HBO here in Canada? Our BDUs (Broadcast Distribution Undertakings) have not been allowed to include HBO in their lineups. But... if I have a friend and Slinger in the U.S., I can make arrangements with them to allow me to tune in to their HBO broadcasts. Is this illegal activity on the part of the Slinger? The Slingee?

In all of these scenarios, the Slinger becomes a distributor of content -- effectively, performing the role of a BDU. In these examples, is the Slinger violating i) copyright laws, and ii) federal telecommunications law (in the latter example, arguably, in both the U.S. and Canada)?

Let's go one step further... what if the Slinger in these examples is not a friend at all but someone who is charging me a fee for the service? Perhaps the receiving party (Slingee) bought the 'rights' (and I use that term very loosely) to use the Sling signal in an auction on eBay? That this is now a commercial transaction further complicates matters. Or, perhaps, for a fee I acquire exclusive 7x24 access to a Sling signal. (Bear in mind that no TV is required on the transmitting end. A simple transmission setup might include just a set-top-box, a cable or satellite feed and a Slingbox. Therefore, it does not need to interfere with the TV watching of the owner of the Slingbox).

In essence, using the Slingbox technology, anyone can become a commercial rebroadcaster of content -- content for which they own no distribution rights.

The quality of the experience today is limited due to bandwidth, but it is obvious that with increased bandwidth this technology has the potential to ultimately deliver a full-quality, full-screen standard definition signal. Beyond that, double the available bandwidth 2 more times and you're in high-def land.

Will we see Slingbox farms popping up to commercially serve content from geography to geography? If BDUs do that, they need to pay retransmission rights to the original broadcaster. Will 'grey-market' rebroadcasting services emerge that operate cross-geography re-transmission services 'under the radar'? This usage would almost certainly be illegal, and trackable, but that doesn't mean someone won't give it a shot.

The cable/satellite company can't tell that you are connecting a Slingbox to their network. Your ISP can inspect the traffic you are sending out over the internet and identify it as a 'Slingcast' -- but they can't tell who's on the receiving end (is that you watching your Slingbox at a friend's house while you travel to California, or is it a complete stranger doing so and paying you for the service?).

Will ISPs use packet shaping to undermine the whole Slingbox concept if it gains sufficient traction that it impacts overall network performance? Will ISPs who have a vested interest in the preservation of traditional cable and satellite operations be even more inclined to do so?

Down the road, perhaps we'll see Slingboxes evolve into a peer-to-peer social network kind of thing, with search capabilities. Slingbox owners could publish what they're watching (the box itself certainly doesn't know) and seekers could find, connect, and share in the viewing experience. Of course, the remote viewer would be subject to whatever pausing, fast forwarding, etc. the Slinger is doing, but perhaps that's an acceptable constraint for free internet-based viewing.

All in all, certainly food for thought and something to keep an eye on.

[Written by me, but in the third person, for a variety of reasons]

For many at the sold-out Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA) luncheon at the Banff World Television Festival, the presentation by two solitudes' Alan Sawyer was an eye-opener. In his talk entitled "TV... or not TV" Sawyer challenged the audience perception of the so-called three-screen world. He dissected the confusing world of mobile TV and discussed what watching television on a computer can really mean.

Sawyer called upon the audience to go beyond the now-common multi-platform discussion and to consider multiple distribution channels as well. "Everyone is talking about mobile content as a platform we need to address", said Sawyer. "But bear in mind that there are multiple ways of getting the content to [the wireless] platform. Downloading of content is a very real possibility." "What we're not hearing is people talk about multiple distribution channels." Sawyer proceeded to show that a 2 GB Secure Digital (SD) card can easily hold eight hours of content suitable for viewing on his PDA, and that such cards can be moved between PDA, laptop, desktop computers and some newer TV sets. This was followed by a discussion of the viewing experience possible when connecting a computer to an HDTV-capable screen. He demonstrated that, with the right setup, even in HD, you can't tell that you're watching TV on a computer. "In fact", he said, "the common set-top box is actually a computer in sheep's clothing".

Sawyer went on to discuss why the differing natures of mobile versus conventional television consumption (secondary versus primary activities) lead to the need for different programming paradigms and he identified that the mobile consumer is becoming more discerning -- and demanding -- in their content choices.

The twenty-minute presentation was rounded out with a brief discussion on the new media phenomenons of MySpace, YouTube, Rocketboom and the like, and the threat they pose to conventional television viewing.

Sawyer closed with a call to action to producers and broadcasters to experiment, take risks, and work together to explore new ways to use new media -- and to collaborate rather than fight on rights-related issues.

Saying "the status quo is not enough", the Honourable Beverley Oda called on the CRTC to undertake a study of the impact of technology on the broadcast industry in the coming years. This long-awaited review of television will be a "factual examination of the evolution of audio-video technologies". two solitudes' Alan Sawyer called on the government for just such a review earlier this year ("Ottawa urged to revisit TV rules", The National Post, February 18, 2006). How this report will affect -- or be affected by -- the recent commission decision to exempt mobile television from regulation remains to be seen. This is a very necessary study at this critical juncture and it comes just in time. The ship is already sailing but there is still time to help chart the course.
The report is to be completed by December 14, 2006.
The Banff World Television Festival commissioned Nordicity Group to prepare a green paper for the festival's town hall discussion on the future of television in Canada. That paper is one of many released this year that attempts to put some perspective to the technology-led changes that are sweeping the industry.
In January, the IBM Institute for Business Value released a seminal work entitled The End of Television as We Know It -- A Future Industry Perspective. This was followed by two additional IBM papers by two solitudes' Alan Sawyer (who was with IBM until the end of last month) entitled The End of Television as We Know It -- A Canadian Perspective and The Future of Television in Canada. The common theme throughout all of these papers, IBM and Banff-Nordicity, is that the industry is in a state of considerable disruption, brought about by changes in technology. The Nordicity paper, however, is at odds with the main IBM conclusion, stating that "digital media will not result in the end of TV as we know it, despite IBM's catchy title". The green paper goes on to say, "[a]s any communications major knows, no new media has obliterated the previously dominant traditional media". While true, this statement dismisses the key point IBM is trying to make -- that is, that television "as we know it" is ending, not that television in and of itself will disappear. No one is likely to dispute that, as the green paper suggests, TV "will still be in our grandchildren's households in future decades." Where two solitudes would differ with the Nordicity green paper is in how -- and by whom -- that content will be created and/or delivered. The green paper says that limitations on internet bandwidth mean that existing distribution mechanisms such as cable TV and satellite will remain in place as inexpensive and effective ways of distributing content -- and "will remain the dominant distribution system for TV programming". two solitudes position, however, is that the impact of increasing bandwidth, edge caching technologies and fibre to the home should not be underestimated, and the very fact that there are, and will continue to be, multiple content pipes into the home merely underscores the fact that change to existing business models is inevitable (and, therefore, we are seeing the end of TV as we know it). The Banff paper is also at odds with IBM's position that video on-demand will destroy linear programming as we know it. Only time will tell, and until the advent of more complete content catalogues and robust technology infrastructure, extensive video-on-demand (VOD) uptake will remain limited in the short term but will also, we believe, remain a long-term, widely adopted inevitability.
The Banff green paper can be downloaded from the official festival website at www.banff2006.com.
Perhaps the most common questions amongst those assembled at Banff were "how do I monetize it?", "who pays for the additional content?", and "who should own the rights?" -- all in reference to new media content intended to supplement existing broadcast programming. The emerging picture, at BWTF and other conferences, is that, at the moment, few are making any money on new media content and that the players are fighting over control of an empty pot. Many producers accuse networks of demanding the new media rights and then often failing to use them effectively. As well, say the producers, the networks are demanding that they produce additional new media content but are seldom providing any additional funding to cover the costs. Sadly, unless and until producers and networks work cooperatively on both funding and new media exploitation, the battles will continue over an empty 'pot of gold'. The sooner all of the parties realize that this isn't currently about making money but rather is about the critical issue of audience retention in the face of increased fragmentation -- and therefore requires investment and participation by all parties -- the better off the industry will be.