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3/17/2006
07:03 PM
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The Tale Of The Tube

Today's Internet is no match for television. Major improvements in technology are needed for the Web to provide programming that matches the quality received today over cable or satellite, not to mention the high-definition TV expected in the near future.

As high-speed Internet connections reach into more and more American homes, so too does the promise that telephone companies could use them to deliver television content. The problem is, if they did so today your bill could be more than your car payment. A lot more.

That's the way Hank Kafka, BellSouth Corp.'s chief architect, figures it, because of the huge amount of bandwidth required if Americans were to watch video-on-demand and other high-definition TV programming over the Internet the same way we watch the tube now, which is an average of eight hours a day, often from more than one set in the house.

Kafka took some generally accepted cost estimates for today's Internet -- that the average user downloads about 2 GBs of data every month, which costs service providers about $1 -- and made some extrapolations. If a subscriber were to watch five standard definition movies per month, about 9 GBs of data, that would cost about $4.50. But if all TV viewing were in standard definition, the price tag jumps to $112 for 224 GBs. And if all viewing were high definition -- carried at 24 megabits per second -- the quantity reaches 1,120 GBs per month and the bill totals a whopping $560.

But Kafka, who first announced his estimates at a recent telecom industry trade conference, doesn't expect anyone to pay those kinds of prices. He just wants to make a point.

"If this kind of traffic develops and we just follow the same Internet model we have now, then the Internet is going to be a mess. We need to find other ways to address it," he says. "What you want is massive amounts of cheaper bandwidth."

The headaches will start for companies like BellSouth when Internet TV, or IPTV, services are provided via unicasting, which delivers to single households individually rather than to an audience of multiple households simultaneously, the current system of multicasting, which is much more efficient.

"The key is, it moves the emphasis from just access bandwidth to core network bandwidth that's necessary to fill up the access pipes with sustained high-bit video traffic," Kafka says.

BellSouth will conduct a technical trial of IPTV for up to 1,000 customers by the end of the year and all of its competing service providers are investing in IPTV too. The technology is appealing because the content can be personalized. Major League Baseball, for example, is working on a system to show multiple games at once while also providing access to statistics and scores from other live games.

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