A new strategy for a broadband media space

Leonardo Chiariglione – CEDEO.net



1          The early days of broadband strategy

A wise use of broadband to feed human senses with information to promote knowledge has been the concern of many, at least since the day Guglielmo Marconi showed the existence of a communication commons then called ether. The first steps in that use were forward looking, also because of the immediacy of the technology needed to modulate a carrier with sound information and the global coverage offered by the frequencies used at that time.

The steps undertaken by various countries in the 1930s to 1950s with the introduction of monochrome television were less so, also because of the complexity of the technology required to electrically represent moving picture information and because, in the event, the restricted coverage of the VHF and UHF bands practically made television a national – or at most regional – affair.

The same mindset continued in the 1950s to 1970s with the introduction of colour information with further fissures created at the behest of national pride, more than by the desire to make a wise use of broadband. Ditto for the originally (1950s) very local phenomenon of Community Antenna Television (CATV) designed to provide access to television to disadvantaged areas that continued, with the same mindset, well into the 1980s.

Satellite broadcasting, with its at least regional coverage, should have been the time to rethink the broadband strategy. In Europe the Multiplexed Analogue Component strategy would have provided uniformity, but it clashed with the more aggressive Nippo-American HDTV strategy that led to a confrontation lasted decades.

2          The broadband strategy at a time of technology discontinuity

In the 1980s the maturing digital technologies provided ample opportunities for diverging international-national-industry-company paths to digital television. Videoconference was the purview of the telecommunication industry and ITU-T Recommendation H.120 (begun in 1974 as COST 211) approved in the early 1980s should have marked the advent of interactive broadband in the office first and, with H.261, in all homes.

The European audio broadcasting industry put its hopes in the Eureka project EU 147 (Digital Audio Broadcasting). The system was developed and deployed in Europe and elsewhere but global success has still to smile on that industry.

Interactive video made possible by the biggest source of broadband since the early 1980 – the Compact Disc (CD) – provided another opportunity for a further splitting of broadband strategy. Philips and RCA battled for some time with Compact Disc Interactive (CDI) and Digital Video Interactive (DVI), respectively, with most other companies watching on the sidelines the battle.

While the rest of the world battled with more bandwidth for television – the analogue way – the national broadcaster RAI and the then Italian telecommunication manufacturer Telettra showed the world during the Football World Cup of 1990 that a digital broadband strategy was possible by using one satellite transponder for one HDTV program. Italy lost the cup it hope to get by hosting the games, but a bigger loss was the sale of Telettra by FIAT (its owner) to Alcatel in exchange for an accumulator factory. It would take another 10 years before digital HDTV would become a reality again.

The same message was conveyed by General Instruments that showed that a seemingly easy-to-grasp broadband strategy was possible by putting the digital equivalent of an HDTV program in the narrow 6 MHz band of one USA terrestrial television channel.

3          Good results with the right broadband strategy

The approach of the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), set up in the late 1980s, showed that a broadband strategy would work if based on a common application-agnostic standard shared and supported by all those in need of a digital television solution. Its results are worth reviewing because the landscape of media today has little in common with the situation 20 years ago.

·        Several hundreds million of Video CD players have been sold, particularly in the Far East, and billions of Video CDs have been printed. Video CD employs all parts of MPEG-1.

·        MP3 players – both hardware and software – have been sold/distributed by the hundreds of million and the number of MP3 tracks is counted by the hundreds of billions. Tens of million MP3 encoders – mostly software – have been sold/distributed thus creating scores of new life styles. MP3 employs Layer 3 of MPEG-1 Audio.

·        More than one hundred million digital TV set top boxes for terrestrial, satellite and cable television have been sold/distributed and millions of hours of TV programs have been digitally broadcasted. Digital television employs MPEG-2 Video/Systems and often MPEG-1 Audio Layer 2 and in some cases MPEG-2 Advanced Audio Coding (AAC).

·        Several hundreds million of Digital Versatile Video (DVD) players – both hardware and software – have been sold/distributed and several billion DVDs have been sold. DVD employs MPEG-2 Video/Systems.

·        More than one hundred million photo cameras capable of recording video have been sold and tens of million hours of video have been recorded. Digital cameras employ MPEG-4 Visual and the MPEG-4 File Format.

·        Several hundreds million mobile handsets capable of recording video and playing music have been sold and tens of million hours of video have been recorded. Handsets employ MPEG-4 Visual and AVC, AAC and HE-AAC, and the MPEG-4 File Format.

·        More than one hundred million DivX players and encoders have been downloaded, millions of video files have been created and DivX players are now a common addition to the standard DVD player. DivX employs MPEG-4 Visual and Layer 3 of MPEG-1 Audio.

The list above does not describe all usages of MPEG standard, but only those usages that cross the “one hundred million” level. Note that the list of standards used has been added not for the purpose of giving an extra touch of technology but to show how MPEG’s “toolkit” approach to standardisation enables re-use of technology in multiple products and increases interoperability across applications.

4          The right strategy brings more than industrial benefits

I would not like to give the impression that the value of MPEG standards is only in old-fashioned “number of pieces”, “number of content items” or “number of hours”. Therefore this chapter will dwell on the more profound business, societal and user-experience impacts that have been wrought by MPEG.

The most immediate benefit is in the possibility to squeeze in more information in the same UHF, Cable and Satellite bandwidth, but next to it is the possibility to make use of new delivery systems that were either in existence but considered unsuitable for carrying broadband signals such as copper wires used for telephony, narrowband radio channels, Compacts Discs, or new “naturally digital” delivery systems such as the DVD or optical fibres.

The next benefit is the actual change of the nature of content that can be delivered. It is not impossible to offer Pay TV services when TV is analogue, but when it is digital it is easier to reach a critical mass, interactivity is also not impossible with analogue TV but in a full digital environment and the proper delivery system interactivity can achieve its potential. In the same category fall the new forms of content distribution that have been made possible by the Internet and its end-user device infrastructure, originally the PC, but now also a growing number of other devices.

But this is nothing if compared with the Copernican revolution wrought by the first really disruptive digital media technology – MP3. The music market has changed beyond recognition with virtually all elements that were used as constraints to enable the music distribution business turned into enhancers of the user experience.

5          The path is not strewn with roses...

Everything new brings challenges, and new technology is no exception. We examine here two noteworthy cases and try to draw some conclusions.

5.1        Wrong rights

An ad for the Edison’s phonograph of 1906 said: “When the king of England wants to see a show, they bring the show to the castle and he hears it alone in his private theater. If you are a king, why don’t you exercise your kingly privilege and have a show of your own in your own house”.

Maybe inspired by their newly achieved status, “kings” exercised their kingly privilege for decades buying music and playing it anywhere, copying that music to any device (with strings attached :-(, though) and recording music from live broadcasts. Now it is almost a decade since “kings” have become “emperors” because now they can find any content they want and organise, play, copy, share etc. the content at their will.

How different a century makes! Now some people think that instead of finding new ways to elevate the status of their customers, they try to degrade them to become “sanculottes”. Want to know how? Digital content costs as much as physical content and then you can only play it on dedicated players. As a final proof you have the new “lettres de cachet”: If you break the lock you go to jail...

We are not in 1789 and not in Paris but there has been a revolution – at least in Europe – and now the future of the recording industry hangs on a thread.

5.2        The wobbling movie industry

Those who think that all content businesses look the same should think twice. Indeed the movie industry customer was born as a pawn, because unlike the King of England if people wanted to see movies they should go to the theatre.

Over time things did improve, though. Customers became dukes because they could watch the movie on show in their castles, but they had little room to choose which movies they wanted to watch. When the video cassette recorder was introduced there was even a little demotion because they could record the movie but without guarantee that what they wanted to watch would fit with the device they had at home because of format incompatibilities.

Finally customers finally became kings with the DVD because they could watch the movie of their choice in their castle. True, they were some pestering mosquitoes called region codes, but they did not really spoil the kingly experience of most of them. Then, a few year later movie customers became emperors with the possibility to watch all the movies they wanted anytime – anywhere – on any device.

Now some people want “emperors” to become “sanculottes” with pretty much the same constraints that the music industry wants to place on their customers: digital content costs as much as physical content and you can only play it on dedicated players, and with the same “lettres de cachet” hanging on your head: If you break the lock you go to jail...

It is a matter of fact that trailblazers – like the music industry – have a hard time but smart followers may avoid the pitfalls... Recent news offers the following from the MPAA President: “the people who handle strategy have to get together to talk about this (interoperability), not just the same technical people”. I am not sure that the lack of interoperability is a result of decision made by technical people (although you may think that I say this out of solidarity), but nevertheless it is important to see that interoperability is now taking the stage.

5.3        Any conclusion?

Those who want to do business with content the “old way” should remember an old maxim: respect your customer if you want your property to be respected. Those who want to do business in new ways without being intrusive should remember that technology may be great to carry bits but you cannot reduce the richness of human relationships to licenses expressed in legal language.

Lastly, those who really want to benefit from what technology can provide the suggestion is to use machines to help humans enhance their relationships over and above the verbosity of human language.

6          Is this the end of the story?

If you are in the content business and you have survived up to this point you should not think that the waves of new technologies are ebbing and you can look forward to a new era of content business based on consolidated models. No, the rate of influx of new technologies is just as high as ever, maybe even increasing. This may mean that there is no assurance of an easy life but it does mean that a lot of opportunities are waiting.

More compression technologies are due to come, for audio, video, 3D graphics and other media which can be used for new outlets of content services. Probably even more important is that in addition to more compression there will be more features that can be used to offer different services. The most mature of these is certainly scalable video, a new way of providing flexibility in the delivery of video content without too much sacrifice of video quality or bitrate. Another is joint music and speech coding that will be able to efficiently encode audio content containing both music and speech at the same time. Rapidly maturing is multi-view video coding, a new technology that exploits similarity of the video information taken from an array of cameras to reduce the bitrate when viewing from multiple viewpoints. Still on the radar is Free Viewpoint Television (this includes both audio and video) that can be used by a viewer to freely select the viewpoint and watch in a video scene.

The above is still in the furrow of a 20-year tradition of offering standard technologies to enable new markets. But this model is not always sufficient to cope with the need to provide standards for “new products”, i.e. those that incorporate a number of technologies whose exact integration must be know if interoperability is to be achieved.

Multimedia Application Formats, the recently activated line of MPEG standards provides specifications of how MPEG and other technologies should be integrated in a standard way along with a reference implementation that is made available to the public.

Existing technologies and those that are due to come in the next few years will continue to create new life styles of content and services and will give rise to new communities.

7          Another Copernican revolution

MP3 is just the first and most prominent example of how old value chains can be broken up but other examples exist and more are due to come out. One of the most exciting things that have been happening in the last few years is the continuous reduction of the cost of technology driven by MPEG standards. Nowadays it costs orders of magnitudes less to produce a (technically) high-quality song or video than it used to cost.

The result has been the transformation of millions of consumers into producers that find user-generated content web site their natural outlet. The next step is now the realisation of a global market of six billion creators, performers, producers, publishers, retailers, consumers... all dealing with bunches of bits packaged for some other user with whom to make deals.

We are one step away from realising the dream of multimedia communication without barriers, a world where we connect the products of human minds to the needs of other human minds.

8          We are not there yet...

We are still far from achieving the full goal, but the next step is in sight and we do not necessarily need technology breakthroughs to get there. To connect what is being offered to what is being sought we need a number of tools that will allow anybody

·        To design arbitrary value chains

·        To create arbitrary value chains

·        To support the establishment of new communities

·        To support rights that enable business but do not scare customers away

·        To enable all sorts of economic models (barter...)

·        ...

All the above is possible if we have a living world of technologies underpinning all value chains. But look no further: MPEG has already put its sights on the enabling technology for the next level of digital media: the MPEG eXtensible Middleware.

Stay tuned for more news.