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Last Updated: Monday, 27 November 2006, 06:05 GMT
Future of TV: Still on standby?
Despite the excitement surrounding new ways of watching television, technical obstacles could mean the future of TV is still years away for many people.

INTERNET PROTOCOL TELEVISION

Man holds a remote control
IPTV allows programmes to be distributed over the internet

Internet protocol television, or IPTV, allows programmes, movies and other multimedia content to be distributed via broadband.

A set-top box decodes the signal for your television and allows, for example, video-on-demand services.

Increased broadband penetration and a massive increase in speeds have meant IPTV is talked about as an important step for the future of television.

But Benjamin Lehmann of Jupiter Research believes that even by 2011, IPTV will still be a niche service.

"We forecast that in 2011, IPTV will have penetrated 6% of European households, up from 2% in 2006," he says.

The advantages of IPTV, such as time-shifting and video-on-demand, are not high on the agendas of European consumers, he believes.

Typically fibre-to-the-home costs 1,500 Euros per home and in addition you have the cost of a more complex modem
Olivier Baujard
Alcatel

Technical obstacles could also present problems for IPTV.

In particular, sending television signals over the internet requires a lot of bandwidth.

"As soon as one wants to have at least two simultaneous channels, one you see and one you record, then you need a 20-plus megabit-per-second (Mbps) connection," says Olivier Baujard of networking firm Alcatel.

Problems get worse when consumers demand high-definition programmes, which need 20-50 Mbps connections per channel.

Current broadband speeds are not fast enough for the majority of users. Running fibre-optic cables closer to the home or using advanced high-speed connections - such as VDSL - could overcome these limitations - but are expensive.

"Typically, fibre-to-the-home costs 1,500 euros (1,015) per home, and in addition you have the cost of a more complex modem," says Mr Baujard.

OPEN INTERNET TELEVISION

Amazon Unbox screen grab
Amazon's Unbox service offers movie and TV downloads

Open internet TV refers to all video and television content currently available through websites and peer-to-peer networks.

Like IPTV, the rise of open internet television relies on increased broadband penetration and speeds - and therefore faces the same barriers.

The main difference is that open internet TV does not require users to subscribe to one service. Viewers can pick and choose episodes from different pay-sites, file-sharing services and free download pages.

But watching them on a TV set - rather than a computer - can be complicated, involving burning DVDs or buying relatively expensive equipment.

That is changing, though. Apple has announced a new device, temporarily called iTV, which is designed to move content quickly and easily to a television.

But the need to buy a new piece of equipment may put many people off.

Legitimate web download services can also be expensive. Each episode of CSI on Amazon Unbox, for example, costs $1.99 (1) and can only be watched for 30 days, while other download services have similar restrictions.

HIGH DEFINITION TELEVISION

Man in front of an HDTV set
Almost all televisions sold in the UK have a flat screen

High-definition television, or HDTV, offers crystal-clear pictures and sound.

Countries like Japan and the US have already embraced HDTV - but in the UK and Western Europe, take-up is still relatively low.

HD-ready televisions are already on sale and a limited number of UK broadcasters, including cable firm Telewest and Sky, offer HD services.

By 2010, research firm Screen Digest predicts 10.5 million of the 26.5 million TV-watching UK households will have an HD-ready set.

And three quarters of those 26.5 million households will be able to receive an HD signal.

But Screen Digest predicts just 3.3 million will actually watch HD services. The rest of Western Europe shows similar patterns.

Unless you are a satellite viewer at the moment you are not going to get HD easily
Guy Bisson
Screen Digest

"Virtually everyone that buys a television buys a flat screen and they happen to be HD-ready," senior analyst Guy Bisson says.

As a result, a lot of people think they already have HDTV just because they have a set capable of showing HD pictures - and do not realise they have to sign up to an HD service.

Cost is another possible barrier to the widespread take-up of HDTV.

"The market at the moment is being driven by pay TV providers - so if you are not willing to pay, you have no content," Mr Bisson says.

Broadcasters also incur increased costs because, for the moment, HD programmes are more expensive to record and produce.

MOBILE TELEVISION

Man holds a mobile TV set
Watching television on a small screen can be frustrating

Mobile TV lets users watch their favourite programmes on their mobile phones - and with an estimated three billion handsets in use by 2007, it is a potentially huge market.

At the moment, South Korea and Japan lead the world with mobile TV. Handsets capable of receiving free-to-air terrestrial mobile services are being snapped up in the region at a rate of 10,000 per day.

But according to analysts Informa Telecoms and Mobile, just 10% of handsets sold globally by 2011 - about 120 million - will be able to receive TV broadcasts.

This is partly because many people will just not want to watch television on such a small screen.

In a 3G cell, 10 to 15 TV consumers would consume all of the bandwidth
Olivier Baujard
Alcatel

There is also the problem of delivering the content.

For example, 3G networks have limited capacity.

"In a 3G cell [the area covered by one base station], 10 to 15 TV consumers would consume all of the bandwidth," says Mr Baujard of Alcatel. "It is not a scalable solution for the mass market."

An updated version of the digital radio signal, known as DAB-IP, is already used by Virgin Mobile in the UK. But channel-switching can take several seconds and lags in the signal mean it is not always a seamless service.

Another standard known as DVB-H, which will eventually use some of the frequencies freed up by the switch from analogue to digital television, and planned software upgrades to phones and networks could eventually overcome these limitations.

But a final barrier could be cost. Sky's service on Vodafone costs 5-10 a month.

Advertising around programmes could eventually allow cheaper subscription rates, or people with home TV packages may get mobile TV included for free.




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