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January 05, 2009

IPv6 and the Future of Over-the-Top Video

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

IPv6 is not exactly the hottest topic on most cable, telco or ISP minds these days, as it is the next-generation of IP address management, but might not offer obvious business advantages for most service providers, at least not now.
Still, to the extent that bandwidth efficiency increasingly becomes a problem as the Internet is used as a distribution vehicle for linear programming, IPv6 might logically help by easing address assignment issues and supporting multicasting.
The problem is easy to illustrate. One of the reasons TV, radio, satellite and cable operators really like "broadcasting" is that it is extremely efficient as a way of distributing high-bandwidth content to millions of users at once. If 20 million viewers are watching a single piece of content, every viewer can watch a single stream. In the IP domain, matters are more complex.
Without multicast capability, each of the 20 million viewers watching the same piece of content would require access to 20 million individual streams. The difference between unicast and multicast therefore is one stream versus 20 million discrete streams. Strain on the backbone network can be eased using edge caching, but unicast delivery still implies discrete streams, even if cached at the edge of the network.
In principle, multicast addressing and streaming would vastly simplify the delivery, and radically reduce the transit costs associated with delivering a highly-viewed linear bit of content across the Internet. Multicasting offers smaller advantages almost in direct relationship to the smaller number of viewers for any bit of linear content.
But multicast, including multicast addressing, could ultimately be a huge enabler of Web-delivered linear content to large audiences. Of course, that will represent a potential business threat to today's dominant linear programming providers. But there also is upside, even for today's dominant linear distributors.
In essence, a digital video recorder is a store-and-forward solution to the "on demand" delivery problem. Given simple, easy navigation and programming, "on demand" content can be delivered in non-real time, but viewed in a way that highly approximates the "true on demand" experience.
In fact, that is the principle used by "start over" services that allow viewers to "pause" viewing of a bit of content and then resume it later. Basically, the content distributor broadcasts different streams, time-shifted so that a viewer essentially halts viewing of one stream and then resumes viewing of a different stream slightly later. The same functional result is made possible by digital video recorder local storage.
So, as odd as it might seem, a shift to IPv6, which is essentially an address management solution, might have implications for the ease and cost of providing over-the-top video services. While demand for IPTV (News - Alert) is increasing, the number of IPv4 addresses is decreasing.
According to the American Registry for Internet Numbers (News - Alert) (ARIN), the availability of IPv4 addresses is down to 15 percent with the number decreasing every month. It is estimated that by mid-2012 the pool of IPv4 addresses will run out. That being the case, a shift to IPv6 is inevitable. Of course, users will resist replacement of most of their routers, so there likely will not be a flash cut.
But there may well be new business opportunities possible once the shift is made in significant numbers. Gartner (News - Alert), Inc. estimates worldwide subscriptions to IPTV reached almost 20 million subscribers in 2008, a 64.1 percent increase over 2007. One would be hard pressed to guess at what might be possible for other forms of on-demand video if widespread multicasting is available.
And though one normally looks at niche video when thinking about multicasting, other possibilities exist. Think of large event audiences - such as the Superbowl. That is an ideal candidate for multicasting. In fact, multicasting is an ideal replacement for analog linear broadcasting of any content with a significant audience. Time-shifting devices then can solve the problem of convenient viewing. And that is why multicasting ultimately will provide new stress on “packaged” forms of video consumption.

Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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