Home > Main > The Future of Television, Part I — Laying the Foundation

The Future of Television, Part I — Laying the Foundation

August 14th, 2003

The following is speculation on what I believe the shape of television may be in the future, perhaps a few decades down the road. I present it with the caveat that I am not very much more knowledgeable than the average computer user and television watcher about the technology involved; this is simply what seems to me to be a logical extension of present trends into a future form.

Presently, you can get fairly good video quality over the Internet, granted that you have a megabit- or better connection. Here in Japan, megabit is the bare minimum, and many people have better. I get only about two megabits via DSL, though I signed up for the 12-megabit plan–I live more than two kilometers from the telephone office, the general distance at which performance drops significantly.

And yet, when I go to the Apple trailer site, I can download any of the trailers (MPEG-4 movies in QuickTime format) in close to real-time. If I later view the file full-screen, the quality is quite good–sometimes better-looking than an encoded TV show file might appear. Not exactly broadcast quality, and far from the digital quality soon to take over in the U.S., but nonetheless a good picture for a medium-to-slow broadband connection.

And broadband speed is the problem for many people, especially for those living outside metropolitan areas where the lines can be laid much more simply. DSL is relatively inexpensive to set up because it can run over existing telephone wires. However, the two-kilometer limit puts a great many people, even in the suburbs, out of reach. Fiber optic does not have that trouble, but it requires expensive cabling, and, as many American telecoms found out, the “last mile” wiring to each house is a killer.

A solution coming in the near future is one called VDSL, which is kind of a hybrid of DSL and fiber optic, overcoming the weaknesses of each. It uses fiber optic wiring to bring it into a particular neighborhood, but instead of having to bring that cable to each house, the end of the fiber optic cable serves as an extension of the telephone office, and VDSL, working on standard telephone wiring, takes over from there. VDSL has an operable distance of just over one kilometer, but within that distance it can reach speeds of up to 52 megabits per second downloading, and 16 megabits per second uploading. That is equivalent to downloading a 7 MB file each second, while uploading a 2 MB file during that same second. That’s fast. Much more than fast enough to carry a DVD-quality video signal.

Of course, the technology is still being worked out, and two VDSL consortiums are fighting over standards (when are they not?). But it will come around in the next few years. It will not, however, come to every home there is during that time, and it will not work perfectly, either, so it will not provide the platform for replacing cable or broadcast television anytime soon–but it is a start, and gives us a peek at how in a few decades, the bandwidth for video-on-demand will very likely be there for the taking.

This leads to the question, what form will video-on-demand take in the future? More on that in Part 2.

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