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Of Bandwidth And Quality

When the television broadcast industry finally embraced digital technology with the HDTV transition, it marked a major shift in the quality of the consumer experience.

Frank Wells
When the television broadcast industry finally embraced digital technology with the HDTV transition, it marked a major shift in the quality of the consumer experience. Even with lossy compression, a necessary part of constraining the delivery data bandwidth into the broadcast spectrum bandwidth, picture quality and sound improved dramatically.

Imagine what the consumer could experience without the constraints of bandwidth. Actually, you don’t have to use your imagination too much if you have had the experience of watching a well-produced movie at a top-shelf theater. Digital projection of image and high-resolution immersive sound represent the top end of what consumers can now enjoy. Theaters, though still facing some constraint in bandwidth for image, and less so for sound, are a reasonably agile platform for the application of technology. The delivery channel and venues are less constrained by bandwidth and more readily able to deploy new technologies, though perhaps you are still waiting, as I am, for digital projection and immersive sound systems to become universal in your local area.

For broadcast, bandwidth constraints do put caps on the ultimate levels of delivery quality at the consumer level—only so much entertainment as data can be crammed into a broadcast signal. Cable-only channels face similar constraints because of compliance with the broadcast standards (though if you’ve ever had the opportunity to flip between a pure cable networks’ broadcast of a sports event to your local broadcast station’s signal, you might have noticed that the video quality can be superior from the cable network, in part due to the local stations embracing the ability to split off some of their bandwidth into subchannels). Even as a new standard for ATSC (HDTV to the consumer) broadcast is being developed to incorporate emerging picture and sound technologies, the bandwidth constraints are not being relaxed.

Consumers are now embracing internet-delivered content as consumption patterns shift towards lifestyle- driven applications of technology. The VCR, then the DVR, and now streaming media are following the pattern the music industry experienced with the vinyl record, compact cassette, CD, digital download and now streaming audio. Consumers want the media they want, when they want it. They want it how they want it, on whatever device they favor.

Netflix and its ilk were first a replacement for the local movie rental storefront. Now, with internet delivery, they are capitalizing on consumer usage patterns, not merely passing along the output of Hollywood and the broadcast/cable networks, but rather driving the market by creating their own original content. Younger consumers are gathering less to watch programming at the specific time of original broadcast. As with the telephone, where wired signals have largely given way to mobile devices at the individual level, so are traditional television viewing patterns shifting with the impact of YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and other services. Particularly with young consumers, the local cable company is becoming less valued as a source of access to broadcast and cable channels but rather being seen as a necessary evil to acquire fast internet access.

For now, bandwidth restrictions do affect these emerging patterns. Reliance on WiFi for wireless connectivity often can mean a throttling-down of quality for convenience. Then there are the constraints of the audio experience on personal devices—first, that they are personal and not shareable; second, that discrete surround is not possible, though headphone-delivered emulations are steadily improving.

Technological trends and intertwined consumer usage patterns will continue to be disruptive to the status quo. The broadcast marketplace of the near future is going to be a moving target.