Lessons learned in the UK could show the Middle East how to align the interests of internet service providers and broadcasters alike without the intervening squabbling, and create an open platform for Middle East content.
Hulu has proven a bigger success than most expected with more than 40 million viewers tuning in every month. Video is available at a high quality with premium up to date content building loyal audiences. The main difference between the UK and the US in terms of online content delivery however, is the quality of the broadband infrastructure.
The United States has an average download speed of 4.8 mbps compared to just 2.6 mbps in the UK, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
The country’s leading network operators – in particular BT – have voiced concerns over the impact of existing video hosting services such as YouTube and the BBC’s iPlayer. The debate between BT and the BBC has been played out in public with the telco demanding compensation for the strain that the service places on its network. Most recently the BBC has accused BT of surreptitiously “throttling” the maximum streaming speeds available on the iPlayer during peak hours.
As the Corporation is looking to further increase the quality of the service, it has suggested a tiered payment structure for BT’s internet service customers that would open the door to the fastest streaming for users that are prepared to pay for it.
With broadband speeds in the Middle East at the lower end of the scale, a successful, mainstream online video service would be difficult to support. It is likely that any such proposal would have to be operated in conjunction with the telcos from the outset to ensure that they can reap the benefits and the returns from their own infrastructure investments. This would, in return, allow them to re-invest in the networks to develop a system capable of carrying a widely-used, high quality online video service.
Perhaps the ongoing strife with the BBC iPlayer (and perhaps soon Hulu as well) could have been avoided had the owners of the networks been consulted with the same consideration and diligence as the content rights holders have been.
Etisalat has done just this and has taken ownership of the situation in the UAE. By the end of the year more than 700,000 customers will have access to high-speed broadband via its new fiber network. The company has also put in place the technical infrastructure required to host online TV services and has worked with MBC for the previous two Ramadan Musalsal seasons to do just that.
This collaborative effort between broadcaster and telco rules out the need for any of the underhand tactics and mud-slinging that have reportedly been going on so far in the UK. The addition of Hulu to the mix may force existing UK online video suppliers and internet service providers to introduce necessity for additional charges related to the reception of their higher quality streams.
As an ad-supported vehicle Hulu would be a closer approximation of services that may emerge in the Middle East, based on the embryonic services presently on offer and the implausibility of subscription based online offerings.
The danger for internet TV services lies in exactly how strong the ties between telco and any single broadcaster become.
Leaving regional content creators out of the picture, the internet rights for a particular sport or belonging to a specific Hollywood studio can only belong to one broadcaster at a time. Unless the telecom networks provide open network access for all media outlets, rather than exclusive access to a chosen few, there is a danger that holes could appear in the content available on internet TV. This together, with a failure to include those holding Middle East online rights to the big Hollywood Studios’ content, would create an unattractive proposition, leaving the entire platform hamstrung.