The rise of video on demand

Soon the Internet will join the ranks of TV broadcasters and movie rental companies, writes David Hellaby.

People have been talking about video or movies on demand for years (VoD). In fact the idea was first trialled in Hong Kong as early as 1990 and while it has been around in various forms in the likes of five star hotels and more recently on airlines, it has only recently ventured into the consumer market.

The idea behind it is simple enough – you select a movie from a catalogue provided either by your Pay TV company or Internet service provider (ISP), press the ‘pay’ (not play) button and download whatever it was you wanted to watch. Both types of systems (Internet and Pay TV) are fairly similar in that they use Internet Protocol (IP) technology to deliver the movie across the Internet or a dedicated cable line. The main difference is that your Pay TV provider feeds the movie directly to your television through a special set-top-box, while movies downloaded or streamed from various sites on the Internet are usually viewed on your PC. However, even this is changing with the growing popularity of living room based computers, which are often called ‘Windows Media Centres’ or ‘Entertainment PCs’, and connected directly to your TV.

In the case of the Pay TV service, your viewing can begin almost immediately. If you’re downloading over the Internet, however, the speed at which you get to watch your movie depends very much on the bandwidth of your connection.

It’s Still Early Days
At the time of writing only one Australian pay TV company – ACT-based TransAct offered a true movies on demand service. Other companies, on the other hand, offer movies ‘almost’ on demand. In other words you could order your movie but had to view it at the time the Pay TV provider scheduled it, such as the Box Office service from Foxtel Digital.

Movies on demand services are available over the Internet but again there is usually a delay between demanding it and getting it. For example if you have a dial up connection, you’ll probably download it overnight and watch it the next day. Even if you have a standard ADSL service rated at either 256 or 512Kb/sec speeds, you will be waiting up to four hours before you can even press the play button on an average sized movie.

If you are lucky enough to have a higher speed ADSL 2+ connection or better still a high speed cable service, you will be watching your movie within minutes – even if it is not fully downloaded – because your connection will be sufficient to stream the movie live.

Once your movie is downloaded you have the same control over it as if you were playing it on your own DVD or VCR and can fast forward, rewind or jump from scene to scene. The companies offering the service will tell you the big advantage is that you don’t have to go to the video store to pick up your movie to return it. However, the video or movie is still not usually yours to keep because they come with a built in time lock that allows you to play the movie as often as you like within a given period – usually 24 hours or a week, much the same as your local video store.

The disadvantage of course is that you need loads of bandwidth if you don’t want to spend hours downloading or want to stream the movie so you can watch it as it downloads. As fast Internet connections become more affordable, it’s clear how popular this type of thing could get.