Can the Internet Handle IPTV?

An Associated Press story raises the question of whether or not the Internet can handle widespread adoption of IPTV. The system is designed to handle the occasional download of information, such as email, or a music file, or a Web page. But to watch full-resolution television programs — not to mention video in HD format — a computer must receive a steady stream of data. For a sporting event, this could go on for hours without interruption.

There are questions whether the system can handle this. As it turns out, Internet Service Providers — ISP — sign up more users than the available capacity. It’s the same reason that airlines overbook flights; they know that a certain percentage of people won’t use the capacity at a given time, and this helps them keep the costs lower for everyone. If lots of people start demanding steady data streams for long periods of time, ISPs will have to add capacity and raise rates. And it’s possible that the next level of infrastructure may need to be expanded as a result.

This is an interesting concept, as I had the exact same idea when the Web started to be successful. Communication networks were designed back then to handle simple text for email and written content. Sending graphics and fancy fonts and colors was sure to create a strain on the system. Streaming audio and letting people download music files would totally overload the network. Right?

Wrong. The providers built up their system, and thousands of miles of fiber optic cable were installed, and the Internet kept pace with the demands of this new “World Wide Web.”

I’m not enough of a telecomm engineer to know whether this latest concern is simply crying “Wolf!” or if there really is going to be a capacity problem. I’m confident that if IPTV does result in significant demands on the Internet infrastructure, then competition will work to expand the system capacity. If this costs too much, and the service providers have to charge more than users want to pay, then this will solve the problem by limiting the adoption. I expect, however, that the costs will be reasonable — especially when compared with cable or satellite fees — and that IPTV will become as familiar a part of the Internet as email and MP3 downloads.