Giving users a consistent online TV experience is a difficult proposition, according to Craig Preston, head of technology for ABC innovation, especially when new trends and devices to access content are constantly appearing to complicate matters.
Craig Preston, head of technology, ABC innovation
"The average connection speed going into a metropolitan home in Australia is much higher than it was a couple of years ago," he told ZDNet Australia. This created an expectation that everyone would be able to access high quality media experiences such as iView.
"I've been working in ABC online for about 12 years and when we first started out it was pretty simple. We had some web servers and a media server and a connection to the internet. Now we've got a huge array of delivery servers, here as well as in other people's organisations."
The ABC now uses two third-party providers — Akamai and Hostworks — to manage peak flow and provide the content distribution network for the broadcasters' different media channels. It also uses peering with Pipe Networks and AARNet.
Preston says that using third-party providers allows the broadcaster to have the flexibility to adapt to peak flows. So all ABC has to do for one-off peak-flow events such as the annual Triple J Hottest 100 or the recent advance streaming of the season return of Dr Who on iView is rely on its providers.
"Akamai has an automatic scaling service, so it just scales automatically when demand grows, that's basically why organisations use [content delivery networks], to effectively remove the risk from here out to there. I don't want to have to put 100 web servers in and the biggest pipes in the world to be able to deal with the once in 12 months story that may come along."
While these arrangements help on ABC's end, the broadcaster also needs to worry about how much users are shelling out for bandwidth to access the iView service. Uncapping partnerships with internet service providers like iiNet, while tenuous, allow both parties to benefit, with users spared from costly excess data charges as the ISPs waive download costs on the ABC's iView site.
"One of the things that's stopping people using rich media, is download caps and expensive data plans. There would be much more use of rich media if we didn't have the capping arrangements or if the caps were more generous," Preston said. "With Australian content going to Australian audiences, it's already been funded by the taxpayer, they shouldn't be paying a second time to download it."
With Australian content going to Australian audiences, it's already been funded by the taxpayer, they shouldn't be paying a second time to download it.
Craig Preston, ABC
Of the current agreement with iiNet, which is said to be considering metering of iView downloads again, Preston said the ISP hasn't notified the broadcaster yet, but that the ABC obviously hopes to increase, rather than lose partnership uncapping agreements.
"They haven't notified us, we're in a wait-and-see situation at the moment. We're hoping to continue our relationship with iiNet delivering unmetered content via one path or another," he said. "We would like all ISPs to unmeter our content so we can deliver our content free, that's why we're using a variety of hosting services, because it does allow the ISPs who are unmetering to be able to differentiate our content."
With higher internet speeds needed to serve rich content, it's no wonder the ABC looks upon the Labor Government's National Broadband Network plans favourably. Preston said increasing speeds will allow ABC to develop more content specifically for its online channels, and may assist in making mobile media less costly for consumers.
"We view the NBN as a great opportunity. We've got the digital content," he said, "[but] to provide services like that, we require more than anything for the user to have a fast, reliable connection to the internet."
"The user needs to have at least a connection that will do a genuine 1.5Mbps. Our iView product is a high-end broadband product only and that's only 750Kbps of streaming, we're looking at going up to a higher rate, maybe 1.5Mbps in the future, but that's obviously going to have to be done in consideration of what affect that's going to have on the end user."
Yet streaming to a PC in the home is not the only way the ABC aims to have its content accessed. It is also using new platforms, with iPhone apps for its different services and an iPad app ready to go when the device is finally released in Australia.
"We're hoping to get it [iView] onto as many of the new devices that will support it as we possibly can," Preston says, "We see delivery to handheld devices as a really important challenge at the moment. Anything which makes it more expensive for the user to use the content is an issue for us; it's an issue for anyone who's hoping to serve rich content onto these devices."