Is Internet Streaming Killing Sport?
By Simon Bailey.
This week I watched the Arsenal match on my PC courtesy of a stream provided by an unknown person in an unknown location in the world. The reason for this is twofold; Firstly it was a 3pm kick off and no UK TV channel is allowed to show 3pm Saturday matches. This is to encourage UK residents to go out and support local teams in lower leagues that almost always play at that time. Secondly, Setanta Ireland, who always show a 3pm Saturday match, were showing the Chelsea – Villa match.
As I live in Ireland, I have the choice of Sky, ESPN and Setanta. If you live in the US you may have the choice of FSC or Setanta, and the same applies in most countries in the world. Most countries have a sports channel or two that shows EPL matches, but the UK and Ireland seem to have the best selection of matches to view.
Apart from the Internet of course. Every Arsenal fan in the UK who saw the match at home this weekend did it via the Internet. The website I use had a choice of 20 different providers in at least half a dozen languages. The higher the profile of the match, the more providers there are, so being Arsenal fans we tend to get a good choice, when we played United at home earlier in the season there were at least 40 providers.
To be able to take your pick of these streams you generally need a windows PC, a decent broadband connection and a few third party pieces of software installed. Many streams are available as media player offerings in an internet explorer web page, but as the seasoned stream watcher will know, these are generally of an awful quality in terms of picture and continuity. To view the best streams you need some or all of Sopcast, TVU, TVAnts, StreamTorrent, and Veetle. There are others but their interfaces are generally in Chinese and therefore unintelligible (to me anyway).
All of the above have their pros and cons. For instance you can’t change your screen ratio in most of them, and they are all susceptible to interference from heavy usage. But the pros outweigh the cons for two reasons: they are universally available and free. For those of us not willing to rely on MOTD for unbiased reportage of our teams match, they are indispensable.
Before the General Election takes place in a few weeks in the UK, the government are trying to push through the Digital Millennium bill into statute. As well as dealing with noble issues such as broadband coverage, this bill has been hijacked by private businesses which are unwilling to embrace the medium of digital distribution and prefer to bury their collective heads in the sand. They are trying to ensure that the law makes it possible for internet subscribers to lose their connections on production of evidence that at best is collected in a truly flawed manner, and at worst is not supported by facts at all.
It is all about Intellectual Property and Copyright. They equate every ten downloads of a song or movie as one lost sale, and have claimed that the music and movie companies are losing money hand over fist. This despite the fact that research has showed that people who download stuff for free are the biggest cash spenders on legitimate media.
They have also failed miserably to take into account the fact that 20 years ago there was only tapes, records and videos which the consumer could spend their money on. Now we have the aforementioned as well as PC games, Console games, Mobile Phone Apps, Legitimate digital downloads, and all the hardware required to use these items. Add to this the fact that business has never been better for record and film companies.
When the bill is passed, there will be an ability for these private companies effectively to censor the internet. Indeed there is a provision snuck away in the small print that allows changes to this legislation to be made on the hoof, without prior debate in any government institution.
One of the more disturbing consequences of this legislation will be the upsurge in legal firms such as ACS Law. Their business model is to approach American porn distributors and purchase the UK internet rights to their products. Using a modified torrent client, they then harvest IP addresses of people who are actively uploading/downloading these films. They apply to a court for an order which entails ISPs handing over the names and addresses of the people involved. Their next step is to send out hundreds of Legal letters on a daily basis demanding that £300 odd quid is paid immediately to make them go away.
What has this to do with me watching footie streams you may ask. Well, if you are using one of the aforementioned pieces of software, your IP address is harvestable because, apart from veetle, they are all P2P applications. It won’t be long before the Premier league catch on to this and start sending letters.
The arguments for and against file sharing are complicated and I won’t go into them here. What I will say is that I download music which is non mainstream and generally unavailable to purchase anywhere. I also download various TV shows, a few movies and the odd piece of software. I watch the occasional Arsenal match on my PC. I take my family to the cinema once a month or so, I visit the UK a couple of times a year to see the Arsenal play, and I take my missus to see live music once or twice a year. Most of the TV shows and films are eventually broadcast on SKY within a year of their release.
So just as in the 80’s, we were told that home taping is killing music, is internet streaming of sporting events going to kill sports in 2010?
We are all too aware of how much money our club earns from TV revenue across the world. Is the unchecked proliferation of free internet streams going to affect this?
We have to go back to the music model here. If possible I always download music in the FLAC format. This is a format that unlike MP3 is lossless. There is no degradation of quality in the compression action. Indeed FLACs are often available at a higher bitrate than that which is currently available on CD. In general I hate MP3s and their scruffy quality, but if they are all that’s available then they will have to do until something better comes along.
When I watch a match on Sky or ESPN in HD the quality is outstanding. If I watch a match on Setanta or any other non HD channel it’s good. On Arsenal TV online the quality is passable but not great. If I am demoted to watching a stream the quality in comparison to any of the aforementioned is brutal. It’s even worse if I patch it to my big telly. In reality it’s only because I’m an addict that I even resort to the internet method.
A non HD match will generally take up 4 Gigabytes on a hard drive. An HD match can take up to 12 Gigabytes. If these files are converted for post match download via a torrent site, they can be successfully compressed to about 1 gigabyte with not much loss of quality. But with the technology currently available, converting a broadcast in real time on the fly into a 500kb/s stream, the size of the file would be around 350 Megabytes. This is 1/10th of the quality of a standard non HD transmission.
In the UK and Ireland we are seriously lacking in terms of broadband speed compared to many countries. I believe that in South Korea that Gigabit internet is the norm. Our governments are aiming to have 3Megabits as the minimum standard. But even if we all had super fast connections, the average bitstream rate of sports streams is around 500Kilobits, or half a meg. Unlike music or films which we can access over the internet at near perfect quality, these live streams are far from perfect and I can’t see the situation changing any time soon.
That is not to say that they will not use this as a stick with which to beat us. The Dutch league has successfully managed almost to clear the internet of live streams of their matches after taking various indexers to court. The EPL is active and does get some streams shut down but they do it on a match by match basis rather than having gained a court order.
There is of course another way that people can view transmissions without paying for them. In parts of Canada for instance it is commonplace for folks to travel to the US, buy satellite gear and then using hacked boxes or cards they view the US content for free. The codes for de-scrambling the signal are available via the internet, and the newer boxes will even download the codes they need automatically.
Sky doesn’t have this problem. They own the company that makes the encryption system, and they only license a few manufacturers to make the digi-boxes. That is why all Sky boxes look alike. Of course any satellite reciever will pick up Sky channels, but only the free ones. There are a few linux based recievers that with a lot of work can be made to de-scramble encrypted sky transmissions but this is such a niche market that its impact is very small indeed.
Those of us who subscribe to Sky et al are unlikely to cancel our subscriptions in favour of free internet streams because it just doesn’t match up in terms of quality. Just as most of us won’t go down the linux box route because it is so tricky and notoriously unreliable. We may cancel because of the recession or because the commentators and pundits do our heads in. Most of us will default to internet streams in the absence of anything better, but until really high quality live streams are available I believe that Sky and the EPL are fairly safe.
What I would like to see is the option of buying the sports packages plus a club package that will let us see every Arsenal match in HD. They have so many options available on the red button, surely this could be incorporated as well. It won’t stop the internet streams but it might derive more income for Sky, the EPL and therefore the clubs.
For those interested in this subject, www.torrentfreak.com has many intelligent articles which discuss these issues and more in much better detail than I have been able to here.
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