Sunday, June 17, 2012

TSN Streaming Headaches

For those of you who don't avidly follow sports like I do, soccer fans and much of Europe are fully in the grips of the 2nd largest international soccer tournament in the world. Every 4 years this tournament showcases some of Europe's greatest soccer talent playing for their countries honour, and the major networks in Canada take turns broadcasting these games (really they fight and bid for the rights to show them, but that's a whole other issue), along with the World Cup. This year, Bell Media (a massive entertainment conglomerate) has bought the rights to showing the tournament, using their sports networks (TSN and TSN2) to show the games.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I do not like the idea of having cable in order to watch television exactly when it is scheduled, it is very inconvenient in modern society and with the many shows I like to watch, many of which occur on many different channels in different world centres, making it very difficult and expensive to watch what I would like to watch through conventional cable or satellite television. However, one of the huge benefits of a cable TV subscription is live sporting events, which I miss out on when they do come about. It is possible to find streams sometimes to watch these games live, and two years ago the World Cup was actually streamed live by CBC, which was a fantastic watching experience, with great stream quality and no charge or need for subscription. You were able to click and watch any game as long as it was currently on or had finished. Navigation through the video was difficult, but if you wanted to watch from where you started or watch it live, you could with very little issue, and the feed was a very high quality one if you had enough bandwidth.

This brings us to this year. After testing out streaming technologies for the last few years, companies have begun to have enough faith in the system to begin charging for it. I decided that since I would be home or close to home for most of June (when the tournament is played) it would be worth it to me to subscribe. The cost, while high at 19.99 for the 20 day tournament, isn't a completely ludicrous amount, and it even allows for multiple streams from the same account, which was a nice surprise. However, there is a small matter which has been bothering me in watching the tournament, which is completely independent of other paid services. 

To put it simply, the issue is that the internet, especially when it's live, is not yet a perfect service. It is by no means beyond reproach, and comes with absolutely no guarantees on speed or connectivity (or at least none which are 100% guaranteed which are not incredibly expensive). With that in mind, it becomes trivial for a company to offer a streaming service, and to charge for it, but to get away with lapses in service which would make service providers in other areas (like television or phone services) have people banging on their doors, and would make class action suits against these companies commonplace.

Everyone on the planet who has ever sat at a computer has encountered the issue of buffering. This issue arises when some form of content is being presented to you (be it audio or video), and the content is played before the entirety of is has actually arrived at your computer. It is very common (although less so these days) because internet speeds have only recently become fast and reliable enough to actually carry this content as fast as it can be played. This issue is nearly unavoidable unless you pay for much more internet than you need (which is actually something I've been doing for the better part of two years now). The issue I would like to finally get to today has nothing to do with any sort of buffering issue though, and I am in a unique position to be able to confirm that in this case there is actually a problem with the content provider (Bell Media) and not with any settings I have control over, regardless of payment I can provide. 

Currently I am in between internet providers, so I have available in my apartment a VDSL (Bell's Fibe Internet at 25mbps down and 10mbps up with an incredible ping time of around 7-10 ms and 125GB download cap expandable at 25GB @ $5 rate) and a cable internet package (TekSavvy's Extreme Cable package at 28mpbs down and 1mpbs up, with a slower and less reliable 100-200 ms ping, though with an unlimited download cap) and my roommate and I had one game going on each of these services, with wired internet on each. Streaming these games was a huge pain, because our service would reset itself about every 3-5 minutes for the course of the whole game. Normally, one would attribute this to the internet connection dropping off a little, but in this case our results show pretty definitively that this is a problem with Bell Media and TSN, and not our internet.

When the connections would drop every 3-5 minutes, we found that both games would drop at exactly the same time in almost all (>95% of cases). This implies that Bell Media does not have enough bandwidth to be able to confidently stream these games to all of its subscribers, and with that being the case, they really have no right to be charging for this service as being reliable, at least not while sleeping soundly at night. Streaming services will be better eventually, but until that is the case, while these companies are testing out streaming interfaces and bandwidth requirements for different load levels on these streams, they should not be charging premiums on the services. It is a money grab that feels very cheap as these CEOs and board members pad the lining of their pockets with the hard earned money I am giving them to watch soccer without interruption and to surf the internet without having to deal with any buffering.

You can call me petty and suggest I should stop complaining, but I am trying to live in the future, and things like this are preventing that from happening. 

Until next time,
Robert

Also, I'm considering opening up Google+ hangouts in the time directly after these blog posts, let me know what you think about that idea in the comments, or drop me a line about anything really, I'm happy to chat.