And Now InDirecTV

The lack of a broadband pipe and the subsequent inability to offer video on demand is the proverbial glass jaw of John Malone’s satellite broadcasting service, DirecTV. While the broadband dilemma is likely to continue for a while, DirecTV has come up with a workaround for the VOD problem. Given that the company has been talking about this for nearly two-and-a-half years, don’t blame me for being skeptical. Skepticism or not, it’s a kludgy workaround.

DirecTV is going to stream videos over broadband pipes to its set-top box; the videos will then be shown on the television set. They will also send pre-selected video content, mostly popular movies and TV shows from the satellite, and store it on the hard disk inside the set-top box.

The problem is that streaming via the web is an inexact science that, at best, will deliver a patchy performance. If the streams are going to match the HD-quality videos that satellite customers are accustomed to, then that broadband pipe is going to be filling up pretty fast. Forget Network Neutrality. Imagine how ticked off you’ll be when your home email access slows to a crawl because someone’s watching “America’s Next Top Model.”

DirecTV and other such satellite TV services are extremely popular in areas where cable access is hard to come by, which means they’re also the kind of locales where broadband access (of any kind) has its own set of problems. As analyst Bruce Leichtman told The Wall Street Journal:

“If I have to wait 40 minutes to watch an episode of ‘The Sopranos,’ that is not really on-demand… That takes away from the impulsive nature of on-demand and loses a large purpose of the service…People are possessive of their DVR space and don’t really want stuff pushed on them.”

The whole thing has a déjà vu feeling to it. Check out these reports from 2005, 2006 and 2007, all of which pretty much say the same thing. There’s nothing about what DirecTV is doing to convince me that it’ll work this time around.

Still, wanting to give folks from DirecTV a chance to state their side of the story, I emailed them yesterday (now over 30 hours ago) hoping to get some clarifications as to how the system would work. Among the questions I asked were what bandwidth requirements the stream had, what the bare minimum speed requirement was and if the video playback was going to be instantaneous. I also asked about the technologies they were using for both broadband and satellite delivery of the content, and how much space on the disk drives they plan to carve up for the downloaded content. So far, no reply!

Their lack of response is telling: What they have is a beta that has been almost three years in the making and whether it will work on a large scale remains to be seen. I wouldn’t hold my breath!