Half of Canadians want TV, video phone calling on their PCs

We want our PC TV. But do we have the infrastructure to deliver it?

According to a survey of 1,030 adults by Ipsos Reid in April, half of Canadians want to watch television over the Internet. The survey was commissioned by cable and Internet provider Rogers Communications Inc.

“That number was very high compared to what we were expecting,” said researcher Max Valiquette. He points to the high profile of Apple’s online services, file-sharing, on-demand services and personal video recorders as possible influences that have made online TV the most popular near-future technology among Canadians.

“Maybe that’s where the appetite is coming from,” he said.

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Among other technologies that could be a reality within the next year, video phone calling was also high on the list, with 49 per cent expressing an interest. “That, as a researcher, is a tipping point,” Valiquette said. From the days of Dick Tracy and the Jetsons, the video phone call has been emblematic of the future, Valiquette said. And though cheap Web cams have been available for years, ease-of-use has improved – many laptops and desktops now ship with an integrated camera. “Anything that’s plug-n-play makes it more palatable,” Valiquette said.

It also drives it across demographics – it’s not just the younger, tech-savvy types who want the technology. “They’re activities everyone does,” Valiquette said – it’s simply a question of doing them online rather than offline.

The increase in use of existing technology has been incremental over the last year. Eighty-nine per cent of those surveyed communicated with friends and family online through e-mail, instant messaging and social networking sites, up from 85 per cent.

“It’s very quickly becoming the way people want to communicate,” Valiquette said.

Online shopping and bill-paying reached 65 per cent (up from 62 and 59 per cent, respectively). Downloading and streaming music and video, playing online games and managing photos online all saw small increases.

But it’s the soon-to-be technologies which are going to crowd the Internet infrastructure. Valiquette believes the carriers providing that infrastructure will respond with more investment. “There’s a lot of demand,” he said. “Business tends to go where the demand is.”

Business had better. At an e-forum in London earlier in April, an AT&T executive said the Internet will be tapped out in terms of capacity by 2010 if there isn’t substantial new investment, CNet News reported. In three years time, said Jim Cicconi, the company’s vice-president of legislative affairs, 20 typical households will generate more traffic than the entire Internet today.

Cicconi said there’s another $55 billion in infrastructure investment needed in the U.S. alone, and $130 billion worldwide.

“I’m not going to question AT&T’s estimate,” said Andy Woyzbun, lead analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. In fact, other studies have put the worldwide figure closer to $300 billion. “Those are big numbers,” Woyzbun said, and it’s not clear where all that money is going to come from.

Most of that growth will come from the consumer side — the aforementioned demand for music and video. Business traffic has to compete with that. The question is, according to Woyzbun: Are the ISPs prepared to start charging through the nose for that volume of traffic, while making Web surfing, e-mail and the like affordable?

“Ultimately, it’s going to have to come down to economics,” Woyzbun said.

One option that rarely gets mentioned is segregation of networks, Woyzbun said. It’s manifesting itself in research circles. It’s the way the Internet started before it was co-opted by commercial interests.

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“The question is whether we can continue to use the same network for recreational purposes and business traffic,” Woyzbun said.

But segregation can’t be accomplished by 2010 or 2011, and despite carriers’ continuing investment in infrastructure, something is going to have to give. And that leads down the road to prioritizing traffic by type, and the accompanying quagmire of the Net Neutrality debate. Woyzbun is of two minds on the issue: Philosophically, abandoning Net Neutrality means business interests dictate what traffic gets priority. “On the other hand,” Woyzbun said, “there’s finite capacity.”