Disclaimer: This article is based purely on speculation and not on any inside information. Also our bloodsucking lawyers made me say this.
After roughly 6 years as part of the AT&T family, AT&T has decided to spin DIRECTV, AT&T TV, and U-Verse off as a separate company. The new company will be 70% owned by AT&T itself and 30% owned by a new player, TPG Capital. The deal is expected to close by the end of 2021.
This opens up all sorts of speculation about what’s in store for the new company. The more pessimistic folks say that there’s nothing that can be done to stop the inevitable demise of pay television. The enthusiast community has weighed in with their list of very specific needs. The average person probably doesn’t have an opinion at all. Here’s one bit of speculation that I think is very important moving forward.
First thing you need to know
The first and most important thing is that there probably won’t be any change at all to AT&T’s video services until the deal closes. There probably won’t be much news at all. When the deal finally does close, expect announcements, but they will still take some time to become reality. I do think once we get toward the summer of ’22, though, some very interesting things could happen
A DIRECTV app for streaming boxes?
Practically since the beginning of the streaming era, DIRECTV fans have asked for a streaming app. Other services have them, and that’s only added to the frustration. Of course cable companies can deliver this sort of thing fairly easily because they also control the internet connection to the home. The path for DIRECTV has been a little more roundabout.
When we talk about a streaming client for DIRECTV, there are going to be challenges we need to be aware of. It’s these challenges that have stopped a DIRECTV streaming app from becoming reality.
Videoguard is AT&T’s vaunted “unbreakable” content encryption system. Videoguard has been part of DIRECTV receivers since the earliest days and it’s the reason that content providers have felt comfortable with the service.
Videoguard creates a virtually unhackable data stream. If you were to pull the hard drive out of a DIRECTV DVR, you wouldn’t be able to access the recordings because they’re encrypted with Videoguard.
The “company line” for over a decade is that installing Videoguard encryption on an open device like a computer or streamer would make it less secure and potentially make it hackable. I have no doubt this is true. However, in the late ’00s, DIRECTV had a free product called DIRECTV2PC which gave the ability to watch recorded programs on a connected PC. It worked extraordinarily well considering the older technology it had to work with.
2. Home network performance
The reason DIRECTV2PC worked so well for enthusiasts is that they had spent a lot of time building great home networks. On the other hand, most people use a single Wi-Fi router with varying results. Even today, it’s possible that streaming from a DVR to a streaming device could have problems.
In the last decade, when DIRECTV allowed connections to RVU-enabled TVs without a receiver, they still required a coaxial connection. The TVs themselves wouldn’t connect to a DIRECTV server over Wi-Fi. This is due to DIRECTV engineers feeling like they couldn’t guarantee a quality experience without that coax cable.
The real heart of this is that DIRECTV client boxes don’t buffer. They present the video and audio in real time, so the stream always has to be healthy. Compare this with the streaming experience where there’s always some buffering, so that a small drop in the bitrate isn’t noticed. More advanced streaming services also offer multiple streams at different bitrates so that if there’s a longer disruption, you can still watch something.
Two ways it could actually work
It seems to me that AT&T/DIRECTV engineers could own up to the fact that hardware and internet speeds are much improved from the mid-2000s when they started saying how hard it would be to stream. Not only that, but content protection like HDCP 2.2 is good enough for virtually every provider on the planet. Videoguard is probably better but does it matter? If someone wants to pirate — and who even bothers, with all the streaming options — they can just choose a service like Spectrum which makes it easier.
Given that, here are two ways that a streaming box app from AT&T could actually work:
1. Smart switching between in-home and out-of-home streaming
Obviously AT&T already operates a live streaming service. If you had a DIRECTV streaming app, it could just choose the same programming that AT&T TV uses. This could be true whether you’re watching live programming or even something recorded. There would only be a need to go to the DVR if the program wasn’t available on a server.
2. Just buffer. Just… buffer.
There’s enough memory in streaming boxes to allow for some buffering. In the case of live TV, just establish a 5-second buffer. This would mean live TV was 5 seconds behind on the streamer but would people really care?
In the case of recorded TV, the program could be buffered intelligently, the same way that Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Disney+ and virtually everyone else does it. This is not new technology and should be easy to do.
What it’s going to take to get us there
Really this is a matter of return-on-investment at this point. The technology is there. There just needs to be an agreement to make this a priority, and I think that it is. I think that the reliance on client boxes costs a lot of money on an ongoing basis, and not having a streaming box app has to be hurting market share. I think that this is an excellent opportunity to start building that app. Customers want it and it can’t be that hard at this point.