The way we acquire, manage, distribute and consume home entertainment services is undergoing a revolutionary change as catalogues of content from the world’s major production houses are offered by subscription.

Once reliable and robust next-generation broadband beds in across the region, music and movie lovers will be offered far more control over their home entertainment options than they’ve ever had before.

Audio subscription services have been available in the UK and the US for a number of years, while New Zealanders were kept out of that loop and limited to paying per song for legitimate downloads from on-line music sites.

Jason Lake, Krome Technologies

Earlier this year European RDIO service, US-based MOG, JBNow and Anubis from Australia, Spotify and a couple of others went live after signing off royalties and rights issues with music licensing organisation PPNZ and the Recording Industry Association (RIANZ).

Local subscribers can now create personalised playlists from over 15 million songs, then stream these over the internet in high quality to PCs, notebooks, tablet computers, home networks, smartphones or hi-fi systems.

Spotify, launched in May, offers its vast catalogue of oldies, goldies, jazz, blues, pop, soul, country, rap or classical for free, with advertising. Or without advertising, it’s $7.50 a month or $13 for a full service including downloads.

Music on demand

You just key in artist name, song or album title to pick and choose, and you can change your playlist as often as you like. An app for Android phones allows Spotify users to save up to 3,000 songs which can then be replayed through headphones, the car stereo or other system.

In many ways these services complement streaming digital radio which enables listeners to ‘tune in’ to tens of thousands of stations around the world by selecting a country, style, city and service.

Subscriber-based content has been a real boom to Jason Lake, the Onekawa-based distributor of Sonos networked digital sound systems, which can distribute, play and easily control multiple streams of music, radio or podcasts to different rooms in a house or business.

Lake’s company Krome Technologies picked up distributorship for Sonos seven years ago, but it only gained strong traction in the past year. Many older people were uncomfortable downloading or format shifting to creating their own digital music libraries and perceptions were clouded by the lower-quality compressed audio on most portable devices.

As they’ve become more comfortable with mobile technology and aware of the higher quality Sonos is able to deliver, acceptance has now reached a tipping point and demand for the units has taken off around the country.

“This is about freedom of music; you are no longer confined to listening to what you own within the walls of your home. I can walk in and use my phone to choose whatever I want to listen to from around the world within seconds,” says Lake, who relocated his company from Auckland a couple of years ago to be closer to his wife’s family.

Fingertip control

Sonos is geared for hard-wired home data networks and has its own proprietary wireless network, which can support up to 32 zones, delivering radio or music streams that can be separately controlled by a laptop or mobile device.

An entry level unit with speakers and inbuilt amplifier sells for $629; a bridge for your internet router to give wireless capability costs a little extra. A new unit is required for each additional zone.
Lake reckons his office uses subscription music or radio about 40 hours a month, clocking up around 10GB or 2.4GB a week. With most broadband accounts now having 40GB caps or higher, he reckons that’s not such a big deal anymore.

Some see streaming as the writing on the wall for CDs with major global production companies, including Sony, shutting down production plants or planning to scale back their output.

CD retail stores have certainly had to compete on price or diversify to counteract the pressure from download and streaming services. The closing of Marbecks in Napier, which tried to bring some life to the old Sounds outlet by adding DVDs, is evidence of the street level struggle.

“Everything is going to go online,” says Lake. “Why would you go into town to a music store, dig through the shelves to find a CD for $19-$29 and then discover you only like three or four tracks which you can download when you want.”

Movies and TV online

Both CDs and DVDs are facing serious challenges as the content once contained in both shiny platters is increasingly liberated online. On-demand TV services from TV1, TV2, TV3, TV4 and now Igloo TV, along with personal video recorders (PVRs) like MySky and TiVo and MyFreeview, are rapidly changing people’s viewing habits.

Streaming movies and pay-per-view services are giving viewers more control and choice and the move to Internet-enabled TV sets will ultimately provide the fatal combo that puts DVDs on notice.

Already Quickflix has made pay-per-view available on some Internet TV sets as well as launching an Apple app for iPhone and iPad so subscribers can view blockbuster movies and TV on request through its WatchNow service.

Some DVD distributors are delivering movies to the door at no charge to add value to their services but with broadband caps increasing or disappearing and streaming providing serious competition, physical rental outlets will have to diversify or die.

The challenge is to ensure the internet delivery infrastructure is robust enough to handle what’s rapidly coming our way. Attempts to deliver relatively heavy duty internet services to a critical mass of homes will quickly show up any inadequacies in the network.

A standard definition hour and a half movie might use up 1.2GB which in the bad old days of not so long ago, when data caps peaked at 5-10GB, was a real issue. On a 50GB plan you could watch a movie a couple of movies a week and stream all the music you liked and still have capacity to spare.

Quality not quantity

But at a certain point the issue is not one of quantity but quality, and if the user experience is not an enjoyable one, or content starts to break up or falter, that’s bad for everyone’s business.

A typical broadband connection should be faster the closer you are to the local telephone exchange. Under new generation DSL connections some fortunate folk in Hawke’s Bay already get 10Mbit/sec plus and the hype is already gearing us for light speed connections once fibre to the home rolls out.

However, the reality for some parts of the Bay is that aging copper telephone lines, or perhaps ‘tromboning’ – the fact that some ‘local’ internet connections pass through Auckland before doubling back to your home connection – hobble speeds down to 2-3Mbit/sec.

Heavy traffic, whether it’s streaming, surfing or downloads, can also create congestion if everyone in a street, for example, is active at the same time and the network struggles to share the load.

There’s no doubt zero-rated (no cost for data) streaming music and movie services will soon join subsidised devices as part of the loyalty lure from mobile and fixed-line phone companies, TV and internet providers to sign you up on a long-term plan.

While interest builds in the broadband digital lifestyle, the challenge is on network infrastructure and service providers to ensure that cable, delivery technology and pricing models meet expectations, and not just in the CBDs and wealthier suburbs.

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