Streaming video to a taxi (or, maybe Slingboxes might be useful to me after all)

Ryan McIntyre wrote about watching TV from a taxi on the way to the airport. (Parenthetically, I’ll note that Dulles is possibly my least favorite airport. I grew up in Chicago, so O’Hare was the formative airport of my youth. Let’s face it, I have really low standards for airports. Dulles is just bad.)

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a Slingbox, though I haven’t felt the need to run out and buy one. My TV is captured with a MythTV system, so I have full access to the recordings I make with it. I can either get a full-resolution video stream right away, or transcode videos down to a reasonable size for transport (a process which looks more attractive after my recent upgrade). The choice that I make tends to depend on how much video I need; when I was traveling throughout Asia in 2005, I tended to wait for the 300 MB/hour video so I could carry a huge amount with me on the plane. If I just want something to occupy my train ride between home and the office, I’ll take the uncompressed version.

The dependence of the Slingbox on a network connection has kept it from being useful to me, since my travels involve lots of airplane time, where there is no wireless WAN coverage, or international destinations, where the data roaming charges are far too high to spend the money on video transfer. With this sort of a usage, though, I can understand why it might be cool to have one. Transcoding takes a bunch of CPU time before the compressed video is prepared. Generally, when I want to pick up the transcoded video, I’m traveling internationally, so it’s not particularly onerous to wait the couple of hours it takes to prepare. However, if I were to travel to places that have smaller time-zone shifts, I might want the video faster than I could get it transcoded down to a small size.

I’m not ready to race out and buy one. My international travels keep me firmly entrenched in the GSM world, where the mobile data rates are a bit lower than the systems that are widely deployed in the U.S., and in any case, the charge for a high-speed mobile data link would result in a monster roaming charge.

I wonder how much longer this type of application will be possible. Though they are easier to add users to, and far easier to be in motion while connected to, wireless networks can be harder to expand in terms of capacity. The temptation with any shared last-hop type network is to sell as many subscriptions as possible, and to figure out the minimum required service level by managing the subscriber churn rate. I doubt that very few people will drop the service over a data rate that “only” reaches 400 kbps and is useful for everything but streaming video.

Another note: this type of story is why I have spent much of my career as what I affectionately describe as a “network plumber.” If you build the pipes, people always figure out how to use them.

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