Updated: Jan 9, 2020
Over the past few decades, the media we consume has been revolutionized time and time again:
Not so long ago, the only form of media available was the radio. Soon after that, strangers started inviting themselves into our living room and talking to us through our TV sets, to which we responded by recognizing them as a welcome addition to our family.
(Interesting fact: when the TV became ubiquitous among American audiences, it had such a strong effect that it altered the direction of a presidential election).
Today, thanks to the internet, we live in the information age, where anything you could ever want to know is only a few keystrokes away. What’s more, you have access to more types of media than any generation before you:
If you want to watch a movie, you can go to Netflix; if you want to read the latest news, you can access an RSS reader such as Feedly to aggregate news articles from all of your favorite news outlets; and if you want to listen to music, you have many streaming services to choose from. And, none of this is to mention social media and how it has changed the media landscape.
With that said, the internet has also brought about another new form of media consumption, and many are wondering whether it is legal: IPTV. Throughout this article, we will look at what IPTV exactly is, how it works, and whether it is legal or not.
The basics: What is IPTV?
IPTV is an acronym for “internet protocol television.” Interestingly, IPTV uses the same exact protocols that your web browser uses, meaning that IPTV relies on an IP address and accesses a network similar to that of the internet to bring you television programming.
Wait, what is the difference between IPTV and normal TV?
Alright, so at this point, you might be asking yourself what makes IPTV different than your normal, everyday TV.
Well, for starters, there is a difference in how the content is delivered to you. With regards to regular TV, be it cable or satellite, the content is sent out as signals, and your TV, or an attached device, receives said signals and interprets them for your viewing pleasure. However, IPTV works differently. You see, rather than depending on light pulses transmitted through optic fibers or on radio waves being sent via a satellite, IPTV sends the content your way through data packets that are delivered through a private network.
Not only is the technology surrounding IPTV more advanced than normal TV technology, but the required network architecture is also complicated, and it includes transcoding from traditional signals to data packets that are IP-friendly. But, you don’t need to delve into any of that unless you want to understand IPTV on a technical level.
Another difference is that when it comes to regular TV, you can only watch what is being broadcast right now, and unless you have TiVo, you will always be at the mercy of your content provider, forced to watch whatever they want you to watch.
Alternatively, there are many different formats of IPTV (something we will get into shortly), and the most popular is Video on Demand, which is shortened as VOD. With VOD, you get to choose what you want to watch and when to watch it, giving you way more control over your viewing experience.
Oh, so Netflix and Hulu are considered IPTV?
Well… Not exactly.
You see, even though Netflix and Hulu do send video content via the internet, they are not strictly speaking IPTV. Rather, they are defined as OTT, which stands for “over-the-top.”
OTT and IPTV are different, and we need to be able to distinguish them from each other:
1. IPTV and OTT work in completely different ways:
To begin with, OTT, in its simplest form is about delivering media content over the internet. Ergo, not only are Netflix and Hulu prime examples, but Youtube and Vimeo also count as OTT.
At this point, you should feel that OTT and IPTV are one and the same, but herein lies the main difference:
OTT is distributed without being controlled by a certain internet service provider, otherwise known as ISP, or a multiple system operator, shortened as MSO. Put differently, no ISP gets a say in nor are they responsible for the content that gets produced and distributed via OTT transmissions.
Because of this, an ISP’s sole responsibility with regards to OTT is transferring the data packets over the internet from point A to point B, nothing more. The flip-side of this coin is that as far as the ISP is concerned, data packets for a movie are treated exactly the same as data packets for an e-mail. Due to this, the quality of the content you receive via OTT is mainly defined by your internet connection.
As for IPTV, things are a bit different. Although IPTV uses the internet protocol, the content itself is transferred over a private network provided by the ISP and dedicated to the IPTV in question, and the packets never go through the public internet. In other words, the ISP becomes responsible for what is being broadcast and can control it as they see fit.
Seeing as IPTV is transferred over a specifically dedicated infrastructure, the ISP can ensure a higher quality of video content. After all, the data packets themselves are treated differently, and IPTV is controlled by standardized metrics.
Owing to the fact that OTT and IPTV work differently, the ensuing business models and content produced are bound to differ. For instance, while OTT relies on content aggregators and user-generated content, IPTV broadcasts content that is more curated and with higher production value.
At this point, if you feel that this is confusing and your head is spinning, the only thing you need to remember is this:
OTT is content that is delivered over the public internet.
IPTV is content that is delivered over a private network but uses the same technology of the internet.
2. The equipment required is different:
Another key difference, which will come into play later, is that OTT only requires an internet connection and a laptop, whereas IPTV requires more specialized equipment. (What this specialized equipment is will be discussed later.)
3. Both OTT and IPTV share a few similarities:
Aside from being broadcast using IP technology, OTT and IPTV have plenty of similarities, the most prominent of which is that they both share the same formats: VOD, time-shifted medium, and live TV. That being said, when talking about the formats of IPTV, we will mention some OTT content providers as well to make it easier for you to understand the format we are talking about.
What are the formats of IPTV?
Generally speaking, IPTV can come in one of three flavors: Video on Demand, Time-shifted media, and Live IPTV.
• Video on Demand:
As the name suggests, Video on Demand is all about getting the content you want when you want it. One prime example of this that you are probably very familiar with is movie-streaming sites, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. (These are all OTT content providers, but you get the picture)
What’s more, so long as the content you want to watch is owned by your streaming service, you can demand to watch it, regardless of how old it is. Even though this may seem obvious, it stands in stark contrast to the next type of IPTV.
• Time-shifted media:
This type of IPTV is very similar to “catch-up TV,” where you can watch shows that you might have missed earlier. However, unlike VOD, the content won’t be available indefinitely; instead, you have a specific window of time when you can watch the content.
Once this time has elapsed, the content will be removed from the broadcaster’s selection. What this means for you is that you can’t rewatch a show that aired a couple of years ago. In short, the main difference between VOD and time-shifted media is the shelf-life of the content.
With that said, one of the best examples of this format is BBC’s iPlayer.
• Live IPTV:
This format is probably the most similar to ordinary broadcast TV. In other words, live IPTV lets you watch shows live, which is ideal if you want to enjoy a certain sports event as it is happening. In fact, if you subscribe to a live IPTV channel, you can watch the game on your phone while you’re on the go.
Aside from coming to you via the internet instead of cable or satellite, live IPTV is more or less the same as ordinary TV.
Some excellent live TV channels you can check out are Sling TV, Hulu Live Tv, FOX Sports Go, and CBS Sports HQ.
If you look through the internet, you might find more types of IPTV service, but odds are anything you’ll find will be derivative of the three types above. For instance, here are two more types you might come across:
• Near Video on Demand:
This is a pay-per-view service. The idea is that there is a specific broadcasting schedule which viewers can look at and choose to watch the content that interests them the most. This model is ideal for multiple users, all of whom would be subscribed to the same service.
However, this type of IPTV service is almost a mixture between the live TV model and video on demand.
• TV on Demand:
Rather than having to watch specific programming, you can watch a particular channel online. However, unlike ordinary TV, you can watch the channel whenever suits you at whatever point in the channel’s programming.
It’s basically VOD; even its acronym is TVOD. The only difference is in what the viewer can demand to watch.
Ok, so what is the current state of IPTV?
Even though the viewer base for IPTV is still quite small when compared to more conventional forms of media such as TV, it has been growing over the past few years, it. This growth has been fueled by the rapid expansion of content providers:
On the one hand, they produce enough new, original shows on an annual basis enough to satisfy the most diehard binge watcher out there. On the other hand, they are always looking for existing properties to buy and possibly expand on.
However, as you can tell, the most prominent type of IPTV is video on demand. But, both time-shifted media and live IPTV have yet to garner the same popularity as their more mature sibling.
That being said, time-shifted media has been getting more popular recently, especially since it is an adequate substitute for TiVo but doesn’t require as much setup. Consequently, people have been downloading the FOX, CBS, and NBC apps and watching shows they missed earlier.
As for live IPTV, there are several players that are showing up and gaining traction, including NOW TV, TVPlayer, and Epic stream. Nevertheless, they are all still far from becoming mainstream, particularly when you compare them to VOD.
Moreover, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that sports seem to be live IPTV’s most popular type of content to broadcast.
After all, for a true sports fan, nothing can replace the experience of watching their favorite team play live. As a result, several content providers offer subscription sports packages.
As for whether the rest of TV will follow and join live IPTV remains to be seen.
Before we move on, we should talk about one more interesting trend that is affecting the current landscape of IPTV: Several services are appearing that enable their users to create and produce their own VOD and live-streaming services.
So, if you feel that you have a certain talent that you’d like to share with the world, or if you feel that you are pretty knowledgeable about a certain topic, you can start your own channel and share that part of you with the rest of the world.
All you have to do is find a service provider who has the bandwidth and server capacity you need. After that, once you sign up to one of their plans, you can begin uploading your content and having it distributed through their distribution channels.
And, what does the future hold for IPTV?
Well, that question is a bit harder to answer. In fact, no one knows for sure the current number of IPTV users, let alone the future number. One factor that confounds any attempt to get a grasp on the matter is the sheer number of providers, and not all the providers use the same format.
Moreover, there is a lot of pirated content going around, which is something that we’ll talk more about when we are exploring the legality of IPTV.
That being said, here are a few rough numbers that can help us make educated guesses about the future of this technology:
• The official number of IPTV subscribers all over the globe is more than 130million.
• The end of 2015 saw the introduction of more than six million subscribers.
• China is a big player in this field. In the last quarter of 2015, China was responsible for introducing more than 3.7 million new subscribers to IPTV. What’s more, the fastest growing market is in Asia, and it is also the biggest.
• To drive the above point home, from a numbers standpoint, Europe and Asia have the largest numbers of subscribers. Nevertheless, from a service revenues standpoint, Europe and North America enjoy the lion’s share. This is because Chinese and Indian subscribers generate very little average revenue per user (ARPU for short) in comparison to countries on the western side of the globe.
So, based on the above information, you might be wondering what the experts have to say: • For one thing, IPTV is bound to become more popular. As a matter of fact, Grand View Research issued a report where they asserted that, by 2025, the IPTV market should be worth around $117 billion. If you want to have a frame of reference, the IPTV market was around $38.21 billion in 2016.
This growth is expected to come from two sources: Firstly, increased user demand is bound to drive revenues. Secondly, better networks will make IPTV more accessible to more people.
• If you want to know what other market research firms had to say, here is a quick look.
Zion Market Research published a paper where it stated that the IPTV market should enjoy a compound annual growth rate of 18.01 percent, making the entire market worth $93.59 billion by 2021. What’s interesting to note is that when that paper was published in 2015, the IPTV market was around $34.67 billion.
Another agency by the name of Transparency Market Research predicted that global revenues from IPTV should reach $79.38 billion by 2020. Even though this number seems less optimistic when compared to the other two research firms, it still remains impressive when we take into consideration that the entire IPTV market was valued at $24.94 billion, meaning that the market would have had to experience 18.1 percent compound annual growth rate to achieve Transparency’s prediction.
What’s worth pointing out here is that despite there being some minute differences, all these research firms agreed that IPTV is bound to grow aggressively over the next few years.
• As a direct consequence of this aggressive growth, cable TV will have to cede a large portion of market share. In fact, how ordinary TV will fare in the long run in the face of the stiff competition brought on by OTT and IPTV is anyone’s guess.
• Given that IPTV allows users to create their own channels, this means that we shouldn’t only expect growth from the demand side of things, but the supply side is expected to boom as well. And, with more variety and offerings available, people won’t be limited to what broadcasters have to show them.
• The main competition IPTV is expected to face is from OTT media. Hence, it will become a matter of viewers having to weigh between two considerations: the freedom of the internet vs. the high-quality videos of ISPs. Therefore, a big determinant of how IPTV fares in the future will depend on whether communications providers will be able to provide a better user experience than what OTT has to offer.
This is all good and well, but why are some people asking the question: Is IPTV legal?
From everything you’ve read so far, nothing has given you a reason to believe that IPTV might be illegal. After all, everything seems to be above board, and the services provided are delivered by legitimate companies. Where’s the problem? To answer that question, we need to take a quick detour first and answer another question we skipped earlier.
The equipment required for IPTV:
When discussing the differences between IPTV and OTT, we mentioned that IPTV requires special equipment to function. Now, we are going to look at what that equipment exactly is.
In a nutshell, users need three pieces of equipment to enjoy IPTV:
1. A set top box:
Upon subscribing to a particular service, a viewer is given a set top box, shortened as STB, by their service provider. The STB is the equipment responsible for decoding and decrypting the TV and VOD streams coming to it through the private network.
It should be noted that set top boxes come in many shapes and sizes, from actual boxes you place next to your TV to little sticks you can just plug in. The bottom line that an STB is integral for your TV to be able to interpret the signal it is receiving from your service provider.
2. A router:
In order to be able to receive any content, you need to connect your set top box to the private network through the use of a router. Once connected, the STB will be able to send in requests and demands to the central servers.
3. A display terminal:
Simply put, you need a TV to be able to enjoy the IPTV programming delivered to you.
According to this set up, there are a few things you should notice. First of all, the set top box is the main mode of communication the viewer has with their service provider: The STB is sort of like the receiver used for satellite TV, a necessary tool for the viewer to be able to surf the channels.
Second of all, seeing as the set top box is given to you by your service provider, it comes preprogrammed and ready to have you tune in to your favorite channels after you set up your router.
Third of all, if you want to enjoy IPTV but don’t want the hassle of a set top box, you can use your computer instead. The thing is that your computer can decode the packets it receives over the internet, allowing you to watch your favorite programming on IPTV. But, your TV isn’t capable of performing the same feat, explaining the need for the set top box.
Why all this emphasis on the set top box?
The problem is that some developers choose to tamper with the set top box, alter the internal programming, and allow the owner of said box to access premium and pay per view content for free. As a result, owners of manipulated set top boxes are able to skirt the obligation of paying a hefty fee in order to watch this premium content. Without getting into too much detail, the developers alter the devices and install piracy configured addons that enable viewers to watch content they’re not supposed, hence breaching several copyright laws. This type of watching experience is dubbed as an “illegal stream,” and if your device allows you to watch content for free whereas you should be paying for this content, then your device is probably illegal.
Hold on a second, this all sounds familiar:
If all this seems familiar to you, you have probably heard of adapted Kodi boxes. Kodi was an app that came out a few years ago in order to enable streaming on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. What’s more, “Kodi boxes” were developed, which an internet TV box that is compatible with the Kodi app (sort of like the set top box used with IPTV). The problem here is that a few developers managed to crack Kodi boxes, and it wasn’t long before Kodi boxes were being sold fully loaded with apps that enable pirating of premium content. It is at this point of the story that the authorities decided to intervene and arrest anyone who sold loaded Kodi boxes. Similarly, IPTV is nothing more than a program installed on a box. Cracked by developers, this program can now be used to access content illegally. With all of this said, it has to be pointed out that Kodi boxes were always legal; it was how they were adapted and manipulated that made them infamous.
So, what about IPTV? Is IPTV legal?
As you may have guessed by now, IPTV is completely legal unless the set top box has been tampered with to enable pirating. Yet, things aren’t that simple.
You see, when it came to Kodi boxes, the box was loaded with apps, and all consumers had to do was pay a one-time fee to enjoy unlimited access to countless channels.
However, with IPTV, several illicit service providers will charge their users a monthly or annual fee to enjoy premium content for much less than what they would have paid under normal circumstances. Yet, because the user is paying a regular subscription fee, some users might feel that this is legal.
The truth is it is not.
So long as your IPTV box has third-party add-ons that allow you to access content illegally, the box itself is illegal and the vendor who sold it to you is definitely on the wrong side of the law.
Speaking of which, what does the law have to say about any of this?
The law is always slow to catch up to the technology of the day, but an instructive lesson can be learned if we look at what happened with Kodi boxes.
Trying to block the streaming:
Entities that owned the rights to the content produced as well as the original service providers- think Premier League and Sky TV- worked tirelessly to curtail the illegal addons that were being placed on Kodi boxes.
What’s more, the EU came out with a ruling, declaring that anyone streaming pirated video content is committing an offense. In fact, it was the Court of Justice of the European Union that affirmed that “the temporary reproduction of a copyright-protected work, obtained without the consent of the copyright holder, is NOT exempt from the “right of reproduction”.
This ruling by the EU gave the service providers more impetus to fight against individuals pirating their content. What’s more, many of those providers, again such as Sky and Premier League, leveraged their substantial capital to aid in this fight.
To highlight how this struggle has been evolving over the past few years, we can look at the Premier League and how it has been keen on cracking down on Kodi related pirating. In July of 2018, the Premier League was able to have an injunction renewed by the High Court, which allowed them to block any games that were streaming live in the United Kingdom.
Additionally, UK internet service providers were required to enforce this blocking of streams in real time. Today, individuals in the UK are expected to follow the official guidelines concerning streaming devices, which was issued more than a year ago by the UK government. Additionally, illegal streaming is becoming harder with each passing days as a result of the bans and blocks that are being set up every day.
Attacking the source and trying to arrest the vendors of modified Kodi boxes:
As mentioned earlier, vendors selling modified Kodi boxes were arrested in an attempt to curb the supply side of the equation. Obviously, not all vendors faced the same fate, but you get the general picture.
Is that it? Are there no more Kodi boxes to speak of?
What you may be surprised to learn that recent investigations have found that pre-loaded Kodi boxes are still pretty easy to come by despite the internet’s best efforts: Large online players, including Amazon, Facebook, and eBay, have prohibited the sale of “fully loaded” boxes through their platforms.
Vendors have been able to find clever ways to circumvent the bans. For example, simply misspelling the names of the product or even the content providers can allow a vendor to place the modified boxes among the platforms’ listings. Consequently, you shouldn’t be surprised if you come across an “eyepeetv” box that will enable you to watch “Sly” for free. In return, Facebook has decided to go one step further and ban any device that has Kodi installed on it, regardless of whether said device is clean or comes with piracy-configured addons.
Back to IPTV, how much trouble would one theoretically get into if they were to stream content using an illegal set top box?
Before anything, you should know that streaming content illegally is a prosecutable offense. But, whereas vendors in the United Kingdom have been raided and arrested, no one has been put in handcuffs for streaming movies illegally so far; as strange as that may seem, it is probably due to how widespread end users are for copyright owners and service providers to come after them.
Regardless of how wide the user base might seem, just because there haven’t been any arrests till now doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in the future. You see, most providers who odder illegal IPTV accept the monthly subscription payment via PayPal, which is an easily traceable payment method. Over and above, many of these service providers rely on home-based servers to send their users the illegal streams; again, this is easily traceable.
Hence, seeing as illicit service providers lack the necessary protection and security to keep their users anonymous, these users are always at risk of being found out, arrested, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
For the time being, however, internet service providers are required by the law to not only identify illegal online activity but to also try to stop it. What’s more, there is already plenty of technology in place to detect illegal streaming.
So, what would happen if your ISP caught you streaming video content illegally?
In such a hypothetical scenario, the first time your ISP catches you, they’ll send you a written warning where they will ask you to “cease and desist” from any and all illegal behavior.
Now, let’s say that you choose not to take your ISP seriously and continue your illegal streaming activities. In this scenario, if your ISP catches you again, they will be well within their rights to withdraw their internet services. Additionally, they may choose to report you to the authorities, leading eventually to your prosecution.
Are there any other problems one might run into aside from the legal?
Like other illegal parts of the web, accessing illicit streaming services leaves you open to being hacked or to having malware being installed on your device.
Another risk is that users who pay for illegal streaming services have no way to guarantee neither the quality of the video content nor the fact that they will get the content in the first place. After all, this is obviously one of those cases where no contract is enforceable, no matter how ironclad it might seem.
We started off by introducing the concept of IPTV and explaining how IPTV differs from both regular TV and OTT media. Subsequently, we looked into the three main formats of IPTV: Video on Demand, time-shifted TV, and Live TV. Once we were fully acquainted with this new form of media, we looked into its current situation and explored where it might be headed in the future. We saw that the IPTV market has been growing over that past few years and is expected to continue to grow in the near future.
After that, we delved into the legality of IPTV. We realized that IPTV is completely legal, but modifying the set top box to infringe on others’ copyrights is illegal. With this distinction in mind, we went on to better understand where the law stood from illegal boxes as well as what the ramifications would be for someone caught streaming illegally.
Finally, there are a few questions we have yet to answer: How will the proliferation of IPTV in the future affect our media consumption? Will it make the law take an even harder approach towards illegal streamers? Or will illegal streamers eventually win, causing IPTV service providers to rethink their business model? What about OTT, will it outcompete IPTV, or will the two share the market together?
These are all questions that neither I nor anyone else has the answers to at the moment, but they are fun to think of.