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BitTorrent’s New Streaming TV Service Has 1 Unique Feature, But Will It Be Enough?

May 18, 2016, 5:05 PM UTC
Courtesy of BitTorrent

Sometimes it seems as though everyone is launching some kind of streaming, cable-style TV service. Apple and YouTube are both said to be working on one—although there are reasons to be skeptical—and Hulu apparently has one coming soon. Sony has Playstation Vue, and Dish Network offers SlingTV. Now BitTorrent has one too, called BitTorrent Live.

BitTorrent’s new service is launching with only a handful of little known or niche channels, including FightBox and Heroes TV. But Erik Schwartz, vice president of media at BitTorrent, says the company is in discussions with other providers about licensing their content, including a number of mainstream TV networks.

“We are talking to pretty much everyone,” Schwartz said in an email. The BitTorrent executive added that the service launched with a limited roster of channels because it wanted to start with a free tier. Future versions will carry a subscription fee, and Schwartz says BitTorrent intends to be competitive with SlingTV and other services. Live is launching on Apple TV with iOS and Android versions expected later this year.

What’s unique about BitTorrent’s service isn’t the content. It’s the delivery method. While most of its competitors use the normal process for digital broadcasting with central servers distributing programs to end users via content-delivery networks such as Akamai, BitTorrent’s service is based on the peer-to-peer technology it pioneered in 2001.

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Peer-to-peer means that everyone who is downloading or streaming a file or program is also simultaneously uploading that file or program to anyone else using the service. That structure has helped BitTorrent become one of the most successful content-delivery systems in history to the point where it accounts for an estimated 5% of all the traffic on the Internet—more than iTunes and Facebook.

A huge proportion of this traffic, however, consists of illegally copied movies, TV shows, software, and other content. That has made it difficult for BitTorrent to break into traditional media markets in the past. Even though the company itself doesn’t host any copyright-infringing content, it is seen by some as enabling that kind of behavior.

At the same time, the fact that BitTorrent powers a massive file-sharing network is exactly what allows it to offer a more legitimate service like Live. The same qualities that make a peer-to-peer network difficult for copyright owners to shut down are what make it a robust method of content distribution. All BitTorrent founder Bram Cohen had to do was re-work the system so that it allowed for less “latency” or lag for streaming.

The company has been working on using its peer-to-peer technology for streaming video for some time. At one point, it offered BitTorrent Live via a website dedicated to streaming video, but later shut the site down after it failed to get traction with users. The company tested a mobile version of the same idea earlier this year by broadcasting live coverage of the election on Apple TV via an app called OTT (for Over the Top) News.

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As more and more media companies focus on live video—in part because Facebook is promoting that kind of content—BitTorrent is no doubt hoping that the unique nature of its network will attract the interest of content producers. But is having a robust delivery system going to be enough to make it stand out from the crowd?

Whether you are a niche channel like Heroes TV or you’re CBS, all you really want from a streaming cable-style service is an attractive licensing deal and the knowledge that your content is going to reach as many people as possible. Can BitTorrent offer that? Can it offer more than someone like SlingTV or the rumored YouTube service might be able to offer? That’s not clear, but it is starting from way back in the pack.

All users are really looking for from such a service is access the channels and content that they want. Whether BitTorrent Live can come up with enough deals that allow it to do that is very much an open question. If it doesn’t have the content, having the most robust delivery system in the world isn’t going to be much help.