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TVCatchup: Behind the scenes at the video-streaming service

We spoke to TVCatchup's co-founder Adam Smith to find out more about the video-streaming service. He explained how it works, its mobile plans and what we can expect from its upcoming PVR

David Gilson
David Gilson has always revelled in tech and started writing about it in 2009. He covers the smartphone world and is rather partial to a spot of BASH scripting. David is a freelance writer and is not an employee of CNET.
David Gilson
6 min read

TVCatchup is a free video-streaming Web service that allows you to watch up to 50 Freeview and freesat channels, live on your computer or iPhone. An easy substitute for Freeview if you live in an aerial blind-spot, in January 1 million viewers a week streamed an eye-watering total of 2 petabytes of live TV over TVCatchup.

We spoke to TVCatchup's co-founder Adam Smith to find out more. He explained how the service works, which platforms TVCatchup will be embedded on, and what we can expect from its exciting upcoming PVR service.

Is it true that TVCatchup's PVR service is returning?

"Yes, this is the most requested item we have on our Web site -- we get hundreds and hundreds of emails saying 'when can I record again?' because this takes us back to the roots of the Web site in 2006, when it was possible to record. We've worked very hard, both on the technology and on the [legal] clearance side of things. We now have a solution that works both ways. It will allow users to have a record button within the Web player itself, with the recordings being made to the computer or device they're using at that time."

"You will be able to pause, fast-forward, rewind -- as long as you've got a bit of a buffer in there -- and also record. If you have sufficient bandwidth, you'll be able to record and switch to another channel. Then with regards to scheduling stuff in advance, you'll be able to do it on the EPG that's on the Web site. Also, if you're out and about and your computer is on, you'll be able to schedule a recording via our iPhone application as well."

What's the recommended connection speed for watching TVCatchup?

"In order to watch TVCatchup you'd need to have a minimum connection speed of, we say 1Mbps, but we've got people that are on 800kpbs that can still watch at high quality on their 32-inch TV. So you'd have to have very poor connectivity not to be able to use TVCatchup."

Will locally stored content be encrypted?

"Whether or not we add DRM is the issue of contention right now. There's nothing forcing us to do that, but we may do that just so that we don't we don't annoy too many people. But at the moment, as it works right now, once the recording is made, it can either can either be played back in the Web player, which just reads the data from the computer using Adobe Air, or they can play that back in any software, or transfer that to any other device. Because once the recording is completed it's theirs, we don't have any control over it any more.

"One thing that we've been fixed on from the start is that we wouldn't implement anything unless it was cross-platform. So it definitely wouldn't be any form of Windows DRM. There are a few solutions that have been put forward already. Not mainstream solutions, but ones that nevertheless work. But we've been delayed for about a year trying to get this one solved."

Will TVCatchup be offering subscription channels like TopUpTV?

"Yes, that is definitely in the cards for 2010. It is not the channels that are on TopUpTV. We're putting together packages now that would be more akin to rivalling what Sky have on Sky Player.

"It just goes to show, last year we had a lot of trouble with certain broadcasters muscling in, and we sat down and got all that ironed out, from then the free-to-air platform has been a massive success. Now either those same broadcasters, or similar broadcasters who just do subscriptions, are now approaching us to say, 'You've got a lot of traffic on this Web site, maybe a subscription model would work, you've proved us wrong, we said it wouldn't work, clearly you're massive. Now it's time to talk.'

"We've got about eight channels that would be possible for us to put into a subscription package, it's really just up to us to decide if that's the direction we want to go in."

What do you have in place to meet data-transfer demands, and how do you see this increasing over 2010?

"We own our entire infrastructure, the data centres and data network. Our current network capacity is 50 gigabytes per second. In all, we can support up to 70,000 simultaneous viewers, 24/7. Our current maximum is just under 40,000 simultaneous, so we have ample capacity. We intended to grow our UK network through 2010 to 150GBps."

How do you take the over-the-air signals and send them to your servers?

"We have five capturing facilities spread out across the UK, each with six satellites. This ensures we have acceptable reception at all times. Signals are captured live and fed to our processing centre in Manchester. There, our custom software automatically detects which signal is the best one to use, passing the final selection to one of two encoding facilities, both in London. All of this is done in real time.

"If one signal deteriorates or goes dark, another will be selected without any impact to the data flow -- so there's no picture outage as long as we have one of the 30 satellites up. The reason we chose five sites was because they're located in the areas that the television broadcasts cross over. So say for example, at our site in Kent we can capture all of the surrounding counties."

Will TVCatchup be offering local TV stations?

"That is something we are definitely looking at doing this year, and it's one of the reasons we've branched out to have these five capturing stations."

Will it be possible to offer local stations based on GPS co-ordinates in your iPhone app?

"That is one thing that will be coming out this year."

Will you be providing an application for any other mobile platform?

"It was a originally our intention to keep TVCatchup available on everything, but we have been offered some very good partnership opportunities with some very large manufacturers. So we'll probably be releasing on maybe two platforms other than iPhone. But I can't currently say what those two are. But they will be out, hopefully, by summer."

Are there plans for TVCatchup to be embedded on any other types of platform?

"Yeah, we've got a couple of things that are not yet agreed, but are definitely in the discussion stage. We've got a large electronics manufacturer that has a Blu-ray player which allows YouTube videos to be viewed if the device has an Internet connection. We're talking with them -- we're after having TVCatchup shipped with their latest models, or on firmware updates."

"The other big thing we've got is third-party media centres, like Boxee and XBMC, those sort of platforms. We're now at the stage where we have enough traffic to suit our purposes, and we're happy for developers to come to us and include TVCatchup streams within their products and applications. So all of those free media centres will shortly be able to play TV streams as well."

"We've given them access to our API, so they can do their own plug-ins. The only constraint we put on them is that it has to carry the TVCatchup branding and colours. Other than that, they're very much free to build what they can. In some cases, what they've come up with is better than the player and Web site we have. It's very good, it gets everyone involved."

Image credit: William Hook, Flickr via CC.