What is IPTV and How It Works

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Curious about how digital video streams are generated and replicated across the web and around the world? Want to know what IPTV is and how it works? Confused about the ethical dilemmas surrounding IPTV technologies?

If the answer any of the above questions was yes, then keep reading. By the end of this article, you’ll know:

  • What IPTV means
  • The three main types of legal IPTV services
  • The main challenges IPTV providers face
  • How and why people pirate IPTV streams
  • What IPTV gadgets do
  • Where IPV technology is headed



Defining IPTV

IPTV stands for Internet Protocol Television. Like it’s name suggests, IPTV is a catch-all umbrella term that covers all of the different ways that you can watch TV via the internet.

What’s an Internet Protocol?

Protocols are the virtual rivers through which information flows on the internet. They provide the passageways that enable units of data called “packets” to get from one part of the web to another.

Over the years, many different specialized protocols have evolved to meet IPTV needs. There are two main categories of protocols used in IPTV today: unicast and multicast.

  • Unicast. Video on Demand (VoD) services like Netflix rely on unicast IPTV protocols. Unicast is simple, flexible and doesn’t require special network hardware. Anyone that can connect to the web can watch unicast streams. On the other hand, unicast consumes lots of server bandwidth– that’s why unicast is not ideal for live broadcasts and large audiences.
  • Multicast. New multicast protocols provide an effecient means for transmitting live channels and sports events to mass audiences. With multicast, companies can send HD quality TV channel streams out to very large groups of customers. There is, however, a catch. Multicast doesn’t run well on ordinary network appliances. Special multicast compatible IPTV network equipment is required for multicast to work effectively.

Three types of IPTV

There are three main types of IPTV today: VoD, simulcasting and catch-up.

VoD (Video on Demand)

Video on Demand systems allow users to select and watch video content at a time of their choosing. Because VoD enables viewers to “binge watch” through entire TV show seasons, VoD has already had a tremendous impact on the way that TV shows are produced and consumed.

With over 100 million subscribers, Netflix is one of the most popular VoD services in the world. Source: WikipediaSome VoD services (like Netflix, for example) charge monthly subscription fees. In exchange for subscribing, customers get access to the entire site and can watch whatever they want, whenever they desire. Other VoD providers offer the option to buy either limited or permanent access to individual titles.


With VoD, you have to wait a while for new content to show up online after it airs. But with simulcasting, you can watch new content live. Sports fans like simulcasting because watching a recording of a game the next day is not nearly as exciting as watching the action happen in real time. TV fans like simulcasting too because it allows them to tune in with everyone else to watch new episodes unfold.

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HBO has recently started simulcasting some of its most popular shows to the web. Source: Wikimedia commons

HBO Now started out as a VoD only OTT (Over the Top) standalone IPTV service, but new simulcasting options have given its subscribers the ability to watch some episodes live.


Catch-up IPTV is basically a limited version of VoD. With catch-up, you can access videos for free for a limited amount of time. After the time window has elapsed, you can no longer access the content and it becomes unavailable. Catch-up limitations ease server and bandwidth burdens, allowing platforms to offer discounted or free streaming services.

BBC shows are available via BBC iPlayer for up to a week after they air. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The BBC’s iPlayer is a good example of a catch-up style IPTV service. If you miss a program, you can use the iPlayer to watch a recording of it for up to a week after the original broadcast.

IPTV Challenges, Strategies and Workflows

Now that you’re familiar with IPTV basics, let’s take a deeper look at some of the challenges that IPTV providers face and the strategies they are using to overcome them.

Managing bandwidth and licensing issues

In order to run a proper VoD service, providers need to manage their resources wisely. As mentioned above, VoD relies on unicast protocols. Unicast requires every viewer to create a direct connection to the server. The problem is that many simultaneous unicast connections can place a great deal of stress on the system.

Popular subscription-based VoD providers like Netflix have vast resources and can offer fast, reliable, round-the-clock VoD service to their customers. However, it’s interesting tha the free BBC iPlayer offers only time limited “catch up” IPTV. BBC iPlayer’s 1 week limit on content availability likely reduces their streaming audience down to a manageable level while also offering the side benefit of making their licensing deals more valuable.

Prepping content

Before it can be broadcast, IPTV content must be processed and formatted appropriately. If the footage is analog, it must be converted to digital. Once the footage converted, it then need to be compressed. If the streaming platform allows users to switch between multiple different quality levels, several different types of streams must be generated. After all that work is complete, the finished product can then be uploaded to the server.

Broadcasting live feeds

To meet the need for high quality video feeds of live events, IPTV providers have developed high speed CDNs (Content Delivery Networks). CDNs are optimized for multicasting and are equipped with a range of high-end, multicast compatible network appliances. CDNs can make on-the-fly copies of the video packets contained in IPTV feeds. The amplified bandwidth provided by CDNs gives IPTV services the ability to deliver high quality, lagless video streams of live events.

Minimizing piracy

One of the most pressing problems facing IPTV broadcasters is digital piracy. According to a recent study published by the International Chamber of Commerce, the value of all pirated music, movie and software content in 2015 added up to $213 billion. Digital video copyright holders have tried using force, litigation, scare tactics and persuasion to stop the spread of piracy, but the consensus seems to be that these efforts have had only a small effect. Licensing frustrations, expensive cable TV plans and the ease of grabbing free content from the web are some of the biggest factors contributing to IPTV piracy growth.

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IPTV Piracy

IPTV pirates use many techniques to distribute unauthorized streams, including websites, apps, add-ons, “fully loaded” boxes and even subscription-based services.

Unauthorized websites

“Black hat” VoD sites reel in money by attaching ads to the unlicensed content that they make available for free on the web. Many of these sites are difficult to shut down because they are based in countries that either are not equipped (or are not willing) to enforce them.

Pirates who pirate other pirates

Another form of IPTV piracy involves grabbing unlicensed streams from pirate websites and redistributing them via other platforms. Pirates who “re-plunder” content (let’s call them “meta-pirates”) rely on software that strips the ads out of pirated feeds and pipes the video content into other platforms. Some meta-pirates use modified versions of the open source media player called Kodi to gather and deliver feeds. Other meta-pirates prefer to use custom-made Android apps instead.

“Fully loaded” IPTV Boxes

A third layer of IPTV privacy involves the sale of so-called “fully loaded” set-top boxes. Purveyors of this form of piracy first buy cheap Android set-top boxes in bulk. Then, they install programs (usually black market Android apps or modified versions of the Kodi media player) that can pull in and process unlicensed IPTV streams. Lastly, they sell the final product on eBay, Amazon and other retail sites.

  • Because pirates who sell fully-loaded boxes depend on piracy software that they typically don’t create themselves, this group could be described in the following way: pirates who pirate the pirates that pirate pirates.

Illegal subscription-based live IPTV services

Yet another category of IPTV piracy involves the sale of access to live TV feeds. Pirated live TV platforms are tempting because they are usually cheaper than legitimate live TV platforms. For example, the legitimate live IPTV platform NFL Game Pass costs $99 per year – but most pirated live sports platforms are much less expensive. The quality and stability of the feeds, however, are typically not as good.

IPTV Gadgets

The rise of IPTV has created a strong demand for IPTV gadgets. Set-top boxes and dongles make it easy to pipe IPTV through your computer and into your living room TV set.

Set-top boxes

STBs (Set-top boxes) are specialized standalone computers that translate IPTV streams into TV-ready signals. STBs aren’t as powerful as ordinary computers. However, they are quite fast because they are designed to do one thing and one thing only: convert IPTV streams into TV-ready signals. Apple TV, nVidia Shield and Roku Premiere are 3 of the most popular lines of set-top box devices.


The Future of IPTV

Even though IPTV has already come a long way since 1995, it still has plenty of room to improve and develop. Here’s a quick look at what IPTV will be like in a few years if IPTV technology continues its current trajectory.

More interactivity

Many IPTV platforms already allow a degree of interactivity. For example, YouTube allows viewers to leave comments, upvote/downvote and subscribe. But future IPTV programs may allow the audience to participate and interact in totally new ways.

For example, the producers of Days of Our Lives are already working on a new interactive soap opera.

“We’ll be building viewer communities around our shows and allow our viewers to suggest show locations, casting, storyline directions and more.” – NetSoapsTV.com website

If NetSoapsTV is any indication of what’s next for IPTV, totally new types of interactive shows could be right around the corner. News programs and talk shows could also benefit from the introduction of interactive elements.

Cheaper, faster delivery systems

A new communication concept called IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) provides a framework for integrating VoD, email, phone, web and SMS messaging services into a single integrated network. Because IMS is complicated, buggy and requires expensive hardware to implement, we’ll likely have to wait several more years for IMS to come to fruition. But once IMS matures, communication providers will no longer need to setup parallel infrastructures to deliver services and will be able to offer better, faster and cheaper subscription plans.

Ads that you’ll actually want to watch

What if Hulu truly understood your particular unique sense of humor, fashion style and point of view on life? If an IPTV platform had the right info, it could deliver interesting and useful ads between programming segments that you might actually want to watch. It’s not hard to imagine that one day, we’ll actually look forward to seeing ads appear during breaks in our binge watching sessions. IPTV and other interactive technologies may soon enable television commercials to evolve and become smart, useful, funny and truly entertaining.


IPTV is an umbrella term that describes all the ways that video is delivered over the internet. IPTV providers have developed 3 main types of IPTV systems: VoD, simulcasting and catch-up. Additionally, they’ve worked out several effective strategies for overcoming the various inherent challenges posed by the difficult task of distributing video streams to mass audiences. Among the chief hurdles for IPTV is piracy, which is eating into the profits of all the major IPTV providers. If IPTV technology continues to develop at its current rate, the coming years are likely to see an increase in the use of IPTV gadgets as well as even cheaper and more interactive IPTV services and innovations.

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