The announcement that FSC had sold the more attractive components of their premiership coverage to Setanta was a real disappointment to me ~ the news that the PPV package was also gone was even more of a blow. Although a member of the New York Supporters club, I live a good hundred miles north of the city, and rarely get down to watch games - so watching the games at home is often my only option. The attractiveness of the Dish package, my godsend in the 5 years I have lived outside of NYC, was certainly tarnished.
Looking at the agreement more closely, it was clear as day that the majority of the Liverpool games would now be on Setanta. Setanta would get the Saturday morning games - where we had regularly featured over the last few seasons - as well as the first pick of the saturday and sunday 3pm games. There didn't seem to be many options available - I wasn't going to go to DirectTV just to get Setanta - the cost and hassle of installing a new satellite dish just wasn't acceptable ~ especially since I'd have to buy a Sports package on top of that in order to get the Setanta channel. My thoughts on Setanta sports were also fairly ambivalent. Years of forking over cash to get to see live games in various pubs in New York, including the 11th street pub, have given me a poor opinion of their whole business model. It looked like a pretty gloomy situation.
The Tuesday before the first Saturday of the season, I checked the US TV coverage thread on the YNWA forum where IPTV (a dedicated streaming video service offered by a company called ITVN) was mentioned. There weren't any flashy announcements - all the info on the service appeared to come from a US based League blog. I had a look at the ITVN website - which seemed pretty sparse, but by the evening, after seeing that they could ship out the ITVN box before the opening game of the season, I had decided to take the plunge.
By Wednesday afternoon I was starting to regret my decision, I hadn't seen an email confirmation of my purchase with a tracking number and the more and more I was reading up on the Setanta site, the more nervous about the purchase I was becoming - especially as some confusion was drifting into my mind on whether the package carried the Setanta Broadband package, which didn't have the Premiership rights, or the Setanta Sports package, which did. Listening to the Interviews with the Setanta and ITVN Veeps on the EPLTalk site calmed me down on the identification of the supported channel. It did seem that Setanta Sports was being streamed. On the delivery issue, now only 3 days before the Sheffield United game I was a little more nervous. I was soon calling their customer support line to enquire about the delivery - Their customer support people were friendly and helpful and there was little or no wait to speak to their Tier 1 support staff - who are definitely casual and Californian rather than the terse script monkeys that I'm more used to dealing with these days when calling a customer support number. They quickly found my tracking number and asked me who my ISP was, pointing out that it was highly likely that the email might be in my spam folder. And there it was! Checking on the FedEx tracker, I could see that the box was due to be delivered by Friday at 4.30pm.
First thing on Friday morning, it arrived. The package was surprisingly light - weighing in at less than 3 pounds. Inside the package was the main set top control box, an Ethernet cable, a remote (with a rather amusing big red Panic button?) with two AAA batteries, a power adapter and a 6' Composite Video cable. The Composite Video cable was a surprise - particularly as the ITVN web site clearly indicated that of the three supported methods of interfacing with the box (Composite Cable, S-Video or Component) it was identified as the poorest quality option, as far as picture quality is concerned. The User Manual was a slim 13 pages - the only page with images being the last one, showing the remote and a guide to the back of the Set Top Box. After quickly flicking through the User Guide and looking at the components, I very quickly decided that the Ethernet cable had to be changed. I'd moved my web router up to the attic (our TV room) but it was still a good 12-15 ft away from the television - Placing the set-top-box to the left of the TV (a huge 65" HD monster - surrounded by DVD cabinets and the surround sound system, I'd need a 25' Ethernet cable or a wireless game adapter (a solution another member of the YNWA forum, NHE, was looking at).
Taking advantage of my lunch-time, I drove out to Best Buy and picked up the cable. As soon as my meetings were over for the day, I was setting up the box at home. Installation couldn't be simpler - plug your modem or router into the set top box and plug the composite cable into the back of the telly. When you switch the box on you are treated with three options:
The system prompts you to select 'Update ITVN' as soon as it loads which when selected goes and downloads a software update. It takes a couple of minutes to do that - and loads in the background - with an update bar slowly updating on the bottom of the screen. As soon as it finishes, the system reloads again and presents the same three options. Network settings just presents a single screen where you can choose a static IP and DNS - for the vast majority of users, the dynamic IP defaults should be sufficient. I didn't have to change mine at all.
Clicking on the Launch ITVN link takes you to the category/channel selection screen, which is a pretty sparse affair - buttons are on the screen for products that haven't launched yet, and the whole thing has a distinctly 'Coming soon' feel about it, with Setanta only having a Lacrosse Channel, an Adult channel and an Indie Film channel (pay per view for some reason) for company. There is a channel which comes with the package (MavTv channel) which looks like a infomercial dominated version of Spike TV. So, not much to attract the non-footy viewer. You won't be trading in your Dish or Cable account for ITVNs program lineup offering very soon.
I clicked through the options and selected the Setanta Sports channel. The selection was delayed for a second while the channel was buffered, and then I was taken into a Championship game - Wolves I think - first thing that surprised me was the quality of the picture - after spending a couple of years watching the horrible live coverage on the LFC eSeason package, I was pleasantly surprised. The picture is more pixilated that watching a comparable channel on Satellite, but the color quality and depth was really good, as was the audio. My second surprise was less pleasant - after about 6 secs of video, the image started to buffer again. 6 seconds after that the same thing - and on and on until I got a cannot connect to channel error a couple of minutes later. Not a good start, especially as I had upgraded to the 3000/768 DSL package with Verizon on the Wednesday morning - so I knew that I should have more than enough bandwidth. Looking at the manual didn't really offer any suggestions, apart from advising you if you have a firewall, to ensure that it allows for RTSPT streaming on port 554, whatever that means. So, I had to log into my Linksys Router to try a few things.
The first thing I was to forward the 554 port to the IP that the ITVN box was using. I went to the Applications and Gaming section of my Router console and tried some of the stuff I usually have to do for other applications. First, I went to the Port Range Forward section of the router software and forwarded the 554 port (TCP) to the dynamic IP that the ITVN box was using. I also tried a QoS on the MAC of the box (the ID of the hardware comes on a sticker on the packaging) and prioritizing the ethernet port on the Router that the box was connected to. Still no luck. The Support website provided little additional assistance - mostly repeating stuff in the User manual - the clearest information tends to be focused on setup rather than troubleshooting - some parts of the single page support info guide on the web only having bullet-points for sections, with no info associated with them. - which seems a little amateurish. Again, not comforting - giving you as a consumer the feel that you are dealing with a pretty thread-bare internet start-up. In desperation, after trying everything, including switching off VoIP devices and some of the other computers on my network, I gave ITVN another call. Again they were friendly, and the support rep escalated the issue and asked to call me back. Less than an hour later, as I continued to watch jerkyvision ruing my lack of research in purchasing a product that wasn't ready for prime time, their customer support called back and very quickly pointed me in the direction of the port triggering section of my Linksys router software. Adding port 554 as the forwarded/triggered port solved the issue. With the display button on the remote pressed, I could see the bandwidth by second number reaching the point where it started exceeding the video bits per second rate. Problem Solved.
So, for the rest of most of the early evening, I got to play with the product and started feeling much better about my purchase. The pretty generic remote comes with up and down buttons which controls the clarity of the image (and the bandwidth streamed to the box). The website references the fact that the image comes in at 300, 500 or 700 kbps, but by playing around with the Display button again to monitor performance for a period of an hour or so, I reckon that 500, 650 and 1000 are closer to the three levels, although the video numbers tend to bounce around. As a result, I wouldn't recommend the product if you have a DSL service offering less that a 1500kbps download, given that you'll only get a portion of that 'potential' bandwidth - you'll find the high bandwidth/clarity option pretty difficult to watch, and see plenty of buffering. To be honest, I didn't see a huge difference between each of the frame rate offerings, the image was watchable whatever the resolution, even on a 65" screen, if not the quality of a Satellite picture for the most part, although the warping of a players outline against the green field due to the image compression technology was a Little less noticeable on the higher bandwidth displays.
I left the device on for the evening before going out with my wife, in order to check whether I would see any more excessive buffering / can't find server errors on my return. NZ Rugby was on by the time I returned - no problems by the look of it. Watched the Rugby and the Aussie Rules stuff that followed it, playing with each resolution. I was seeing buffering every 10 or so minutes (for a second or 2) on the highest resolution, but the two lower resolutions didn't see any issues at all.
Saturday morning came around, and my optimism about the quality of the package was challenged a bit by a little bit of buffering two minutes into the game. After that, the presentation was slick, fast and fluid, certainly better than the action on the pitch, with the picture quality varying a little bit over the course of the game, but being a world away from the questionable 'quality' I've had to deal with watching this sort of stuff on the web in the past (legal or otherwise). Overall, I'm really happy with the package - it costs 14.95 a month and the hardware comes free - its about half the cost of my PPV package last year and looking through the fixture list already published, I reckon I'll see at least double the games, especially when the Champions League coverage is factored in. ESPN may have the pick of the games, but with their Mancs/Real Madrid fetish, I can see a lot of our games being shown on Setanta.
Recommendation: Got Cable? Can't/Won't get DirecTV? Then its a must buy. You'll probably feel like EchoStar customers back in the late 80s - being a pioneer with a new type of technology (and probably having a customer number in the 000s rather than the millions.) which is exciting or nerve-wracking depending on your disposition. But it is a good product, ready for prime time and a godsend for reds fans.
+ves: Real easy to set up. Decent picture even on the biggest of tellys. Excellent and friendly Customer Support team. Cheap and with plenty room for expansion as the technology matures. Can't see a reason ever to hit that big red panic button on the remote.
-ves: Written (paper and web) support leaves a lot to desire. Picture not quite the quality of Satellite/Cable, but close. Firmware needs updating - Sometimes see 'cannot connect' errors when adjusting the quality of the display - only takes a second to get back in though. Without the footy, the breadth of programming on the network is slim indeed. That 554 port setting will confuse the technophobes amongst you who have been brave enough to set up a home network, but their tech support will set you straight quickly. Finally, keep in mind, the more bandwidth you use, that less is available to the rest of your network connection - that might piss off the missus when you are watching the match and she is downstairs on the laptop in a heated last minute eBay bidding war for some god-awful outdoor furniture