What is IPTV?

Internet protocol television (IPTV) is a way of watching digital TV using the internet instead of a satellite or cable platform. Here we explore how IPTV works, what you need to run it and the choices you have for watching your favourite shows.

Internet protocol television (IPTV) is a way of watching digital TV using the internet instead of a satellite or cable platform. Here we explore how IPTV works, what you need to run it and the choices you have for watching your favourite shows.

Written by
Sajni Shah
Utilities comparison expert
2 JUNE 2021
5 min read
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How does IPTV work?

There are three ways to access digital TV in the UK: IPTV (internet protocol television), fibre-optic cable or satellite, which is transmitted using radio waves.

If you’re using cable or satellite, you can only watch the programming as it’s broadcast. IPTV does something different. It stores a wide range of films and TV programmes on secure servers, which you can then access via an internet connection.

You can still watch live TV, but IPTV also allows you to choose the shows you want to see at a time that suits you, streaming or downloading them from the server on demand. And you can do this using any device with internet access, like smartphones, tablets and Smart TVs.

How do I get IPTV? 

First, you need to sign up to a service. However, IPTV is often included as part of your broadband package. It’s bundled up with a set-top box which is connected to your wireless router. This box decodes and decrypts the video as it arrives over the internet in what are known as video packets, which make transmission easier. 

It then uses broadband to deliver the content at high speeds to your TV – and the faster your connection the better. This helps avoid issues like low-quality images or frustrating buffering, which happens when video is not delivered fast enough to keep up with the viewing rate. 

An alternative to having a set-top box is to connect your computer to your TV using wireless mirroring. This is where your laptop, tablet or mobile screen is wirelessly projected onto your TV screen. It’s easy to set up on most high-definition TV’s (HDTVs). 

Your computer doesn’t need any external devices to watch IPTV once you’ve signed up for a service.

What are the IPTV services available in the UK? 

As part of your IPTV agreement, you may have access to the following services: 

  • Video on demand (VOD): This gives you instant access to a menu of movies and TV series. Netflix and Amazon Prime are examples of VOD services. 
  • Catch-up TV (also known as time-shifting media): This is pretty much the same as VOD, except programmes are only available for a limited time – think BBC’s iPlayer. You can also pause, fast forward and rewind programmes. Some set-top boxes allow you to record too. 
  • Live IPTV streaming: Often used for big sporting events or concerts, this is essentially the same as any live broadcast, but with the video transmitted via the internet rather than satellite.

What are the benefits of IPTV?

IPTV has a number of advantages:

  • Personalise your TV schedule: Pick and choose what you watch and when you watch it
  • Catch your favourite shows on the go: Access content wherever you have an internet connection, using your smartphone, tablet or laptop
  • Price: IPTV services are often competitively priced or bundled with your broadband package
  • Flexibility: In many instances, you won’t have to commit to a contract and some providers allow you to cancel whenever you want – but always read the small print

What are the downsides of IPTV? 

IPTV needs a high-speed internet connection: The speed of your broadband connection can have an impact on the quality of the images you see on screen. This is impacted by the provider you choose, the time of day and your location. 

If there’s congestion on the line you may notice the video becoming pixelated. However, distortion can also happen when you first start watching, as your device won’t have had time to build up a buffer of high-quality data from the IPTV server. 

A standard ADSL line with a maximum speed of 11 megabits per second (Mbps) will only be able to handle one or two devices watching IPTV services in standard definition at the same time. 

If you’ve got a lot of people using the service at once, or you want great video quality, you’ll need a speed of at least 25-30Mbps, although broadcasts with 4K resolution may require 40Mbps or more.  

Find out about the best broadband for streaming and if you’re not sure what broadband speeds mean in real terms, read our article broadband speed explained

If you think you need a better connection to the one you already have, you can compare broadband deals here. 

Less regulation: The communications regulator Ofcom is responsible for most of the broadcast TV channels you watch on TV. Those channels need to follow its rules. For example, by sticking to the 9pm watershed - which restricts the kind of TV broadcast while younger family members are still up and about. 

IPTV channels may not have to comply with these rules if they originally came from outside the UK or the European Union. Because of that, parents and guardians will need to play a more active role in safeguarding children from unsuitable content on IPTV.

What to think about if you want to get IPTV 

In addition to the quality of your existing broadband connection speed, you need to consider: 

  • The cost of installation: Remember, premium IPTV packages may waive the installation fee, like those from BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media
  • The cost of the set-top box: Although you can get this as part of a broadband bundle, boxes and plug-ins are also available to buy separately. The Amazon Fire TV Stick, for example, plugs directly into your TV, while other models connect via an HDMI cable. Prices for set-top boxes and devices range from around £30 to hundreds of pounds, depending on how sophisticated you need yours to be. 
  • Perks of the package: What else is included in the broadband bundle? By comparing packages you can get a feel for what the competition is offering. 
  • Flexibility of subscription: How easy is it to leave or change your service? If you need a level of flexibility, don’t tie yourself down to a lengthy contract with a hefty cancellation fee. 

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