Many Forks in the Video-Streaming River

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Cable network Internet video-streaming services face an array of technical decisions that relate to distribution, downloading and speed.

Despite growing local capacity for video-on-demand storage, networks are still relying on their content distribution network (CDN) providers, notably Akamai Technologies Inc., to handle video-streaming delivery. For now, the networks are opting not to cache their streaming content within the cable environment.

C-SPAN, for example, hosts about two-thirds of its content on its own server in offices near Capitol Hill. It also relies on Savvis Communications Corp. to store “some of long-term material,” according to Rob Kennedy, C-SPAN executive vice president and co-chief operating officer. “It’s an optimization issue.”

Some material “that gets tremendous usage over a short time” may need to be cached at a local level — “the edge of the network presence,” Kennedy adds. But he notes that “we’ve never gotten to the point that between Savvis and ourselves that we couldn’t offer good quality connections.”

DUELING FORMATS

The networks also are confronted with the continuing video-streaming battle between Microsoft’s Windows Media Player and Real Networks’ Real Player and, to a lesser degree, Apple’s QuickTime. Widespread deployment of Macromedia’s Flash function provides another tool for video distribution. For example, Discovery Interactive Media primarily uses Flash for its preferred progressive downloading.

Since Flash is in such widespread use throughout the Internet, this approach allows users to view streaming content without having to download and install a particular player, notes Bill Allman, senior vice president and general manager of Discovery Interactive Media. Nonetheless, Discovery also encodes its streaming content in Windows Media Player format.

QVC also standardized its video streaming for Windows Media Player. “It was our philosophy to minimize choice and simplify the usage for our customers,” says Eric Gregg, the shopping channel’s vice president of applications development. “We do not request [that] the customer select the type of player nor the speed of access. We automatically recognize and select the highest speed that is supported.”

News site MSNBC.com primarily uses Windows Media Player and occasionally uses Macromedia Flash video for interactive presentations such as the “Big Picture.” The site encodes all of the individual stories from NBC’s most prominent shows (such as NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw and Today), giving it a vast array of daily video coverage. It also encodes video from MSNBC Cable, CNBC, NBC affiliates and other sources throughout the day, and it has video rights to material from Reuters, Associated Press and other sources, including content shot by NBC crews but not used on telecasts.

“The cost of developing and maintaining infrastructure for multiple streaming platforms just doesn’t make sense,” says MSNBC editor in chief Dean Wright.

“Windows Media provides good quality at lower bit-rates.”

MEASURING UP TO SPEED

As MSOs increase their cable-modem offerings, and create price tiers for 3 Megabits per second, 6 Mbps or faster access, cable networks are calibrating their offerings to enhance the online experiences.

C-SPAN, like others, offers a variety of access speeds — reflecting the diverse capabilities of audiences. The network uses RealNetworks Surestream for its service, and offers bit rates of 20 kbps, 34 kbps and 100 kbps, while its own archival streams are available at 34 kbps and 128 kbps. C-SPAN’s new broadband service goes out at 300 kbps.

MSNBC.com only supports broadband customers. “Our encoding is now a multi-Bit rate stream of 200 kbps and 100 kbps,” Wright says. “The Windows Media Player and server together determine which stream to send to the user.”

“We have to balance the increased quality of higher bit rate video against the increased cost to stream that higher quality video to our customers,” he adds. “We’re constantly evaluating the cost versus quality issue, and we just recently doubled the bit rate of the video we provide. As revenue from our ad-supported video business grows, we’ll likely continue to ratchet up the bit rate to further increase the quality of our video.”

Discovery’s Web sites have a “sniffer” on its home page to detect the users’ bandwidth capability. That enables the site to offer an HTML page instead of video if the customer doesn’t have a broadband connection.

At QVC’s Web site, the real-time video streams must be synchronized with the show on the TV channel. That requires interlacing of meta-data about the products being sold, as well as product descriptions. The meta-data actually triggers the on-screen changes.

“The same datastores are feeding both L-bar [on the TV shows] and the Web site,” explains QVC’s Gregg. That means TV viewers and Web shoppers all “have a consistent experience.”

As cable operators look toward an Internet Protocol future, the current on-demand video streaming experiences are preparing the networks for next-generation programming. Discovery has already tested subscription-video streaming in a project with Yahoo. The network is developing its broadband showcase, using progressive downloading, which helps it avoid buffering glitches — although right now such delivery is limited to segments of 10 minutes or shorter.

The lessons from these cable network initiatives may well presage the video look of next generation networks.

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