Media Streaming Heats Up

Author:
Updated:
Original:

Two new initiatives on the part of suppliers of
multimedia-streaming technology promise to significantly increase the presence of Web
broadcasting and the availability of full-screen entertainment media in the
high-speed-access market.

RealNetworks Inc. is set to announce this week a major
expansion of its "Real Broadcast Network" that will employ new technology to
support fast delivery of live events and other programming to both broadband and
narrowband customers of affiliated Internet-service providers.

At the same time, The Duck Corp., a less-publicized
supplier of a competing streaming technology, has created a new entity, On2.com, which
will put together a network of sites devoted to delivering content developed exclusively
for broadband users, including full-length movies.

RBN -- which was begun by RNI in 1997 as a means of
improving distribution of Web broadcasts using the "RealSystem" streaming
technology -- will now be able to deliver broadband-compatible content via the nationwide
high-speed backbone under development by Enron Communications Inc., a unit of power
company Enron Corp., RBN general manager Ian Freed said.

Freed added that RBN is also implementing a new
architecture that will speed distribution to narrowband customers by placing unicast
"splitters" at points on the backbone networks of Sprint Corp., GTE Corp., AGIS
(Apex Global Internet Services) and Teleglobe Communication Services Inc., as well as in
the local points of presence of affiliated ISPs.

Freed said the company was also negotiating with unnamed
entities to provide multicasting capability for broadcast events.

The multicasting capability will support efficient
point-to-multipoint delivery of content to customers within reach of the multicasting
facilities. And the new unicast mode will ensure availability of content over the full
reach of the Internet, while reducing "hops" through the bottlenecks of Internet
interconnection points to a maximum of one per unicast, Freed said.

This is done with network intelligence and splitters,
allowing a broadcast to go out on a point-to-point basis over the most direct routes to
the points of intersection between the Internet backbone and the links that connect
affiliated ISPs' POPs.

The signal is repeated and sent in unicast mode over these
links to the local ISPs' POPs, where it is buffered in RAM (random-access memory), split
again and repeated for unicast to each individual user.

"Only one feed goes into each ISP, which, because the
broadcast hub is colocated at the POP, allows thousands of users to be served without
requiring multiple streams from the source," Freed said.

The first ISPs to sign on for placement of the new
broadcast hubs in their POPs were Concentric Network Corp. and Verio Inc. "We expect
other deals [with ISPs] to close in the next few days," Freed added.

RNI already has a deal as supplier of streaming technology
for the nationwide broadband-IP infrastructure that ECI is putting in place. And now,
through RBN, RNI will work with the carrier to line up affiliates among ISPs that are
making use of DSL (digital-subscriber-line) facilities to connect their customers.

Enron's system is designed to support streamed media at
rates of up to 1.5 megabits per second for mass-market applications and to manage the
integration and operation of content from multiple suppliers for efficient distribution to
ISPs' POPs, said David Berberian, vice president of engineering at ECI.

"We are making it easy for ISPs to put together
broadband-service packages that can give them a distinct presence in the local
marketplace," Berberian added.

Using proprietary middleware -- or software that ties
various types of applications together over networks -- ECI runs real-time
intelligent-messaging technology that allows content suppliers to use and be billed for
only the capacity that they need, when they need it, and to deliver material at tiered
rates fitting the specifications set in agreements with individual ISPs.

Along with 15,000 route miles of
wavelength-division-multiplexed fiber links, ECI is using satellite hops to enable
delivery of content to any ISP, regardless of size or location, Berberian said.

Freed declined to name new content partners that will
exploit the high-speed and streamlined narrowband components of RBN's distribution system.
Current customers include ABC News, ZDTV and America's Health Network, he noted.

The key to running the RBN system is a centralized
intelligence system that identifies the closest points of connection and sets up the links
so that a unicast is delivered over a single route, rather than the multiple routes
typically taken by IP-packet files.

The "RealSystem G2" technology is an important
component, as well, as it allows each unicast to be delivered from a single file at
whatever bit rate is optimal for a particular ISP, including the broadband rates over the
ECI backbone, Freed noted.

RNI also said last week that it was acquiring Xing
Technology Corp., a leading supplier of MPEG-based Web-streaming systems, in order to beef
up its arsenal of options in the G2 system.

While the primary reason for the acquisition was Xing's
leadership in the supply of MP3 audio-streaming encoders and decoders, the ownership of
MPEG video technology will definitely be a plus in RNI's broadband content efforts, said
Phil Barrett, senior vice president for media technology at RNI.

"Their encoding technology is very high-quality,"
Barrett said, noting that RNI has been using an MPEG system from another supplier in
instances where its customers want to encode in that format. G2 -- which embodies many
capabilities in addition to the streaming function -- is designed to work with multiple
types of compression techniques, Barrett noted.

"You can plug MPEG into our architecture -- it's a
very straightforward thing to do," Barrett said, adding that RNI is working with
@Home Network to develop a streaming system exclusively tailored to that high-speed-data
provider's architecture.

But while MPEG is a strong contender in the broadband
Web-distribution field, partly because so much material is formatted in MPEG, RNI is not
betting that the technology will be the leading means of compression as the broadband
content arena expands, Barrett said.

"We looked at this issue when we designed G2, and we
decided that it was best to accommodate multiple technologies, because there's no way of
knowing what the next cool thing is going to be," he added.

In strong contention to be the "next cool thing"
is the broadband version of Duck's streaming system, "TrueMotion VP-3," which is
based on wavelet-compression technology.

More efficient than MPEG and other compression systems
based on cosine transforms, wavelet compression is widely used in Internet applications
and various multimedia applications, such as Sega Enterprises Ltd.'s "Saturn"
game system and its next-generation video-game platform, "Dreamcast."

The On2.com broadband network that Duck is preparing to
launch will stream video at 640-by-480-pixel resolution and 30 frames per second, which is
TV quality, On2.com president Dan Miller said. "The sites on our network are for
people who want more television from their Web experience and more interactivity from
their television experience," Miller added.

On2.com will launch in the fourth quarter with an initial
site devoted to offering TV-quality video-on-demand, Miller said. Content partners will be
named later, but one clearly interested party is Miramax Films.

Brian Dickman, Miramax's senior vice president for new
media, offered a ringing endorsement of On2.com in a prepared statement, suggesting that
the new entity "appears to deliver what the movie industry and movie fans have been
waiting for since the inception of the Internet -- full-screen, high-quality video on the
Web."

With the capability to deliver such material in the 1-mbps
range over DSL lines using wavelet technology, ISPs will have still another source of
content that they can target in the entertainment market, where they have not been a
presence.

Combined with the activities fostered by RNI in deals with
myriad content suppliers, the emerging ISP entertainment package could have a significant
impact on the cable market, noted Jonathan Cohen, director of research at investment firm
Wit Capital Corp.

"We believe that deployment of broadband connectivity
to the consumer market will represent the most profound change across the Internet space
since the creation of browser software," Cohen said. "Our view is that companies
that have built models that take advantage of broadband-based content and data streams
will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage on that basis."

Related