Another wave of entities devoted to supplying broadband
content over cable and asymmetrical-digital-subscriber-line links is rolling into the
high-speed-data market, promising a variety of approaches to delivering everything from TV
programming to CD-ROMs.
FasTV Inc., which has decided not to wait for broadband
connectivity to begin delivering its TV-programming and video-search service, appears
closest to market among the three most prominent providers, the others being Media Station
Inc. and Instant Video Technologies Inc.
"We see broadband as vital to our future, but we
believe that there's a market for what we have to offer in today's dial-up Web
environment," said Craig Stanford, vice president of program acquisition at FasTV.
The Los Angeles-based operation began in pilot mode last
year with tests of its service over Bresnan Communications' cable systems in Michigan
and Time Warner Cable's system in Portland, Maine.
At the time, the company was using its proprietary
technology to instantly store and catalog C- SPAN programming as it was broadcast,
providing users with the opportunity to retrieve clips through key-word and topic
Now the company has shifted to an advertising-supported
model, and it is lining up support from suppliers of commercial TV programming, as well as
PBS fare, Stanford said.
"We'd like to work with C-SPAN if they can accept
the advertising-support model, but, one way or another, we intend to make TV coverage of
government activity a part of our content base," he added.
FasTV reported last week that it had signed agreements to
supply stored programming from Cable News Network, CNNfn, The Weather Channel and
PBS' Nightly Business Report and Morning Business Report, among others.
Its lineup of partners also includes MGM Home
Entertainment, New Line Cinema, Desert Island Films and suppliers of music videos, the
Other entities are offering various types of video-search
systems on the Web and as specialized archives for industry. But FasTV believes that it is
unique in offering providers of standard TV programming, film and other mass-media content
a way to deliver archived material over the Internet.
FasTV captures the material from satellite feeds and
delivers it to servers in short clips relevant to what the user has searched for,
typically lasting anywhere from a few seconds to two minutes, Stanford said.
Stanford stressed that FasTV is not trying to become an
Internet portal or to compete with providers of long-form video-on-demand.
"We believe that there's a real market
opportunity for doing just what we're doing, which is not just a technology play, but
which also involves a lot of work by a large staff to provide the integration and support
that such a service requires," he said.
FasTV wants to work with cable operators and telcos, as
well, but it couldn't wait for broadband because there weren't enough people
with high-speed access to persuade program suppliers and advertisers to get on board,
The company is using the media-streaming technology
supplied by RealNetworks Inc., which allows it to stream files at faster data rates to
users who have cable or ADSL modems, he added.
Taking a different tack in the effort to exploit fast
connections is Media Station, a 10-year-old company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in San
Francisco that provides development support for suppliers of CD-ROM content, including The
Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Interactive, Hasbro Inc.'s Hasbro Interactive and
Media Station's new service, "SelectPlay,"
is taking a direct run at the broadband-online CD-ROM service now in development at Arepa
Inc. in affiliation with several cable partners, including At Home Corp. (parent of @Home
Network) and Road Runner.
SelectPlay, which is currently being tested by U S West
over its ADSL links, allows users to play CD-ROM material from servers over broadband
connections just as they would if the disc were located at the personal computer, said Jim
Maslyn, president and CEO of Media Station.
"Our service is targeted to the family, with titles
appealing to kids and adults in entertainment, education, reference and other
knowledge-based categories," he said.
Games are a part of the mix, but not the main focus, Maslyn
added. The system supports multiplayer, fast-action games, and it will provide a
community-oriented access mode for organizing such play.
Media Station's plan calls for locating servers
storing about 75 titles apiece at cable headends and telco central offices.
"We have the capacity for much more content, but our
research shows that people want the convenience of choosing among the best options, rather
than searching through hundreds or thousands of titles," said Allan McLennan, senior
vice president of strategic development at Media Station.
Users will be charged an as-yet-undetermined monthly
subscription fee -- probably in the range of what they pay for premium-cable service --
for unlimited access, and they will have a premium option to access brand-new titles at
about $3.95 per day, per title, McLennan said.
The library of locally stored content will be refreshed via
satellite downloads on a monthly basis, with changes in the lineup based on local usage
patterns and the availability of new material, officials said.
U S West is testing two delivery modes, at 1 megabit per
second and 4 mbps, with plans to roll the service out wherever it provides ADSL service,
"We expect to begin operating commercially by the end
of the first quarter or the start of the second quarter," he added.
Media Station has also been testing its system with an
unnamed major cable operator, and it expects to complete a commercial deal with within 30
days, Maslyn said. Revenues will be shared evenly among the service provider, the content
publisher and Media Station, he added.
The company has agreements with Disney, Hasbro, IBM and
SegaSoft Networks Inc. to supply titles for the tests, but it is not prepared to announce
affiliations for commercial operations, officials said.
"It takes a long time to complete contracts for
content, but we're well along in the process," Maslyn added.
Rounding out the lineup of newcomers to the broadband
content arena is IVT, which has developed a high-burst mode of distributing content, in
contrast to streaming media, as FasTV does. Arepa and Media Station also deliver content
in bursts, but they use different technologies.
IVT, with its "Burstware" proprietary protocol,
has not been focusing on the entertainment market in its start-up phase, choosing instead
to provide bandwidth-efficient means of distributing media-rich content over corporate
Intranets and local-area networks.
"We see an immediate market opportunity in this
sector, as opposed to the longer ramp-up in broadband entertainment," said Frank
Schwartz, vice president of marketing and technology at San Francisco-based IVT.
The objective with Burstware is to support the delivery of
long-form content in multimegabyte blasts to the PC's hard disk, where the material
is temporarily stored and played back in MPEG-1 format, Schwartz said.
"By sending bursts of data to each client to refresh
the disk for continuous playback on the PC, we are getting much more aggregate throughput
than we would if we were streaming the media," Schwartz added.
The technology allows the server to track each user's
refresh needs and to target bursts accordingly, thereby supporting a number of users on
any single data-channel feed, Schwartz explained.
"Most of the demos that we show demonstrate stunning
playback from a 4-megabyte buffer, but we can operate with buffers at 2 MB, as well,"
IVT began its development efforts with the consumer market
in mind, but it determined that the cable industry wasn't ready to support the type
of VOD capabilities that it has to offer, Schwartz said. IVT is now working with unnamed
companies in tests of the technology for applications in training and video resale in the
financial markets, in preparation for commercial rollout in the near future, he added.
Because the system uses MPEG-1, rather than MPEG-2, which
is the higher-bandwidth-consuming digital-TV format employed in cable, the technology is
ideally suited for delivering content over ADSL lines, which typically run at 1 mbps or
slower on the consumer-priced tiers of service.
"We're working with one major telco, and we
expect them to introduce an enterprise-oriented service," Schwartz said.
IVT hopes to move into the entertainment space toward the
end of this year, he added.