The fast-moving current of media events being streamed or
"broadcast" on the Internet is set to become a tsunami.
This year, streaming media was clearly established as an
Internet "killer app," with steadily growing masses of users tapping into
well-publicized streaming events.
It started in February, with the Victoria's Secret
online lingerie fashion show, noteworthy for the sexy clothing purveyor's lame
In March, the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: ThePhantom
Menace streamed across the Internet, clogging servers as eager science-fiction fans
downloaded the video. Since then, nearly 25 million users have downloaded it, according to
Apple Computer Inc.
More recently, on Nov. 17, during the "Drew Cam"
Webcast episode of The Drew Carey Show, ABC.com and Warner Bros. Online served
almost 650,000 streams. Interestingly, in an announcement about that event, Warner Bros.
Online pointed out that the Webcast "garnered more viewers than many cable
networks" did that night.
Whether the action is set on other planets, in Cleveland,
or in a supermodel's dressing room, Internet users have demonstrated a huge desire to
stream video to their desktops.
Also, said Seamus McAteer, director of Web-technology
strategies for Jupiter Communications, there's "pressure on those that own video
assets to reuse them on the Web."
Consequently, streaming media becomes "another arrow
in the quiver of features" that a programmer or content provider can offer. Add to
the mix the phenomenal growth of streaming audio due to the ubiquitous "MP3"
format, and streaming media looms as a force to be reckoned with.
Responding to the huge demand, dozens of companies are
bringing streaming-media technologies to market, attempting to make streaming events more
accessible and easier to serve up.
Streaming-media applications also are moving beyond pure
entertainment and entering the business arena. For example, those who cannot attend the
upcoming Western Show in Los Angeles will be able to view streamed presentations of
keynotes, panel sessions and luncheons on the California Cable Television
Association's Web site. Intervu Inc., a provider of streaming-media services, will
digitize video shot on location at the show.
For cable operators and their partners that provide
high-speed Internet access over a hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network, streaming media
presents challenges, as well as opportunities.
"It is tricky because of the shared [HFC]
network," said Phil Weinstock, director of product and programming for MediaOne Group
Inc.'s MediaOne Internet Services. "It's even trickier if a customer goes
outside of the [MediaOne/Road Runner] network" to download a streaming event, he
added. If a subscriber "went to Broadcast.com and streamed a two-hour movie, it
becomes a black hole for us."
Outside of the network, it becomes difficult not only to
ensure a quality and consistent bit stream to the user, but also to manage the
forward-path bandwidth necessary to support multiple streams accessed by multiple users.
"The bandwidth cost becomes unknown and potentially astronomical," Weinstock
The exact nature of the bandwidth constraints as an
Internet stream is received into an HFC network and delivered to a data subscriber has not
been scientifically analyzed, he added.
Simply stated, the problem of streaming media over a
shared-bandwidth network is a matter of too much information passing through too small a
pipe. Typical bit rates for streaming events run at 300 kilobits per second -- the maximum
that the predominant RealNetworks Inc. player can currently encode.
Video and audio streams from the greater Internet will pass
through a provider's regional data center, into a streaming server, and out through a
10BaseT Ethernet port, sent downstream at 10 megabits per second.
Under this scenario, an RDC streaming server could
accommodate approximately 33 simultaneous streams. Because it is difficult at best to
predict how many customers will request a stream at any one time, managing bandwidth and
guaranteeing a steady 300-kbps data rate to multiple subscribers' homes becomes a
Weinstock conceded that providers have much to learn about
managing media streams through RDCs. But as the number of data subscribers grows, answers
and solutions will be imperative.
While acknowledging that streaming media "is an
interesting and good application when you're dealing with live events," Richard
Gingras, vice president of programming and editor in chief for Excite@Home Corp., said his
company prefers not to use streaming media because it is not an effective use of network
Instead, Gingras prefers to use formats that will cache or
store content on @Home's servers, letting users "download and play." This
way, he explained, the content is as physically close to the user as possible, and not
located out on the greater Internet, with many routers between them.
Are @Home customers restricted to the amount of time they
can download a stream of programming? "We never have and never will impose
restrictions on what @Home subscribers can view off the network," Gingras said.
The provider does not stop subscribers from accessing
streaming video and audio content longer than 10 minutes. However, he added, @Home has
agreed with its cable partners to not originate or distribute content longer than 10
minutes on its own network.
With that in mind, Gingras said, it was "extremely
important and valuable to us" to make video content and related applications
available to @Home subscribers. Video is also important for attracting new subscribers, he
added, pointing out that the service's on-demand access to Cable News Network videos
will help to bring new folks aboard.
In one regard, apprehension over lengthy video streams may
be a problem that will dissipate. McAteer noted that "consumers are in a different
mode" when sitting in front of a PC. "It's difficult to hold Web
users' attention for longer than two minutes," he said. Video clips running for
longer than 10 minutes are a "very bad use of bandwidth and a very poor use of the
medium," McAteer added.
Like Gingras, Weinstock strongly believes streaming media
has to be embraced by cable, but in ways that won't compromise the network. "It
has to be doable, or our customers are going to go off our network to do it," he
To keep users on its network with plenty of "download
and play" content, @Home employs approximately two-dozen RDCs, each containing
servers that replicate content to position it closer to the user, Gingras said. In
addition, caching servers are deployed at each cable headend.
Every 15 minutes, video content is pushed out to RDCs,
ensuring that it crosses the @Home backbone only once, thereby theoretically providing
users with a seamless experience.
The distributed-server approach is one that many
streaming-media tech companies have adopted. Akamai Technologies Inc., for example, claims
1,475 servers in 24 countries across 55 telecommunications networks.
Intervu has approximately 250 "media-delivery
centers," and it has forged colocation agreements with major Internet-backbone
providers including Level 3 Communications Inc., GTE Corp., Qwest Communications
International Inc., AT&T Corp. and UUNet.
Intervu public-relations director Anjeanette Rettig said
the company is beginning to expand its network to "final-mile" providers, and it
is talking with digital-subscriber-line and cable Internet-service providers about placing
its media-data centers in central offices and cable headends.
Increasingly, local TV stations are seeking partnerships to
place video streams of newscasts on the Web, and companies are stepping up to the plate to
help them accomplish that.
Media streaming of news is a way for TV stations "to
get extra distribution and extra eyeballs," said Fred Stefany, chief operating
officer of ReacTV Inc., which posts locally produced TV news in streaming formats,
enhanced by additional footage not used on-air, print stories and message boards.
Instead of cannibalizing from a TV-viewer base, Stefany
cited the "lean forward versus lean back" difference between interactively
viewing content on a PC and passively watching television. TV viewers may turn to a
Web-video stream to get more information or details about a news story, not necessarily
forsaking TV altogether, he said.
The local-content angle may also help in attracting dial-up
customers to broadband.
In Denver, AT&T Broadband & Internet Services
announced a deal in which local TV station KWGN and The Denver Post will offer
local news coverage for @Home subscribers in the metropolitan area. From @Home's
Denver home page, subscribers will be able to access portions of KWGN's video and
audio newscasts and the Post's news stories.
"For all of the customers who choose our high-speed
product, we are eager to forge partnerships with content providers that will allow them to
have the full experience of high speed," AT&T Broadband spokesman Matt Fleury
The partnership will "allow AT&T@Home customers to
fully utilize our platform with local content. The more high-speed content is available,
the more valuable the high-speed platform becomes."
MediaOne, Weinstock pointed out, has already incorporated
local, streamed news in its high-speed Internet services in New England. The MSO hosts the
New England Cable News Web site, and it offers edited video clips of 90 seconds to four
minutes in duration. Clips also are searchable and essentially available to subscribers
"on-demand," he added.
In Jacksonville, Fla., MediaOne hosts the Web site of the
National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars. By hosting the service on its
network, MediaOne is able to ensure streaming quality and popular content.
As the utility and convenience of streaming begins to take
hold, streaming applications are beginning to branch out from news and entertainment
programming. "We're beginning to see more and more conferences put their panels
and sessions on the Web," Rettig said.
Six to nine months ago, 70 percent to 80 percent of
Intervu's revenue was derived from media and entertainment content. Today, with a
sharp increase in demand for business streaming services, Intervu banks on close to 50
percent of revenues coming from business applications.
Besides conference streaming, Rettig cited training videos,
distance-learning programming, new product launches and corporate communications -- such
as a CEO making an announcement to widely dispersed employees -- as growing business
applications of streaming.
Technologies are now available to developers, such as
"Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language," which greatly extend the
capabilities of Internet multimedia content. Weinstock explained that SMIL and its newest
iteration, "SMIL Boston," allow developers to "time-code" content and
have an HTML (HyperText Markup Language) or Web page appear in another window or frame,
synchronized with video content.
As an example, Weinstock said, generic coffeehouse video
footage can be complemented and localized with a small window suggesting specific local
coffeehouses. Theoretically, ads could be inserted in this way using SMIL Boston
In many ways, streaming media has become so popular because
of its "wow" factor, said Scott Rigby, president of Thoughtbubble Productions.
After all, for many new DSL and cable Internet subscribers used to the turtle's pace
of dial-up connections, a sure way to feel the wind in their hair with their
computer's new speed capabilities is to pull down a video stream.
But Rigby, for one, believes defining the next generation
of broadband content goes beyond streaming video. "Video is not the killer app of an
interactive data network," he said. "We already have a platform for streaming
media, and it's called TV."
He predicted that the current fascination with streaming
media will burn out and give way to a new generation of content delivery.
"When TV was first invented, cameras were pointed at
people standing in front of radio microphones," Rigby said, noting that streaming
media is much the same, as it's basically a repurposing of an existing medium.
Instead, he cited "true multimedia programming"
that's fundamentally different and that attempts to prod the user into making
decisions about how and what content is delivered.
As an example, Rigby pointed to a piece that Thoughtbubble
developed for MediaOne based on a Formula Atlantic race in Long Beach, Calif., last year.
Presented as a "multithreaded narrative," it was designed to provide information
not found by watching TV, letting the viewer decide what element of the race most
The first week, the production focused on a specific team
-- the driver, racing coach and chief mechanic -- complete with video interviews and
indexed interactive segments.
The following week, the program focused on the technology
and science behind racing, including a "virtual race car" feature that let users
rotate the model and view various components of the car.