Faster than most observers expected, media-compression and streaming technology has reached the point where if you can maintain a pretty steady stream of Internet-protocol-formatted bits to the end-user at several hundred kilobits per second, you can deliver a good-looking motion-picture video to a full TV screen.
This means that content developers can exploit all of the interactive power of IP technology in the context of delivering VHS-or better-quality content.
The best of the new streaming systems can hit this quality level for full-motion action movies at 500 kbps or, by some claims, at even lower speeds. This means that existing digital-subscriber-line and cable platforms are adequate in most instances for the task of serving up anything, from movies on-demand to graphics-rich fast-action video games.
That is to say it runs the full gamut from mostly one-way on-demand entertainment to highly interactive community or multiplayer content fit for TV viewing at full screen and 30 frames per second.
Two major forces have combined to ignite broadband media as a real market sector over the past few months. One is the surging penetration of high-speed access lines in the consumer and small-business markets. The other is improvements in distribution-support technology that have made it possible to deliver an altogether new type of entertainment and educational experience to end-users over lines that typically operate in the hundreds-of-kbps range.
As Paul Kagan Associates Inc. recently noted, growth rates for cable modems and DSL distribution are accelerating rapidly as equipment costs fall, the standardization of modems takes hold and new plug-and-play and embedded versions of cable and DSL modems enter the market.
The analysis found that the cable sector attracted 811,000 high-speed-data customers in 1999, marking a 164 percent increase in subscriber totals from the previous year and bringing the total count to 1.45 million in the United States, with another 270,000 hooked up in Canada.
With sign-ups averaging 17,500 per week last year and now well in excess of 20,000, the cable industry is likely to add at least another 2.1 million modem users this year, bringing the year-end total to about 3.8 million in North America.
The DSL sector in the United States grew by more than 390,000 in 1999, with installations progressing at about 7,500 per week, representing a soaring takeoff from the base of 30,000 subscribers that were hooked up at the start of 1999.
By the end of last year, the regional Bell operating companies had 36.5 million DSL-ready lines, representing nearly one-fourth of the total installed base of 171 million lines, a National Cable Television Association report said.
Kagan said the DSL subscriber total should hit 2.4 million by the end of this year. This is a big market to work with. And thanks to major advances in the underlying software tools, the broadband-media sector now has the means by which it can begin offering much more compelling versions of content over these high-speed access platforms than was possible just a year ago, or even more recently.
One result of the improving technology performance is that support for delivery of broadband-media services has suddenly become a big part of the strategies of DSL competitive local-exchange carriers as they compete for business from Internet-service providers that want to serve the residential market.
"When NorthPoint [Communications Inc.] did the deal with ClearBand [LLC], a lot of CLECs that were on the fence about whether to make media content a part of their strategies realized they had to act," Minerva Network Systems Inc. vice president of marketing Patrick Sweeney said.
He referred to NorthPoint's selection of the Web-streaming supplier as its partner in the launch of a broadband-media service package for ISPs. "Now we're seeing a tremendous surge in preparations for similar moves by other CLECs," he added.
In fact, the shift in focus to broadband media as a value-added service worth supporting prompted Minerva to completely reposition itself at the start of this year, Sweeney said.
Formerly known as Minerva Systems-a supplier of digital encoding technology for the CD-ROM and DVD markets-the company is demonstrating what it calls an "IP headend" at the National Association of Broadcasters convention this week as part of its efforts to serve the CLEC market with broadband-media-support technology.
With some parts still prototypes, the Minerva headend system is designed to provide all of the functions-including encoding, MPEG-to-IP conversion and ad and content insertion-that are needed to give CLECs and ISPs a business model that goes beyond simply passing high-end Web-based content through to end-users, Sweeney said.
"At the lower bit rates of DSL, which is where the largest share of CLECs are focused, there's an opportunity to deliver commercials that are targeted to specific users based on their demographic profiles," Sweeney noted.
"A second opportunity has to do with creating purchase opportunities linked with content, where the buyer's account with the ISP allows the transaction to go through without requiring input of all of the information you usually have to provide when you purchase something online," he added.
The full IP-headend capability includes means by which CLECs using fiber to support services in the multimegabit-per-second range can add a full lineup of satellite-delivered cable, local broadcast and video-on-demand signals to the IP stream, giving users a fully integrated package of broadband media.
"At this point, this is a much smaller area of activity domestically than the lower-rate DSL sector, but it's starting to take off in Europe and Asia," Sweeney said.
ClearBand, with its win at NorthPoint, is taking a different tack, choosing to offer an IP-over-MPEG streaming approach, rather than converting everything to IP, chief operating officer Joe Hawayek said.
That way, ClearBand can exploit the market base of digital TVs or modem-equipped digital set-tops without requiring an IP-to-NTSC (National Television Systems Committee) conversion process at the user premises. This is only now becoming possible via set-tops produced by a handful of vendors.
"We're in discussions with several telephone companies and other major players that want to be able to offer high-quality video to the PC and, eventually, the set-top over networks with fairly limited bandwidth," Hawayek said. "The real sweet spot in the market appears to be 512 kbps, and it will be for some time to come."
Streaming technologies that offer VHS-quality video at higher data rates will be limited in their market reach, while those that are optimized to operate at much lower rates will miss the full benefits of delivering everything from Web video to cable-TV channels, Hawayek said.
"We have a lot of DSL-based customers who are looking for ways to compete in video services, and they must have a platform that delivers high-quality pictures with consistently high performance," he noted.
ClearBand has developed a very-thin-client, Java-based player that downloads with the video stream and disappears after the session ends. This eliminates the need for storing a software player on the hard drive and overcomes the inability of content providers to reach users who don't happen to have the right player software.
"We've developed an all-software solution where everything is done in the client/server mode," Hawayek said. "We think the ability to encode any source of video in real time on a Pentium III PC and to deliver it at 30 frames per second in full-screen resolution to anyone with a Pentium I or better PC is basic to the success of streaming media in the broadband environment."
Of course, to sustain quality sufficient for delivering high-quality multimedia, including full-screen video, at 500 kbps or less requires that the provider establish means by which content is distributed to the local points of presence across high-speed backbones that bypass Internet choke points.
This currently limits the market base for such content to a small subset of DSL customers. But where cable is concerned, broadband backbone bypass has become a much more pervasive reality as Excite@Home Corp. and Road Runner build out their next-generation infrastructures.
Plus, the DSL market base for content that is just one hop away from an interface with a broadband bypass is expanding rapidly. Credit the "distribution-service providers," with ranks now including such firms as Digital Island (which recently merged with Sandpiper Networks Inc.), Akamai Technologies Inc., iBEAM Broadcasting Corp., Intervu Inc., Enron Communications Inc. and Edgix Corp.
Using a variety of proprietary software systems to maximize caching and distribution efficiency, these companies are helping to evangelize the message to ISPs and LECs that broadband media is a viable value-added service component to be used in drawing customers to their DSL platforms.
"I think we're at a point of inflection where broadband is ready to become a mass-market phenomenon," Sandpiper CEO Leo Spiegel said. "We're creating a content delivery network with intelligent computing at the edges that can support all types of content, whether it's HTML [HyperText Markup Language], streaming on-demand, live performances or something else."
Support for broadband media has matured to where there are now applications-service providers aggregating several bypass options into a one-stop purchase for content suppliers, making it much easier for them to aggregate a market base of users who can receive high-quality content.
For example, start-up MeTV Network Inc.-which believes it can achieve success offering full-length movies on-demand-has arranged for multiple backbone-distribution conduits by contracting with broadband media ASP encoding.com, MeTV CEO Jeffrey Pescatello said.
"It doesn't matter who your ISP or cable operator is," he said. "When you go to our Web site, the system automatically finds the best backbone-distribution network for delivering a movie to your service provider's POP."
Encoding.com's backbone-distribution partners include iBEAM, Intervu, Enron and Digital Island, CEO and founder Martin Tobias said, adding, "We're able to significantly lower the barriers to entry for companies that want to provide streaming and digital media solutions without investing in the required technology and services."
For the most part, entities creating broadband-media content for today's market are choosing formats where long-form video is not essential to success. Instead, the goal is to provide PC users accessing the Web with a unique experience that goes beyond what's available on either the dial-up Internet or the TV.
With a fledgling market to work with, Web and media entities of every description are now deeply involved in the process.
"People are realizing that there's an opportunity to develop a whole new kind of content on the Web that can be accessed by the subscribers to DSL and cable-modem services," said Michael Sepso, co-CEO of Manhattan-based Gotham Broadband, a supplier of broadband-content services to the media industry.
"We no longer think in terms of HTML-based Web pages because in this space, you can dynamically shape video, audio and graphics to fit specific applications with a lot of flexibility for building interactive components into content, advertising and e-commerce," Sepso added.
Gotham is using a wide range of development tools to tailor content for media concerns and service suppliers that can be used efficiently across many high-speed networks. "We're developing the core engine framework that allows content to be built for multiple networks, instead of having to develop for each network environment," Sepso said.
To see what some of these tools are capable of, one should look at what some early users are doing to enhance their applications for broadband access.
For example, Road Runner, a Gotham client, has transitioned its content to provide what its executives describe as a "rich-media, CD-ROM-like experience."
Nickelodeon has built a "true CD-ROM experience for kids" using graphic landscapes to pull the users into story-telling experiences, said Rebecca Paoletti, director of programming for Road Runner.
She pointed to "high, high video" quality in the service developed for Road Runner by Fox Sports, and to full-length music videos, 3-D game and chat environments and the highly sophisticated use of interactive media by the networks operated by Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. as other examples.
The service is also poised to introduce voice chat, e-mail and other voice applications this quarter, Paoletti said, adding, "Voice is going to be an important part of the Road Runner experience."
ClearBand isn't alone in hitting the 500-kbps sweet spot. Several suppliers of tools used in streaming audio and video over the Web have managed to achieve what they say is VHS-quality full-screen video running somewhere between 300 kbps and 400 kbps.
Innovations like variable bit-rate encoding, forward error correction and film-to-video bit-saving telecine processes have now been optimized for use in various proprietary Web-streaming systems, often in conjunction with a few seconds of buffering to allow time for some of the complex processing.
Equally important, some suppliers are now offering compression and streaming tool kits that include new means by which electronic-commerce and advertising capabilities are easily built into a file program, supporting highly interactive, media-rich experiences with hooks for dynamic ad insertion and a wide array of account-management functions.
Microsoft Corp., for example, has begun offering a "Windows Media" tool kit on a single CD that provides anyone with NT-server-computing capabilities with the means of putting together revenue-generating broadband media using simple point-and-click instructions.
"Authoring tools and rights management are built right into the platform," said David Britton, lead product manager at Microsoft's streaming-media division. "The content supplier can even set the exact level of protection for a particular element-for example, tying it to one person's usage and preventing any copying."
Microsoft now has more than 80 companies participating as partners in its broadband "Jumpstart" initiative, which seeks to combine all of the elements needed to deliver broadband content end-to-end in today's Web environment, from the basic software tools to the backbone and local-access distribution facilities. "It's getting to be practical to deliver broadband content," Britton said.
Microsoft's plunge into streaming and related infrastructure components surrounding media distribution on the Web has put new pressure on RealNetworks Inc. as the dominating technology force in streamed media.
"Microsoft is definitely the competitor we're most concerned about," acknowledged Paul Thelsa, group product manager at RNI.
But Microsoft has a long way to go if it is to match the quality and scope of RNI's enabling technologies, Thelsa asserted. "If you look at the still captures from 300 kbps streams based on Windows Media versus those from ours at the same speed, you can see a big difference in terms of picture clarity," he added.
RNI's new server software offers a 50 percent improvement in video-streaming performance over the previous version. Innovations introduced with version 7-enhancements of the "G2" system-include "two-pass profile encoding" and variable bit-rate encoding, which work together to analyze the moment-by-moment bit-stream requirements of an audio/video segment in order to maximize bandwidth efficiency.
If, for example, a sequence has a fast-action segment that would normally require more than 300 kbps to meet minimum quality requirements, the system will find space in a proximate, lower-bandwidth-consuming sequence to handle the excess processing, thereby ensuring that the overall bit stream is fully utilized.
"We also have forward error-correcting codes, which is something new for us," Thelsa said. "Basically, all of these things allow us to deliver MPEG-1 quality at one-half the former data rate."
The latest products from RNI also include improved means of supporting e-commerce and advertising, Thelsa noted. Web sites using ad-management solutions in conjunction with the new advertising extension for
"RealServer 7.0" can count impressions and click-throughs, as well as targeting, scheduling and managing sales for ads shown in the "Real-Player" client, he said.
"We've also done a deal with DoubleClick [Inc.] that allows customers using the Real Broadcast Network'to operate what amounts to syndicated shows with advertising support over the Web," Thelsa said.
This means media companies that want to gain new revenues from existing product by inserting Web ads in place of the ads that run in the original TV- or radio-broadcast segments can do so without having to develop and manage in-house ad-serving and tracking systems, he said.
"It will be a big boon to broadband content if providers can find a way to make new money off existing material," Thelsa added.
Even Cisco Systems Inc. is in the broadband-streaming game, responding to customers' demand in the business community for streaming software geared toward high-speed users without compromising to accommodate dial-up users.
Cisco-while relying on Windows Media as a user interface and for streaming applications-has developed its own streaming server and client software to better exploit the broadband environment, said Heather Rose, group manager for product marketing in its video Internet-services unit.
Windows Media-based streaming is designed to accommodate the hazards of packet navigation over public networks. Cisco's "IP/TV" software taps into the latest Internet Engineering Task Force standards such as "IP Multicast," "Real-Time Streaming Protocol" and "Real-Time Transport Protocol" to add a higher level of quality-of-service management, Rose said.
"The key point is that the IP/TV protocols tend to work best with managed routers and switches, whereas the protocols Microsoft uses assume that the routers and switches across the public Internet aren't going to be cooperating with each other in a particular streaming session," she explained.
Interestingly, the pursuit of tools that will support high-end requirements is dovetailing with efforts to get more functionality and quality out of the low end of the bandwidth spectrum.
For example, development of the next-generation of MPEG (Moving Picture Expert Group) technology-MPEG-4-is addressing both high-end and low-end requirements in ways that promise to revolutionize the look and feel of online multimedia.
At the high end, such capabilities will allow developers to use existing and new MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files to much greater effect.
One of the goals in MPEG-4 is to provide a bridge between the legacy MPEG domains and the IP world, said Glenn Reitmeier, vice president of high-definition and multimedia systems at Sarnoff Corp.
In advertising over digital TV, for example, MPEG-4 will support playback of ads specific to end-user interests, where one carefully authored 30-second spot carries enough data to deliver a variety of presentations.
"Advertising over digital TV gets very interesting with MPEG-4," Reitmeier said. "Video objects are dynamically composed and personalized within the overall display field, and they are easily manipulated to do different things."
MPEG-4 is designed to enhance low-bandwidth environments by separating the instructions affecting frame sequences, the movement of picture components and other graphic changes triggered by user commands from delivery of the content itself.
This way, graphic components used to render any given scene can be delivered in occasional bursts and stored in memory at the end-user terminal. This leaves for actual real-time streaming only a small amount of information in the form of instructions as to how the graphic components are to be manipulated from frame to frame.
To do this, MPEG-4 defines various types of graphic objects as reference models that certain commands are linked to, allowing objects already residing at the computer to be manipulated piecemeal by low-bandwidth-consuming instructions as if the objects themselves were being streamed together in real time.
"You can scan over and replay content already downloaded to the terminal, allowing the level of resolution in the display to be determined by the capabilities of the CPU [central-processing unit], rather than by available bandwidth," said Eric Petajan, a scientist at Lucent Technologies'Bell Labs. He is also the founder of a new company devoted to exploiting MPEG-4 in animation applications.
Scenes in a multimedia game or other CD-like content might be displayed at graphic quality levels and manipulated at frame rates comparable to high-definition television over relatively low-speed links, Petajan said.
MPEG-4 also gives content developers a standardized, straightforward tool environment for doing all of the things they now have to do by bringing together a lot of disparate elements themselves. Those elements include 3-D rendering and synchronizing various multimedia components with each other no matter what interactive choices the user makes.
The protocol also includes the use of wavelet-compression technology and something called "2-D mesh" on top of the underlying discrete cosine-transform compression that is common to MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 to allow developers to easily add zoom-in capabilities with their graphics, Petajan said.
Petajan's new firm, face2face, which is debuting at the NAB convention, provides software for face animation of characters targeted toward television and film production, electronic games and Internet animation.
The new software, unlike more traditional key-frame-animation methods, uses purely visual recognition in the recording of lip and facial movements, without the need for markers, stickers, colored lipsticks or special headgear, said Bill Riley, marketing vice president at face2face.
A standard video camera captures the subject's face and lips while speaking, and the recording is then transferred into a work station and processed through the face2face software.
The face2face system also allows television and Web programmers to create multilingual versions of animated programs with accurate lip synch, enabling multimarket content distribution. Audio tracks can be automatically synchronized so that dialogue and facial expressions are processed simultaneously. There's also the opportunity to master face-animation content once, then deliver it to multiple mediums, including TV, games and the Web.
Another key development facilitating great flexibility and efficiency in development of multimedia content closely tied to MPEG-4 is Apple Computer Corp.'s "QuickTime 4.0." The QT file format has been adopted as the basic reference-file format for MPEG-4.
QuickTime has been made more compatible across multiple software platforms in conjunction with the tie-in to MPEG-4. For example, Apple software now includes a streaming component that relies on the same streaming-transport protocol used by RNI.
By choosing RTSP, Apple assured the availability of streamed QuickTime files across a vast base of end-users with RTSP-based "plug-in" client software, said Steve Bannerman, senior product manager for the QuickTime group at Apple.
The new system also allows developers to create applications, such as online games, where some content elements are accessed from the network and others are embedded in playback devices, such as CDs or DVDs.
"Imagine games where the network track provides new versions without requiring the user to purchase a new CD-ROM," Bannerman said.
Activities at IBM Corp.'s Internet division offer a clear illustration of how market uses of tools at the low and high ends of the expanded bandwidth spectrums are creating an economic push behind the evolution to the next-generation Internet.
Rich Wall, program director for advanced Internet projects with IBM's Internet division, said his unit is now focusing on market needs to model the evolutionary path.
"We're using the phrase next-generation internet,'with a small i,'to stress the fact that we need to focus on tools and applications, because the new infrastructure that will support next-generation capabilities is already in the process of being built," Wall said. "As the bandwidth becomes available, this is going to move a lot faster than the first generation of Internet applications."
IBM is already working to satisfy commercial demand in the very high-bandwidth environment, where MPEG-2 data rates are possible, giving a good indication of where the mass market will be as the next-generation Internet takes hold.
"We're going to see incredible levels of bandwidth as a natural evolution of networking technology," Wall said. "But the applications we're talking about will need predictable, end-to-end quality of service and other performance parameters that will require more than just a lot of bandwidth."
Advanced medical-image transfers, computer-aided-design collaboration and very high-quality videoconferencing require close coordination with customers and suppliers of software tools to forge applications that use advanced "video-charger" servers, gigabit and terabit router/switches and computer-rich end-user devices provided by IBM and other system manufacturers, Wall noted.
For example, collaborative, online analysis of magnetic-resonance imaging and X-ray files requires high bandwidth and software tools supporting very high graphic resolution in three dimensions and fast, real-time responsiveness to user commands for turning and zooming in on images.
These sorts of advanced broadband applications are being pushed into a larger market base by a new class of ISPs devoted to hosting these capabilities for companies that can't or don't want to build the enabling infrastructures themselves, Wall added.
"We've begun to see many cutting-edge applications offered through ISPs, such as hosted multiparty videoconferencing and collaborative computing," he said.
Graphically rich virtual-reality environments will quickly make their way into the consumer space, as well, starting with e-commerce sites geared to users with high-speed access who want to explore the fine points of goods offered online.
Today, Wall said, people can unzip a jacket and turn it around to look at it in 3-D. Soon, they'll be able to "try it on," using on-screen models proportioned to their dimensions and coloring to see how they'll look wearing the garment.