Sydney Olympics New Star: Axient

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A new streaming-media company, Phoenix-based Axient Communications Inc., made a big splash into an already crowded sector last week by announcing that it will supply the streaming technology for NBCOlympics.com.

Axient comes to the streaming sector with an aggregation of high-profile partners and $200 million in debt and equity financing.

The deal covering the broadcaster's Sydney Summer Olympics site is the first win for Axient, which has ambitious plans to establish itself as a provider of streaming broadband content.

The first content streaming from Axient will be highlights from the 2000 Olympic Games, available solely to United States residential broadband users that subscribe to Axient's Internet-service provider partners.

NBCOlympics.com will offer 20 minutes of streamed daily highlights, profiles and interviews of the previous day's events, culled from NBC, MSNBC and CNBC coverage of the Sydney games, according to Tom Newell, general manager of NBC/Quokka Ventures, which operates the Olympic site.

Axient was able to guarantee that the streams won't be available outside of NBC's U.S. broadcast territory by making ISPs responsible for verifying that subscribers aren't located elsewhere, and are accessing the Internet via a digital-subscriber-line (DSL) or cable-modem connection. The Olympic streams will not be available to dial-up users.

Axient and network partner Williams Communications designed a network that stores content locally and connects to ISPs via high-speed, DS-3 local loop connections purchased from local telcos.

The ISPs then make the content available to broadband subscribers. In the larger metro areas, Axient has established regional and storage centers, often Williams offices.

Axient has signed deals with 100 ISPs, including several cable, DSL and wireless-broadband providers, but the company isn't naming names. It hopes to sign deals with as many broadband ISPs as possible by the Sept. 15 debut of the Olympic highlight package.

The goal is to be in 191 local-telephone calling areas by early next year.

Williams is involved in the design, implementation and operation of the network.

Axient's other partners include Altheon WebSystems, which supplies Gigabit Ethernet Web switches at Axient's local facilities. Axient is also using content distribution software from Entera Inc. and servers from Sun Microsystems Inc.

Content storage will be provided through EMC Corp.'s "CLARiiON FC4500" storage systems.

"Our technology is capable of delivering tens of thousands of simultaneous streams," said Wayne Pratt, Axient's chief financial officer, who stressed the company's focus on direct and local content delivery, bypassing the congested greater Internet.

The cornerstone is "Octane" technology, which Axient says delivers full-screen, high-resolution video and stereo sound.

Pratt said Axient would support all of the major streaming formats: Microsoft Corp.'s "Windows Media Player," Apple Computer Inc.'s "QuickTime" format and RealNetworks Inc.'s "RealPlayer."

Olympic streams will be in QuickTime format and streamed at speeds between 200 and 500 kilobits per second, depending on the speed of the last-mile connection between a given ISP and its subscribers.

Aiding delivery of Axient's high-quality, full-screen video to personal computers is Entera's content-distribution software.

Richard De Soto, Entera's vice president of marketing, said the software uses several of his company's key streaming technologies, including "lossless packet transfer," which ensures the full number of packets arrive at edge servers. Typically, streaming content sent over the greater Internet will experience some packet loss, resulting in spotty quality for end users.

Through Octane Enterprise, Pratt explained, Axient will also tap into the burgeoning corporate use of streaming technologies for distance training and other applications.

For NBCOlympics.com, Axient is essentially creating a virtual private network.

Based on this spring's formation of the Broadband Content Delivery Forum-which was sparked by Nortel Networks and other telecom heavyweights-password-protected, subscriber-only broadband content could become the means by which much copyrighted content is made available to broadband users.

Privately held Axient counts Williams, EMC and Cisco Systems Inc. among its investors.

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