Does broadband data need eye candy?
The growing presence of small, but consumer-pleasing video windows on Web sites has raised the bar for the technical parameters in near-term broadband data service rollouts, adding new issues to operators' technical choices.
While some experts argue that the key to success with consumers in the early going with broadband data services is provision of fast access to conventional sites, in combination with useful local site components and business applications support, a growing number of cable and telephone executives view system support for video and audio streaming as a vital part of the formula for success.
"We expect to make video a component of what we offer from Day 1 of commercial deployment," says Jeff DeLorne, executive vice president for Continental Cablevision. As its first case in point, the MSO has put together a video-enhanced site with the Jacksonville, Fla. NFL team, the Jaguars, in conjunction with its high-speed data service launch in that community (see graphic).
"The service has to be fully multimedia capable," agrees Steve Craddock, vice president of new media development at Comcast Corp., noting this means voice and audio streaming capabilities as well as video. "Seventy-five percent of everything we learn, we get through our eyes."
While a growing number of operators share such views, there are many veterans of the interactive content business who caution against bending too far over backwards to accommodate advanced multimedia capabilities. Ikonic Interactive Inc., for example, developer of The News Exchange interactive TV channel and several other projects for Time Inc. New Media, comes to this view with a long history of discovering what consumers want is not necessarily what experts anticipate.
"Right from the start we were very aggressive with use of streaming audio and video and VRML (virtual reality markup language)," says Robert May, Ikonic chairman and CEO. "But we found it's not about multimedia and fast access, it's about relevance." As a result, May adds, "We've moved away from developing content with eye candy."More traditional tools
Indeed, some operators are not encouraging their customers to avail themselves of the on-line video streaming capabilities which have become available as browser "plug-ins" from a variety of vendors whose video systems are showing up on Web sites. Time Warner, for example, in working with local "Webspinners" to foster site development for its "Road Runner" launch in Akron and Canton, Ohio, has focused on use of more traditional tools for Web site construction, using off-the-shelf software such as dB Edit and online-enhanced Microsoft Word, says Steve Callahan, content editor for Time Warner Cable's Excalibur Group and a founding member of Time Inc.'s New Media Group.
"We're not supporting third-party plug-ins," Callahan says, noting that users are told they "fool around with these things at their own peril." While Time Inc.'s Pathfinder Internet site has been expanded to include a version designed to feed higher quality graphics to customers with cable modems, Callahan stresses that there is relatively little extra content being ported to the high-speed site, and so far, none of it is video.
Such caution rests in the fact that the addition of video streaming greatly complicates system designs, leaving operators with a choice of either spending a lot of money to accommodate high usage rates of video, even though there is a relatively limited amount of video now available, or setting up the systems on the assumption that video usage will be sufficiently sporadic to avoid serious line blockages within standard contention models. Indeed, says Craddock, to accomplish the delivery of services like Comcast has in mind requires a virtual rebuilding of the Internet infrastructure.
"For companies trying to make a business case for offering high-speed access, the decision comes down to, you have to rebuild the Internet," he says. "It has to be high-speed end to end."
But how to accomplish that, and what levels of service to support are key issues, even among those, like @Home Networks, who are in business to provide an alternative to what Craddock calls "the ugly patchwork of connections" that is today's Internet.
"We're still struggling in the content space," says Will Hearst, former @Home CEO and a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, an @Home investor, along with Tele-Communications Inc., Comcast and Cox Communications. "It isn't really clear to me what the obvious content application is, other than e-mail." While broadband is clearly a consumer product, he adds, it remains "a slippery animal."
But a look at what's going on in the development of video streaming and compression technologies suggests that the marketplace will soon provide answers to the content question which mandate support for types of applications that are very different from what brings people to the on-line experience today. Given the pace at which video has entered the picture, it's no wonder many broadband strategists have been caught off guard.
"When we introduced our product last year (in November), it was widely perceived that viable video over the Internet would have to wait until at least the turn of the century," says Asaf Mohr, president and CEO of VDOnet Corp., one of the leaders in the fledgling on-line video environment. "Today we have more than 150 sites worldwide, including CBS, which delivered a live broadcast of the Republican convention from its site."
"We're seeing over 13,000 hours a week in video content going out over the 'Net using StreamWorks," comments Howard Gordon, president of Xing Technology Corp., in reference to his firm's widely used video streaming technology. StreamWorks is the tool used at the Jacksonville Jaguars site to support video feeds of player interviews, game highlights and other material to Continental customers.
Xing's StreamWorks, which can distribute MPEG files at low frame rates in small windows over 64 kbps ISDN links, will be employed to deliver separate video streams for low bandwidth and high bandwidth users, according to Doug Perkins, director of Internet services for Continental's Southeast region. "It's a pretty wicked site," he says, noting the high-speed version of the video feed is vastly superior.
Given the types of advances that are about to hit the market, the volume of video usage registered by Xing is likely to seem like a trickle in the near future. For example, Los Angeles-based startup Vosaic Corp. has come up with a way to deliver live multicast, on-demand and other forms of video programming over the Internet at 45 times the bandwidth efficiency of standard IP transport.
Launched in April and with more than 20 patents pending, Vosaic is commercializing what a co-founder calls "the next implementation of Mosaic" to support these and other capabilities, including VCR-like functionality and hyperlinking within the video window. "The advantage we're showing is an end-to-end protocol solution to the problem of delivering video over any IP network, whether it's POTS, cable, LAN, satellite or something else," says Vosaic COO Chuck Colby.
The first full set of Vosaic's client, server and authoring software will be available commercially starting this month, Colby says. He adds that a follow-on issue of the software will support live digital broadcasting, which has been extremely difficult to accomplish owing to the bursty nature of traffic over the packet network. "Basically, we've found a way to do a live multicast scenario where people can tune in at any point in the broadcast without having to log in at a specific time from the outset," he says, declining to explain how this is done.
Vosaic, a joint venture between business interests and the Systems Software Research Group at the University of Illinois, where Mosaic browsing technology was developed, demonstrated its high bandwidth efficiency to the institutional community in a trans-Atlantic test conducted earlier this year. Researchers reported a 45-fold increase in the frame rate of a video feed in conjunction with use of the firm's video datagram protocol (VDP) over POTS and Internet backbone links between the University of Norway and the University of Illinois.
"They used a 24 kilobit-per-second Internet connection to transmit video at one frame per five seconds using TCP/IP," Colby says. "When they substituted Vosaic's VDP for TCP (transfer control protocol), they registered a rate of nine frames per second."
The substitution, which requires that servers and clients be equipped with software add-ons, retains the functionality of HTML (hypertext markup language), allowing developers to treat a video space like any other graphic, Colby says. He notes the firm has secured distribution arrangements for its client plug-in with at least one leading browser supplier and is "talking to every major media and computer firm you can think of."
With all these improvements, Internet video is still a long way from what it will look like when high-speed data services come on-line. At the low data rates available over POTS lines, there is always a tradeoff between video resolution and frame rate, so that if one wants a reasonably smooth moving picture, the display must be run in a small window.
"What's important here is the magnitude of bandwidth efficiency we gain using VDP, no matter what the compression technology is," Colby says. "Our transport protocol can work with any compression system."
The first commercial iteration of the Vosaic software suite, the client portion of which is already in circulation as a free downloadable plug-in for MACs and PCs, works with MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and H.263 videoconferencing compression formats. Other compression systems, including wavelets, will be supported in the near future, Colby says.
"There are some amazing advances which haven't come to light where video encoding is concerned," Colby notes. "We're seeing wavelet codecs (encoder/decoders) that are five times as efficient as wavelet codecs now in use on the Internet."
Already, the wavelet video streaming system commercially available from Palo Alto-based VDOnet is generating 15 frame-per-second video/audio content over POTS lines at low-resolution window dimensions. "With the new encoders, we're looking at delivering TV quality video at 500 kbps, and we expect to go down to quasi-TV quality at ISDN rates," Mohr says. "This type of performance could create explosive growth in content and consumer participation."
VDOnet's system is not ready for the type of on-line broadcast described by Colby, nor is it capable of literally live feeds on a point-to-point basis. This is because the technology requires at least a brief interval for storing video before it is streamed in order to give the software compression engine at the server time to determine the data rate that each user's bandwidth will support.
"We offer a scalable solution, which supports distribution of the content at whatever frame rate is supported by the user's connection," says Greg Eisips, director of technical marketing at VDOnet. But the system has reached near-live translation speeds. At a recent demonstration, Eisips accessed the CBS News Web site, where the network runs a slightly delayed "live" news feed from its studios. Picture quality and sound were far superior to the video segments VDOnet was showing last spring.
VDOnet is working with PBS, NBC, Cisco Systems and other entities to create centers for developing video streaming applications and to support multicasting of multimedia content, with the first center to be installed in Palo Alto early next year and another in New York soon afterward. "The ability to stream video in real time without requiring storage at the client computer is opening the Web to a whole new level of development," Eisips says.
While the immediate impact of developments at Vosaic, VDOnet, Xing and other innovators will be to enhance the attraction of the narrowband Web environment, these advances will benefit broadband systems as well, developers say. "We're working with a number of cable companies to enhance high-speed access sites," Eisips says.
Xing's Gordon says the firm is working with cable operators in a number of cities to bring high-profile, cutting edge uses of video streaming into the Web experience this fall. "You can expect announcements involving six cable companies over the next couple of months," he says.
With 30,000 of its SURFboard modems on order for Continental's Jacksonville system, no vendor has been more atuned to the potential of video streaming than General Instrument Corp. "Our focus is on encouraging operators, content developers and suppliers to think about the platform as a conduit for videoware," says Mike Ozburn, vice president and general manager of GI's telecommunications group.
"The content is out there," Ozburn adds, noting GI's Videoware Innovation program has drawn participation from Macromedia, Microsoft, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, PBS and others. "The issue is what the mass market platform is going to be as developers plan to expand the multimedia components on-line."
With support for video streaming built into the modem data protocols of LANcity Corp., and with Motorola Corp. now providing software upgrades to make its data system video capable, the leading modem suppliers in the early startup phase are in a position to make high-speed data the platform of choice for interactive video. That leaves it up to those who are putting in the backbone infrastructure to decide whether the video platform materializes in the cable space.