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Taking the streaming video plunge

Thu, 05/31/2001 - 8:00pm
Michael Lafferty and Angela Langowski, CED Associate Editors

Everybody's doing it.

A friend across the country drops you a quick e-mail with a hot link or an attached file with a funny video clip he or she found on the Internet. You point and click and suddenly, you're watching a halting video of a crazed office worker going postal, or more accurately "cubal," as he destroys his computer and his cube in a technology-induced rage. Or you're watching a series of rabbis, blue-haired old ladies or Japanese businessmen jumping on the cultural bandwagon with their colloquial (and hilarious) versions of the "What's up?" phenom.

For many Web users, especially those with passe´ dial-up modems, these brief, bumpy clips are what streaming video is all about. It's quick. It's funny. It's a joke.

But, all that's about to change and broadband's IP-based, high-speed access service has a good chance to make streaming media what it's always wanted to be–a business.

Miscues and misunderstandings

The state of streaming media today, says Steve Vonderhaar, an analyst and director of media and entertainment strategies at The Yankee Group, is in many ways a rerun of an earlier Internet time.

"What you have is very much a replay of the narrowband Web," says Vonderhaar. "That's when you had people of all stripes trying to push entertainment bits down the pipe. It was the folks who produced applications that offered value that won the day. That was the case of the narrowband Web on the PC, and it will be the case in the broadband Web on the PC."

Unfortunately, broadband service providers provide entertainment. And that presents some singular challenges and opportunities when it comes to streaming media, especially video to the PC, says Jeffrey Huppertz, vice president of marketing for ClearBand (www.clearband.com), a broadband video streaming company.

"The reason that streaming over the open Internet has been such an utter failure so far," says Huppertz, "is because the content has not been there." But, he says, mainstream programmers and film makers with quality entertainment have well-founded fears about streaming that content over the open Internet "because the quality is abhorrent and the security is non-existent."

Yet, says Huppertz, "if cable operators continue to ignore the PC screen and not bring their core video service to those screens, they are going to make themselves vulnerable to interlopers."

"Owning" the PC screen is important, because the people who access streaming media (or "streamies," as they're called) are considered by many to be the most attractive audience on the Web.

In an Arbitron/Edison Media Research report entitled, "The Buying Power of "Streamies" (www.arbitron.com/studies1.htm#ils4), this group is far more likely to buy online than those who don't listen or view Webcasts.

Standards, schmanders...

The freewheeling Internet has left the streaming media folk to their own devices. As a result, there are currently three main streaming media platforms (or codecs) that content providers can use to create/encode their content and end users can use to view or listen to the resulting streams.

Real Networks boasts more than 200 million downloads of its Real Player. Microsoft and its Windows Media Player comes in with about 240 million distributions (which includes downloads and licenses), and Apple's QuickTime player rounds out the competition with more than 100 million downloads.

The three platform competitors are in no mood to parley. Real doesn't work with Windows, and Windows doesn't work with Real. There's a spirited battle among the three to see who can broker the biggest and best deals with content providers and secure a position as the de facto streaming standard.

For example, RealNetworks entered a pact with Sony Computer Entertainment that could make streaming, on-demand video a part of everyday life for the first time. Under the deal, Sony's PlayStation 2 video game consoles will include RealNetworks' streaming media software.

Sony has sold more than 10 million of the consoles, providing a ready-made audience. It is on Internet-enabled PlayStations, complete with hard drive and keyboard add-ons due out by the end of the year, that Real hopes to complete a hop for Web video: from the den to the living room.

There are those who think this three-way tug-o-war is more of a hindrance than a help. They're pinning their hopes on MPEG-4 as a rescue agent.

Santana

"Today, it's Real, Microsoft and QuickTime," says Dario Santana, president of Aerocast, a broadband streaming services company. "What we all hope to see is that these players will all converge around an MPEG-4 solution so that those of us that are providing services and providing content over the Internet have to worry only about one standard, not three."

Whether Real and Microsoft converge around MPEG-4, says Dan Sheeran, senior vice president for worldwide sales and marketing at nCube, is "the $64 million question, because at this point, MPEG-4 is essentially in the eye of the beholder."

Sheeran

Sheeran says MPEG-4 "is a particularly tricky area" because there are various dimensions to MPEG-4 (e.g., the compression algorithm, the file and transport formats, the control protocol, etc.) and there are various versions of each in the MPEG spec.

Sheeran believes the proprietary logjam can be broken, but not in an open Internet environment. Instead, he believes MPEG-4's ascendancy depends on closed networks, like those found in businesses and broadband networks. This effort, he believes, will also be helped along by the nearly instinctive aversion operators have to being stuck in anyone's proprietary pocket.

"I think the opportunity lies in closed networks where someone can control all the parameters," says Sheeran.

"They have the ability to dictate the player that's going to go on there and the encoding and decoding that's going to be used. So, I think that's where we'll start to see it (MPEG-4) creep in."

An enterprising approach

Marc Harrison, research director at Jupiter Media Metrix, says his company has just completed an extensive report entitled "Streaming Video Adoption in the Enterprise Market." The report focuses on enterprise applications of streaming and predicts enterprise spending on streaming video technology will increase from a meager $140 million in 2000 to a whopping $2.8 billion in 2005.

"Jupiter definitely feels the investment growth in enterprise streaming is going to focus internally in the short term. Things like executive speeches and employee education and training are the proof-of-concept for streaming video," Harrison says.

"However, the (overall) market will really start to develop once enterprises have mastered these (internal) streaming events, and then they'll start evaluating external solutions that will solve such things as streaming sensitive information to customers and partners."

To assist enterprises, there's a growing number of companies that have developed products that help enterprises master those streaming applications. One such company, New York-based Centerseat Inc., which dubs itself as an interactive rich media technology and services provider, wants to help companies take advantage of their media assets and get the company's message out "loud and clear," says Scott Harmolin, Centerseat's CEO.

An example of how Centerseat accomplishes that task could be a retail book and music chain with a minimal Web presence that wants to sell books and CDs online. Using the Centerseat platform, the company can integrate e-commerce book offerings with streaming video content.

What's an operator to do?

Broadband service providers are not being left out in the cold Internet when it comes to streaming media. A growing number of companies are either adapting existing equipment or developing new platforms that will help operators cash in on streaming media.

Gerovac

At least two video-on-demand (VOD) companies, nCube and SeaChange International, have announced their VOD servers can also assist operators looking to develop streaming media capabilities. The idea, says Branko Gerovac, SeaChange's vice president of research, is that operators cache streaming on the edge of their networks so that they can enhance its quality before it's sent on to their customers.

"What we would do," says Gerovac, "is host that advanced content on one of our servers and instead of delivering it over the MPEG plant, we'll deliver it over the IP cable modem plant. This is a much better experience for the viewer than they could get going through their cable modem out over the Internet directly."

Sheeran notes operators can develop incremental revenues with certain enhanced e-commerce services consumers have already demonstrated a willingness to pay for in the narrowband environment.

At the same time, Sheeran points out that because cable modem technology utilizes a shared pipe, video-intensive capabilities will most certainly gobble up bandwidth. He says there are three ways to handle this.

One way is "to simply limit, constrain or prevent the use of video in the network," an admittedly short-term fix. Another way is to over-provision the network for excess bandwidth, which is an expensive way to solve the problem. The most viable approach, he says, is for service providers to use various quality-of-service (QoS) techniques in the network and the video streaming technology itself that gives video data priority over all other data types.

He notes that Real Networks has added some techniques to its product that adjusts the data rate of the stream based on network congestion or capacity. In addition, he says there are also several sets of Internet standards that are under development to identify certain priority packets.

Still another way, he says, is specific to cable modem technology, i.e., DOCSIS 1.1. Simply put, all of the QoS that's needed for IP telephony over cable could be used for streaming video as well.


Figure 1: Chaincast Networks' "chaincasting" technology.

Caching in on streaming

Operators can also tap a growing number of new companies that are developing streaming solutions specifically for broadband service providers.

San Jose-based ChainCast Networks claims it is pioneering cost-effective, high-quality content delivery to make it easier and more profitable for companies to build and manage a streaming media network.

The company's patent-pending "chaincasting" technology (see Figure 1, page 28) allows customers to stream content at a lower cost by creating dynamic distribution links or "chains" between users. This peer-to-peer technology (much like the Napster model) enables customers with sufficient bandwidth to act as splitters–seamlessly sending streams to additional users, thereby creating "free streams," according to the company.

Rozenfeld

"ChainCast believes the solution is to deliver content affordably over the Internet at 25 percent to 30 percent of the total cost," says Joseph Rozenfeld, CTO/EVP of engineering for ChainCast. The company offers the ChainCast Content Delivery Platform (CCDP) as a managed service, providing customers with complete operation of a streaming infrastructure to build and brand their own Global Internet Media Network.

The concept of enhancing the experience of the Internet by delivering video in a more powerful way is one San Diego-based Aerocast Inc. is banking on to help deliver entertainment-quality streaming video to home viewers with broadband Internet connections.

As a part of its solution, Aerocast and Motorola are developing a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system that will overcome one of the most daunting challenges facing the streaming media services industry–protecting copyrighted video material across the Internet. With this critical security piece in place, Aerocast is poised to deliver the first truly secure, high-quality, streaming video-on-demand (VOD) system.

Aerocast intends to deliver its secure streaming media services in partnership with content providers and broadband operators (see Figure 2, page 34). Aerocast Video Exchanges (AVX), the company's media servers, are placed on the edge of broadband networks in the headend. This edge placement, combined with an intelligent routing system, enables the delivery of high-quality VOD with none of the packet loss that can happen with other streamed media. Aerocast's media server device can serve approximately 200 simultaneous users, which means a couple thousand homes can be served out of that device, says Santana.

 


Figure 2: Aerocast's broadband streaming solution.

He says the intelligent routing the company provides is located in multiple elements throughout the network. "The bottom line," says Santana, "is we have an element at the content provider that injects their content into the network," he says. "We take the content and move it closer to the viewer. So, there needs to be hardware and software that deals with that."

Aerocast is currently in trials with Millennium, a service provider based in Seattle, Wash. The company also recently announced an agreement with Inktomi Corp., a developer of scalable Internet infrastructure software to provide core distribution technology for Aerocast.

Schaumburg, Ill.-based ClearBand believes the delivery of high-quality, live digital video to PCs, simultaneous to televisions, will become a key component and service differentiator for broadband service providers.

"What we've done," says Huppertz, "is build a system that enables a cable operator to offer subscription digital video services to their subscriber's PC screens through their cable modems. With our software-based system, the operator has a virtual digital set-top box with the PC. It's fully addressable so that each cable modem has a MAC and IP address."

Huppertz says the company also differentiates itself from the likes of Real Networks and Microsoft that require their players to be resident on PC hard drives. He says their 200-kilobit player (ClearBand Tuner) is downloaded (in less than five seconds) only for the session that's being experienced. Once the session is over, the player, which never goes to the PC's hard disk, disappears.

ClearBand Playback enables broadband service providers to offer a multi-channel video service to PCs and other IP-enabled devices through the scheduling and playback of pre-encoded files. ClearBand Tuner is a very thin client that is transparently streamed to the subscriber from a ClearBand Live or Playback Server.

The Tuner is a real-time executable application, not a browser or media player plug-in. And finally, the ClearBand Internet Administrator allows network operators to perform system management functions remotely from virtually any Internet-enabled device.

At the end of the day...

The novelty of streaming media is finally wearing off. It's no longer just a funny curiosity that workers chuckle about around the water cooler. High-speed access is making it a business that operators can use to generate incremental revenue, and use as a value-added service to reinforce customer loyalty.

nCube's Sheeran thinks cable operators are a natural for this promising capability. "Nobody has a better network for caching than cable operators," say Sheeran. "Their whole network, for completely independent reasons, was built from the ground up as a fully distributed edge network. So, they have the opportunity to run this business themselves.

"Rather than simply being a provider of real estate and pipes, they can actually develop their own interactive services and deliver more video, because they're getting more revenue out of the service."

There are a couple of things that a cable operator needs to address before deciding to deploy streaming video technology, says Walter Miao, vice president/director of advanced consumer service research with Probe Research.

"His or her main criterion has to be, 'I can accept this technology because I can always check up on the facts and whether they're right or wrong. A big question I have to ask is how do I migrate to it? How do I do an 'earn out' or a 'pay as you go' as I transfer over'?"

While streaming media is still clearly in a nascent stage, the Yankee Group's Vonderhaar believes broadband service providers are dealing from a position of strength when it comes to making streaming media a real business.

"If you have a broadband pipe, it's the wild, wild west out there right now," says Vonderhaar. At the end of the day, the CDNs have bandwidth, and bandwidth is a commodity. I tend to think that if you're able to strike up alliances and promotional pacts with the growing set of software application developers in this space, you should do it. You should also develop relationships with enterprises that are deploying both within their networks and outside their networks.

"Bottom line, at the end of the day, the guys with the pipe have to talk to the guys with the software who are talking to the guys with the applications. And the guys with applications want to reach as many eyeballs as they possibly can, and that's what the broadband guys have to offer."

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