By Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

I'm kind of a sci-fi buff, not hardcore, but with more than a passing interest. Consequently, I took to James Cameron's "Dark Angel" television program right away. It has an intriguing future vision, ethical issues raised by genetic engineering, and technological advancements employed to advance the noble rebel cause, such as streaming freedom videos. (My wife, no sci-fi fan, counters wryly that it also has an attractive female lead.)

It is interesting that video streaming has become a technological concept that increasingly is entering the public consciousness, just the way digital did earlier. In reality, though, video streaming is a technology that will continue to need tinkering if it is to become "the" mode of delivery for all things video.

However, as proof that it continues to increase its share of the broader video delivery world, the use of video streaming is growing in the public sector. Local governments that were once tied to the delivery of televised public meetings in a straight analog channel format are beginning to provide duplicate feeds—a traditional analog feed (typically over a cable system government access channel) and another that is streamed over the Internet. Of course, the implementation of such a delivery method does not come without significant enhancements to current transmission and Web infrastructure. After review of these implications, more than one local government has decided to defer implementation until the cost and complexity of video streaming decreases.

Another issue, too, is that the perception of citizens who access the streamed video feeds is often significantly affected by the bandwidth and transfer rate of the connections into their homes. Elected and appointed officials, for example, who initially believed early implementation of streamed video is important to e-government initiatives, sometimes become far less inclined when they see how the high quality stream that they have seen over internal networks becomes a hazy, herky-jerky, discontinuous series of pictures over a residential dial-up connection.

Local jurisdictions are, though, starting to see more applications for the use of video streaming in internal operations. Video streams from a wide variety of surveillance sites, such as parking ramps and garages, parks and recreation locations, key arterial roadways and intersections for traffic monitoring purposes, and areas known for a high potential of criminal activity, can be effectively transported over systems that don't necessarily provide high resolution or continuous motion. This type of video can be streamed to central monitoring points (such as traffic control centers) or to public safety locations (such as a city-wide command center or to a police precinct that is located in the same geographic area) or to multiple sites at once.

In fact, video streaming can be significantly useful for public entities that have a great number of remote locations. Park systems, for example, can share virtual tour information between sites so that a patron at one site can peruse the facilities available at another. This information can then be linked to on-line booking and registration functions so that a full transaction can be completed immediately, if the patron desires. This same system can be made available over the Internet, so the patron can either make a choice while they're within the park system, or at home or at the office.

Similarly, library systems can stream video between branches so that patrons at remote branches, for instance, can take advantage of lectures, book talks, seminars, etc., that may only be able to take place in-person at the central library based on meeting room availability. Fire departments can use video streaming for a variety of purposes, including distributed training to various shifts and video messaging between, for example, the fire chief and station captains for command and control functions.

Through interconnections with public school systems, public safety entities can also provide video content related to fire safety, drug abuse prevention, vocations, etc., for access by classrooms and individual students.

Besides the issues related to the cost and implementation of necessary technology, mentioned above, and the availability of support personnel, local governments face two other challenges in employing widespread internal use of video streaming—bandwidth and information security. Concerning bandwidth, one of the Web designers I know says, "If your bandwidth ain't screamin,' then you're dreamin' about streamin'." (Well, he's no poet, but he still has a point.) IT directors at large local governments cringe when various departments start asking them to stream a variety of video content to literally thousands of desktops. It's one thing, for instance, to make available a video stream of a city council meeting to various departments so that they can monitor discussions pertinent to their functional areas. It's another thing altogether to make available multiple streams to multiple desktops simultaneously and continuously. Even large local WANS with gigabit backbones could crash under the weight.

Further, using the Internet to distribute such information, whether internally or externally, can drastically increase the bandwidth requirement and commensurate cost for the local government's connection to its ISP, unless the ISP is physically close to the IT data center and can thus potentially be connected by private fiber.

Regarding security, internal-oriented video streams may be facilitated over the Internet rather than through a private WAN. However, highly secure VPNs must be employed to ensure that such communications remain internal.

Even in that case, it is difficult for city IT directors to convince police departments to use the public Internet for internal communications. The only Web they want to hear about is the one named Jack.