Internet broadcasting: R.I.P.
Just a few years ago, a bunch of irrational people were running around, claiming that the future of broadcasting could be found in a place known as cyberspace. That's where the digital revolution was taking place, thanks to a disruptive technology known as the Internet.
The live broadcast of the first Victoria’s Secret fashion show demonstrated the drawbacks of broadcasting over the Internet. Broadcast.com had to scale up the servers to meet the demand, and many potential viewers were still turned away.
Who knew that cyberspace would turn into a war zone? That well-entrenched media companies would gain the upper hand — at least for now — after the Internet bubble burst? Who knew that the Internet would be a hostile environment for broadcasting?
In retrospect, it sure looks like Mark Cuban knew. If not, he's just an incredibly lucky Internet billionaire.
Cuban was the entrepreneurial spirit behind Broadcast.com. In 1990, Cuban became a computer industry millionaire after selling his company, MicroSolutions, to Compuserve. In 1995, Cuban came out of retirement to bring “broadcasting” to the Internet.
Soon, half a million people were listening to radio and TV stations carried live on the Broadcast.com Web site. Cuban's employees worked for ten dollars an hour, but with stock options as an incentive, and they were coming up with fresh ideas — like streaming President Clinton's grand jury testimony and a Victoria's Secret fashion show.
Never mind that the underlying technology of the Internet, IP, does not support broadcasting (we'll get back to that in a moment). Never mind that the Victoria's Secret fashion show exposed this reality, as hundreds of thousands of people tried and failed to watch the “broadcast.”
Not to worry, these technical glitches could be solved. Internet broadcasting sure looked like the next big thing.
Cuban's gamble paid off spectacularly, first when Broadcast.com went public, and then when Yahoo purchased the company in April of 1999. Three hundred employees became millionaires and Cuban himself was left with approximately $2 billion.
The timing could not have been better, given the domino effect of the dot.com bubble bursting; the looting of companies that invested in fiber optic networks to handle the deluge of bits (that are still bottlenecked by the high cost of first- and last-mile broadband connections); and the resulting meltdown of high tech.
What did Cuban do? Well he created HDNet, the first all-HDTV network — currently available as Channel 199 on DirecTV. Recently, Cuban announced he is planning to expand HDNet to include three more networks showing high-def sports, movies and entertainment by the end of this year. It is likely that these channels will become the backbone of the recent cable industry commitment to the “Powell Plan,” one of the FCC chairman's latest attempts to get the digital terrestrial television (DTTV) transition moving.
Never mind that the cable industry, with help from HDNet, HBO, Showtime and Discovery HD Theater, can meet their commitment to Powell — carriage of up to five channels of HDTV content — without delivering a single bit of DTTV content. Never mind that cable and DBS are well positioned to develop the niche market for delivery of HDTV content, while broadcasters continue to try to figure out how to make even one more dime with DTTV. Never mind that the FCC just imposed a huge receiver tax on consumers, mandating that they buy DTTV receivers, which most multichannel subscribers will never use.
We may never know if Cuban saw all of this coming. But several hundred people in the television industry were given ample warning about the impending Internet meltdown. I know. I delivered the warning in February of 1999, several months before Broadcast.com was sold.
The warning was delivered at the 33rd Advanced Imaging Conference of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. The paper addressed the opportunity for broadcasters to deliver new forms of digital media content to the masses using data broadcasts carried in the transport multiplex of their DTTV channels.
The Victoria's Secret fashion show Webcast served as an example of how broadcasters can become an important part of the fabric of the Internet. I related how a DTTV broadcaster could be delivering both the program and the entire E-commerce Web site to local cache (a.k.a. a PVR).
The audience wasn't buying it. In those days, the video industry considered the Internet to be a serious threat. To their relief, my next slide delivered some good news: The Internet is broken!
The crux of the problem is TCP/IP, the foundation upon which the Internet is built. TCP handles the negotiations between a source of data (a server) and a computer requesting this data, and keeps track of the routing of the payload (the IP packets). TCP/IP is a two-way transactional system.
In video industry terms you can think of it like video-on-demand. Every set of eyes (or ears for audio streaming) must be sent their own copy of the program. If the program is live, the same bits are sent to every computer requesting the program. If the program is stored on a server, every person can access the program independently and control the playback, just like the VOD systems that the cable industry keeps promising.
As more people request access to a program, the server(s) are forced to create more individual threads. This places huge demands on the server(s) and fills the Internet backbone networks with duplicated IP packets. This is the inverse of broadcasting, which is the epitome of efficiency — one program to many. The live broadcast of the first Victoria's Secret fashion show was swamped with requests — many potential viewers were turned away. And the servers that hosted the accompanying e-commerce site were swamped as well. Broadcast.com had to scramble to scale up the servers to meet the demand. The Achilles heel of Internet broadcasting had been exposed.
Broadcasters got the last laugh, as ABC delivered the 2001 Victoria's Secret fashion show.
The logical solution to this problem is painfully evident. Send the IP packets for a live broadcast once and route them to everyone who wants to view or listen to the program. The folks who invented Internet protocols understood this and created a standard to do just that: IP multicast.
The vast majority of Internet routers installed during the explosive growth period of the late '90s do not support the IP multicast protocol.
Internet congestion frequently causes streaming media to pause or stutter if packets arrive too late and buffers designed to deal with this issue are emptied out.
It is relatively easy to build a private network today that supports IP multicast, and to link this network to the Internet backbone. Anyone on the private network can then take advantage of IP multicast services and still access all of the Internet servers sitting behind routers that do not support IP multicast.
Today, companies like Akamai deliver streaming media service both to Internet and intranet clients. The company uses private network bandwidth to get the copies of the streams out to “edge servers” located around the world. This gets the bits closer to the customer, improving performance.
For companies with private networks that support IP multicast, Internet broadcasting has become a reality. This is one example of why the focus of Internet streaming has moved away from business-to-consumer to business-to-business. Businesses have the bandwidth, the applications and the money to pay for it today.
I told the SMPTE audience that broadcasters could become part of the Internet too. The IP multicast protocol is ideal for digital broadcasters, with minor modifications. To join a multicast delivered via the Internet backbone or a private network, a two-way transaction is required to initiate the routing of bits to your computer. Since broadcasting is a one-way service there can be no such transaction; but none is needed. Broadcasters can just deliver an IP multicast with the proper packet headers, and any receiver that knows what it is looking for can tune in.
It is unfortunate, but many people still think of the Internet in terms of the TCP/IP backbone that delivers most of the global traffic today. The term “Internet” is a contraction of inter-networking, the foundation upon which the Internet is built. By tying many different networks together and using a few key concepts, it is possible to create a highly reliable fabric for digital communications.
The key is connections, the ability to share information with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Thus, we are seeing many new applications enabled as new and different kinds of networks and devices are interconnected. For example, it is now easy to use a Web browser to send a text message to a pager or PDA equipped with wireless connections.
Reliability is enhanced by the ability to route data through multiple paths, bypassing congestion and networks that are temporarily disabled. Equally important, private networks can be used to augment the public networks, making it possible to guarantee the quality of service needed for specific applications like Internet broadcasting.
Another key inter-networking concept is isochronous communications, the ability to broadcast real-time events. This is where IP multicast comes in, allowing events to be streamed in real time to many recipients. Television is an isochronous medium today.
Perhaps a more important inter-networking concept is the ability to enable asynchronous communication; for instance, I put information up on a Web site that you can consume on demand.
The personal video recorder (PVR) is an extension of this concept. Marking programs in the EPG causes the PVR to tune to and capture the information that is being broadcast. It is also possible to teach the PVR to look for and capture certain kinds of information.
Asynchronous communication is the key to enabling broadcasters to enter many new markets, and it acts as a bandwidth multiplier. As indicated with the Victoria's Secret example, ancillary data can be cached while a viewer is watching a program for asynchronous consumption, or programs with complex interactivity can be cached. The program can then be navigated through based on the viewer's interests. And a wide range of data services can be continuously updated in cache; for example, the latest weather, sports scores and news headlines could be available on demand.
The ability to deliver programs to cache would allow broadcasters to use off-peak hours to deliver a wide range of free-to-air and premium content to viewers. HDTV movies could be delivered to cache and consumed on demand with full control like a DVD.
And all of this can be linked with the two-way networks that more and more homes are installing. Thus, the two-way network can be used for the kind of transactions that the Internet is good for, while the one-way broadcast network can do the heavy lifting, delivering a tidal wave of IP multicast bits to the masses.
BY CRAIG BIRKMAIER
In an effort to build momentum behind the floundering Digital Terrestrial Television (DTTV) transition, the FCC issued a Report and Order Aug. 8, 2002, establishing a schedule requiring manufacturers to include DTTV receivers in most new televisions sold by July 1, 2007. Under the phase-in plan, manufacturers will be required to equip new television receiving equipment to tune and decode over-the-air DTV signals on all the channels allocated for broadcast television service in accordance with the following schedule:
Receivers with screen sizes 36 inches and above — 50 percent of a responsible party's units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2004; 100 percent of such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2005.
Receivers with screen sizes 25 to 35 inches — 50 percent effective July 1, 2005; 100 percent effective July 1, 2006.
Receivers with screen sizes 13 to 24 inches and TV interface devices (VCRs, DVD players/recorders, etc.) that receive broadcast television signals — 100 percent effective July 1, 2007.
The decision comes on the heels of requests by key members of Congress that the FCC act to resolve a number of issues impeding progress in the DTTV transition. The NAB and other broadcast industry groups have been calling for receiver mandates, the resolution of copy protection issues, and for full carriage by cable systems of all digital content delivered by broadcasters in the free and clear. The consumer electronics industry has been calling for the FCC to follow through with implementation of legislation requiring cable systems to support integrated and stand-alone digital cable tuners sold by the consumer electronics industry.
In voting for the DTTV receiver mandate, Powell stated that this was a matter of industrial policy. “In the end, we have to make a judgment about what is in consumers' best interest; not in a vacuum, not in a hypothetical marketplace, but in the real world. The All-Channel Receiver Act and the DTV transition are national commitments in which the FCC must play a prominent role.”
Calling the FCC decision a multibillion dollar tax on consumers, CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro said minimizing the cost of new DTV products and making them cable-compatible would “best accelerate the process.”
The CEA and a number of consumer electronics manufacturers have announced that they will appeal the FCC decision.
Along with the Report and Order mandating DTTV tuners, the FCC also opened a proceeding to investigate whether the agency should impose a copy protection standard such as the “Broadcast Flag,” which has been proposed by Hollywood and other major content producers. The proceeding will examine whether the proposed Broadcast Flag is necessary, if it is a workable solution, and if the agency has the authority to require manufacturers to implement a copy protection system in new television receivers. Comments are due Oct. 30, 2002. Reply comments are due Dec. 13, 2002.
For more information, see the FCC 02-230 Report and Order Mandating DTTV Receivers at hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-02-230A1.pdf, and the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Digital Broadcast Copy Protection at hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-02-231A1.pdf.
Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.