Future Net: Net video getting up to speed

Video over the Net is fast becoming a reality -- and not just for high-end networks.

Creating and sending high-quality video over the Internet is much closer to widespread implementation than once seemed possible. That means use of the Internet by broadcasters, Webcasters and corporations will rise according to need and desire -- not limited by technical restrictions.

"If you look at the variety of content and applications that will be affected by broadband, it's pretty clear that the producers get it," says Ronald Whittier, senior vice president and general manager of the content group at Intel. "They're looking for an early lead in market share in their segments, because they know the market base is going to grow fast."

That's because assumptions about the Net are being ripped apart. Where content and service providers had talked about needing to transfer millions of bits per second to users in order to get quality video, engineers have developed a sweet spot for broadband content requiring transfer of less than 1Mbit/s of bandwidth, either on cable or phone lines.

Reaching these networks has been instrumental in driving content and applications producers to prepare for broadband service rollouts in the near term, says David Goldberg, chief executive of Launch.com, a provider of musical entertainment. "We thought we'd have to operate at higher bandwidth to do the things we're planning, but that's turning out not to be the case," he says.

Launch is working with interactive content supplier Arepa.com to create a three-dimensional world filled with games, music videos and full-length films. With efficient file formatting and distribution, all these types of content will be accessible to users with access capabilities in the high hundreds of kilobits-per-second range, Goldberg says.

Intertainer is another content supplier that is lowering its anticipated bandwidth ceiling for the delivery of interactive television-quality entertainment. "There's going to be a dramatic shift over the next 12 months," says Caroline Beck, chief operating officer at Intertainer. "There's a groundswell in feeling among providers of broadband content that there's a competitive environment to work in that we haven't had before."

Intertainer is preparing to roll out services commercially in about a dozen markets where phone companies offer Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service.

Right now, the movies, shopping and advertising that the company is planning to provide is designed to work on 1.5Mbit/s connections -- beyond the speeds set by the telephone industry for consumer services. By next year, Beck says, Intertainer will be able to deliver its services at 800kbit/s, which squares with the access rates set for G.Lite, the consumer version of DSL technology.

Along with improvements in the tools themselves, another big step will be taken with the launch of broadband backbones such as the one Excite@Home is developing using Real's technology, Dunsmir says. In fact, he adds, Internet Protocol-based video streaming could begin to affect traditional TV delivery in a big way. Today, the Headend-in-the-Sky developed by Tele-Communications, and now part of AT&T Broadband and Internet Services, can transmit digital cable TV signals using as little as 1.5Mbit/s of bandwidth. By adding IP streaming at both the origination point and in the end points, typically cable set-top boxes, HITS could send video based on the Motion Picture Expert Group-2 (MPEG-2) compression standard at 600kbit/s, he adds.

Compression and better support of different file formats also promise to revolutionise the look-and-feel of online video, both on high-speed and low-speed lines.

At the high end, these compression and IP-based integration and playback techniques will even allow the personalisation of video messages, such as ads. Using a new format for video called MPEG-4, one carefully authored 30-second spot carries enough data to deliver a variety of presentations. "Advertising over digital TV gets very interesting with MPEG-4," says Glenn Reitmeier, vice president of high-definition and multimedia systems at Sarnoff.

The second version of MPEG-4, which will be the first to be commercialised, is expected to be finalised by year's end, says Eric Petajan, a member of the technical staff at Lucent Technologies, who represents the company in the MPEG-4 process.

At the low end, MPEG-4 can separate the instructions that represent the execution of user commands from the delivery of the content itself. This way, the graphic components can be delivered in occasional bursts and stored in memory at the end-user terminal before they're needed. Then, only instructions need to be sent to set the graphics in motion.

Apple Computer's development of QuickTime (QT) 4.0 is another key development. The QT file format has been adopted as the basic reference file format for MPEG-4. QuickTime has been made more compatible across different types of computers in conjunction with the tie-in to MPEG-4.

For example, the Apple software now includes a streaming component that relies on the same streaming transport protocol that is used by RealNetworks. By choosing to use Real-Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), now a standard endorsed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, Apple has assured the availability of streamed QuickTime files across a vast base of end users who have RTSP-based "plug-in" client software already installed at their PCs, says Steve Bannerman, senior product manager at Apple's QuickTime group.

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