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Web an exhibition sport at Olympics

NBC has teamed up with Phoenix start-up to break IOC-induced ban on anything Internet
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor
It won't be a gold medal event, instead more of an exhibition sport, but broadband will make its Olympic debut Saturday when, for the first time ever, NBC Webcasts highlights of Olympic events. The 20-minute video package of day-old highlights -- which will be repackaged every day and sandwiched between interviews and other Olympic news at NBCOlympics.com -- barely scratches the surface of high-bandwidth sports coverage, but it represents the biggest victory yet in the years the Internet has been battling for its place in the Olympics. If successful, the venture could go a long way toward prying open the Web presence at the Olympics. Just a few months after the Sydney Olympic torch is extinguished, the International Olympic Committee will meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, for a historic discussion about what to do about the Internet. "The IOC sees this as more of a process of evolution," said Tom Newell, general manager of NBC/Quokka Ventures, which is hosting the NBC Olympic Web site. "We take some steps today, 2002 we take some more, and 2004 we take some more." It may have to be more of a series of broad jumps because the IOC hasn't been very kind to the Internet. Web journalists are yet to receive credentials allowing them to attend and report on an Olympic event. Even Olympic athletes are banned from the Web, and told that they cannot pen Web-based diaries. The IOC says it is just trying to protect the broadcast rights that television stations have paid for -- NBC paid about $700m for the TV rights to the upcoming games. Into this fray has stepped a small, Phoenix-based startup, Axient Communications, whose technology won over both NBC/Quokka and the IOC itself. "It's been quite a journey," said Wayne A. Pratt, Axient's chief financial officer. The trek began two years ago, when the IOC hired Quokka to teach its members about the Internet. It was the IOC itself that encouraged Quokka to start talking with NBC about the Sydney games. NBC had already created NBC/Quokka Ventures to host NBC's Olympic Web site. Newell said negotiations to air the highlight package began about nine months ago. There was as much back and forth as a volleyball game. The principal concerns were being able to stream video onto the Internet and at the same time protect the broadcast rights. "They wanted us to demonstrate to them that we could maintain the video within the geographic United States," Newell said. "What they didn't want was a situation where an American traveling overseas would have access." The IOC heard, and rejected, a number of ideas. One included companies being able to search Internet protocol addresses of the computers viewing the highlights. The IOC wasn't happy because there were a number of ways to pry open the system. "We had to go back to the drawing board," Newell said. In stepped Axient. The company had created the Octane Network, a broadband network that has partnered with 100 Internet service providers (ISPs) located across the country. Axient will push the video highlights over its closed and secure system, then the local ISPs will push them the last mile to the homes. It is the ISPs that are charged with verifying where the video is being streamed, Pratt said. The Octane system has been tweaked for the Olympics. The delivery and caching are being bolstered by software from Entera. Axient has also partnered with Williams Communications and Cisco Systems to build the needed infrastructure. The Octane network will use TeraEdge content distribution software to move the video from Sydney to the Octane network's servers. It is this private intranet delivery that may have ultimately won over the IOC, said Newell. What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said. Take me to Sydney 2000
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