The issue came up at VON this week as the NCAA men's basketball tournament was coming to nearby HP Pavilion. (See VON Madness.) That's fitting, because March Madness was frequently held up at VON as an example of a mass-scale live event.
Major League Baseball Advanced Media LP, which handles baseball's online video and also does consulting jobs, helped stream March Madness video for CBS's site last year, reaching 313,000 users. That's a lot, but it's just a "quaint business" compared with the potential audience of millions that sports leagues hope to capture, says Bob Bowman, MLBAM's CEO.
Speaking at the conference here, Bowman described how MLB has built up experience with live streaming video since 2002. The 20 games provided online that year showed how much harder live video is than video-on-demand.
"I'm happy to say every one of them was an abysmal failure," pockmarked with freeze-ups and dropped connections, Bowman said. "More laptops were thrown, mainly by me."
About 3 million people per day view some form of video on MLB's site, Bowman said. Much of that is video-on-demand -- baseball news shows or highlight clips. To serve live game feeds by the millions is going to require some new tricks.
Among them will be the caching of live streams, which MLBAM expects to start this year. MLBAM is also working with Swarmcast to see if a peer-to-peer (P2P) method might be the answer, Bowman said.
Exhibitors at VON's video pavilion were split on P2P. The more established firms -- like The FeedRoom, which provides video technology for outfits like The New York Times -- say content delivery networks (CDNs) have done just fine so far.
FeedRoom officials say March Madness, in a previous year, is the only time they've had trouble with scale. In that case, the company used multiple CDNs, feeding them in round-robin fashion: Akamai Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: AKAM) would handle one viewer's feed, Limelight Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: LLNW) the next, and so on, evenly divvying up the traffic.
Vividas, a video supplier similar to The FeedRoom, is considering P2P, but primarily for the cost savings; high-traffic events can still be handled with multiple CDNs, says Iain Molland, Vividas CEO.
"The peer-to-peer is attractive because of the cost model," Molland says, adding that his company is considering the technology. "But we use the CDN because we think it's the best way to do it right now."
And it's worth noting that CDNs have been working on beefing up scale. An Akamai spokesman says his is the sole CDN delivering 56 of this year's March Madness games.
Some companies are pushing P2P connections as the answer. Newcomer Neokast claims it's got a way to stream to "infinite" users via P2P. In the non-HD realm, a company called Network Foundation Technologies LLC makes similar claims and has broadcast live events such as OzzFest -- but mostly for standard-definition feeds that aren't full-screen sized.
Then there's the question of high-definition TV. For a recent report, "DSL Video Bandwidth Crunch," Light Reading Insider polled encoding vendors on the bandwidth needed for online TV, given advances in compression. The consensus is that HD video will be scrunched into feeds as skinny as 4 Mbit/s within two years. That's meant to be good news, but still a long way from the 700 kbit/s many video providers are using.
Table 1: Video Compression Timeline
|Improvement||Standard Definition||High Definition|
|MPEG-2||3-6 Mbit/s||16-19 Mbit/s|
|MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 Now||2-3 Mbit/s||6-7 Mbit/s (720p) /
8-10 Mbit/s (1080i)
|Future||1.5 Mbit/s||4-6 Mbit/s (720p) /
6-7 Mbit/s (1080i)
|Timetable to achieve||End 2008||Mid to end 2008|
|Source: Light Reading Insider|
Some providers claim they've got proprietary ways to squash an HD signal even further. Vividas, for instance, says it can transmit HD on a 1-Mbit/s channel.
Bowman says it doesn't matter yet. MLBAM streams at 750 kbit/s and doesn't yet do HD online, even though cable companies have asked about that; Bowman's group just isn't convinced that live HD streaming can work on a large scale.
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading