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AppRising delivers insight into new broadband applications, exploring their impact on networks and their implications for public policy.

AppRising is written by Geoff Daily, who covers broadband applications and the business of online video. Based in Washington, DC, Geoff regularly advises applications developers, network operators, community leaders, and public officials on how to maximize adoption and use of the Internet.

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November 20, 2007 9:56 AM

Fullscreen Internet Video: A Revolution Weighting to Happen

In my research for a StreamingMedia.com feature that explores the opportunities and challenges of online HD video delivery, I learned about a company called Move Networks, which powers ABC's library of full-screen first-run episodes from its most popular TV shows.

One of the core elements of Move is giving content owners the ability to do variable bitrate delivery.

"Variable bitrate delivery" may sound like techno-talk, but what it enables is pretty straightforward: it delivers video at a bitrate that fits within the constraints of your last mile connection.

But this isn't just a matter of picking the right encoding rate for your speed at the outset; Move can help adjust the bitrate on the fly in order to compensate for shifting network conditions as you're watching a video.

While I've sampled ABC's player in the past, it's been a few months and I don't think I ever seen an entire show, so over the weekend I called up an episode of Ugly Betty to watch with my wife. I should have plenty of bandwidth, mind you, as I've got Comcast's premium tier of service. But like any cable connection, I'm on a shared network.

The episode started out amazingly well. Since we have yet to upgrade our TV to HD, the clarity was in some ways better than what we get in our living room, which by itself is a remarkable achievement for online video.

About eight minutes in we hit our first stop, which cleared quickly. Unfortunately it wasn't the last stop and we did near the point of deciding it wasn't worth continuing to try and watch, but we were already too engaged with the episode to not see it through until the end. Plus there's only one 30-second commercial during each break instead of the two and a half minutes of broadcast TV.

The most interesting thing about the experience, though, was watching variable bitrate delivery in action. Pretty much every time it stopped, when it started up again the resolution dropped significantly. I'm talking down to VHS or worse quality. But then it would gradually or quickly improve, often back to the point we were when the video started.

It's an extremely innovative approach to the challenges of unsteady network conditions, and I've generally heard good things about it in the industry, but I also have some reservations about the user experience.

Will everyone be all right watching a fullscreen video experience that looks like you're swapping VHS, broadcast, and DVD signals in and out?

It's like watching the Internet's impotency in action.

The Internet has now proven that it is demonstrably capable of delivering HD video (I saw it myself as talked about here), but that doesn't mean it always can. And despite the fact I'm paying for 8Mbps of service, I sometimes have trouble streaming a 1.5Mbps video.

At the same time, we're at a remarkable turning point.

Most Internet videos are encoded at 750Kbps and lower, but 1.5Mbps is going to start becoming a lot more common as anyone subscribed to a 5Mbps pipe or higher should be able to have a decent user experience at that rate.

And what do you get for 1.5Mbps? Full screen video somewhere between broadcast and DVD quality.

Formerly most 1Mbps+ videos were only accessible as wait-and-watch downloads, but now they'll be available instantly, which could create explosive demand for the abundance of premium content (TV shows, movies, music videos, sports, etc.) now available online today.

But instead of being overwhelmed with excitement, I can't help worrying about the impact this burgeoning demand will have on broadband networks. Perhaps even more importantly, though, I'm concerned with the potential negative impact these sagging networks may have on the adoption of Internet video.

The more a video stops and stutters, the less people will want to watch it, so having enough bandwidth to deliver smooth playback is essential, especially in these early days of high quality online video.

And while perhaps one day Internet entrepreneurs like Move Networks will devise another clever way around network limitations, there really is no substitute for more bandwidth.


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