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Network: Don't tune in, just log on

Rapid advances in the development audio and video streaming technology are about to revolutionise broadcasting.
Convergence is a hot topic in the media industry. With digital TV, all video is just data that can be transmitted over phone wires or the Internet, while digital transmission allows broadcasters to send Web pages to your TV set just as easily as video.

Of course, reality is different. Today's Web video is rarely more than a small window that flickers a lot - unless you have a high-speed connection. And TV screens are not the best place to view Web pages. But, commercially, combining TV, communications and the Internet is seen as inevitable.

Karl Rossiter, chairman of the Inter-Union Satellite Operations Group's new media unit, believes that Internet Protocol (IP) is likely to do to TV what TV did to radio, partly because "IPTV infrastructure is only one- fifth of the cost of the way we have traditionally configured television". This is why telecoms companies and "smart broadcasters" are looking to a convergent future.

The Internet may have 100 million users, but there are more than three billion TV sets worldwide. However, as the Internet grows by about 100,000 people each day, broadcasters believe they must do something to stop losing so many eyeballs. Many already have a significant investment in the Web, such as US network NBC, which has bought the Snap search engine and co- owns MSNBC with Microsoft.

Some, like the BBC, ITN and CNN are among the best sites on the Web, and the BBC's is the most visited in Europe. Given that broadcasters already have all the resources to put together good multimedia, "the broadcasting industry should have a natural and substantial competitive advantage in the production of new interactive media," says Rossiter.

Unfortunately, he sees no evidence yet that broadcasters have made that advantage tell.

Paul Ayres, general manager of Real Networks Europe, agrees. Although he says "the impact of the Web on the broadcast community is now recognised and profound", he believes Internet broadcasting will do less for broadcasters, who already have access to an audience, than for other content providers, such as newspapers, which can become a news station "for a relatively low cost", allowing them to challenge the traditional broadcasters.

Ayres says broadcasters are beginning to recognise that it is no use just taking what content they already have and putting it on the Internet. Most broadcasters and media companies are held back by inertia, Ayres says, with few willing to make real investment in the Internet. He blames this on uncertainty, but maintains the Internet is too important to ignore: "Embrace it, or get out of business."

Ayres believes it will take about five years for most broadcasters to get to grips with interactivity.

With a fast connection, such as ADSL (available from BT next March), Ayres claims streaming is as good as digital TV. However, even a slow 28.8 modem can receive some images with good quality audio, which, he says, is suitable for a news broadcast.

Its viewer software, RealPlayer, is free (from www.real. com), although RealPlayer Plus, which gives greater control and allows users to record the content, costs about pounds 20. So far around 70 million copies of RealPlayer have been downloaded, with tens of millions more available on CD-rom for all platforms.

Its rivals claim Real charges too much for its streaming software, but Ayres retorts that the Internet is not free: "Our costs are just visible." He believes Real will maintain its dominance due to its established relationships with content providers which give it access to unique material.

Real Networks may have been first and is currently foremost, but significant competition comes from Apple's new QuickTime TV, which has won over some big names previously tied to Real, and Microsoft, whose Windows Media server software is free to Windows NT server users. The player software is also free and included in Internet Explorer 5, or can be downloaded (www.microsoft.com/windows/ windowsmedia). It, too, has numerous broadcast users, such as Bloomberg, which uses Windows Media for hourly, on-demand financial reports.

Microsoft believes streaming still has a long way to go before it is widespread. "It is not enormously used at the moment, but it is important. There is a lot of integrating going on between broadcasting and the Internet, and streaming media will be very important to that," says Neil Laver, Microsoft's Internet product manager.

Apple was last of the three into streaming, but it is pushing hard with its new QuickTime TV. This uses more than 900 video servers in 15 countries, with a capacity of more than 12Gb per second and belonging to Akamai Technologies.

QTV was launched by Steve Jobs, Apple's interim CEO, at last month's MacWorld Expo, where he claimed it will offer "the best experience for watching video on the Internet". It had already survived a tough test when Lucasfilm exclusively distributed its Star Wars movie trailers via QuickTime, the top resolution version of which was a 27Mb file. The trailer's first day out saw more than 3,000 requests for the Star Wars clips each second.

However, "having great technology is only one piece of the jigsaw. Having great content and the infrastructure to deliver it is the other, and that's what we have in place," says Scott Law, senior QuickTime product manager at Apple Europe. QTV has signed up the BBC, Disney, Fox, Bloomberg, HBO, Rolling Stone, VH1, Virgin Radio and others, which are all easily selectable on its free-to-download player software (www. apple.com/quicktime).

The QuickTime software is available as open-source code, and already some 25,000 software developers have downloaded it since June, running on all sorts of platforms including Unix. Because so many programmers are working on it, and adding to it under the open-source agreement, the software is being developed very rapidly - its performance was doubled within four weeks of its release.

"This is working out really, really well. We are on a fast cycle of innovation," says Law.