Network: On the crest of the new media wave

WHEN ROBBIE Williams stepped on to the stage at Slane Castle in Ireland on Saturday, his image was beamed across the world via the Internet. Nothing unusual about that. Rock concerts are regularly seen on the Net. What was different is that this time the number of live viewers wasn't constrained by bandwidth to the usual few thousand who can watch Web video at any one time.

Thanks to multicast technology, which sends a stream of data without waiting for every receiving computer to acknowledge getting each packet, more than a million Net users would be able to log on as part of the first global multicast using the new UUNET network, which has just been launched in the UK. Multicast already has more than a million dial-up subscribers in the US for UUNET.

"In the past, the only way to deliver video on the Internet was the unicast [one-to-one] model. Though effective, it wasn't the most efficient use of the network, whereas multicast allows streaming video, audio and multimedia to a large number of people at a low cost," explains Mark Desvaux, manager of business development at UUNET.

Not only were users of its Pipex network, or the Internet service providers it supplies, able to watch, but anyone who clicked on the site (www.robbiewilliams.com), was able to bypass their own ISP to watch the multicast. It will also be available to download in the usual way.

"Multicast is the way forward for webcasting. If you want big audiences, you've got to be able to multicast a live event," says Chris Frampton, managing director of the Mediawave Group, which was webcasting the event in conjunction with Sky Box Office. Mediawave has the world's only outside video broadcast van dedicated to the Internet, and claims to be "the only end-to-end Internet streaming company in the UK".

Besides creating and encoding material for Web streaming, Derby-based Mediawave (www.mediawave. co.uk) can deliver it via its own or others' infrastructure and can spread the material across numerous portals to reduce the load on any one part of the Internet. Besides multicasting, its on-demand (unicast) services allow up to 10,000 people to access its servers at any one time, which is a lot of people randomly accessing the same material.

Frampton maintains that bandwidth on the Internet is no longer an issue. It is just a matter of going to someone who has the infrastructure in place. "Connectivity is only a problem if you don't have any, but we do," he says.

Mediawave has already covered such events as the opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, as well as a Blur concert and cricket (where it took the broadcast feed from TV and overlaid the radio commentary) with the BBC. It has also helped Channel 4 to establish its own Web streaming operation, using seven Sun servers.

The digital van can output both Web video (from each of the eight cameras simultaneously, so that viewers can select which they want to see), and a full broadcast production at the same time, and Mediawave can cover events in five locations at once (using a second van and fly-away cases).

It uses all three main streaming technologies, which Frampton says generally leapfrog each other, although "Windows Media currently has the edge". He believes Real Networks G2 version 5 isn't as good as the new version 4 of Windows Media for his work, and the G2 server isn't as stable for live broadcasting.

But Real Networks is still useful, and does have the largest slice of the market. "We use it and support it," he says. Frampton has also been testing Apple's new QuickTime TV, and says "it's really nice."

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