Coming to your home soon: free television shows via the internet

A German television development company is planning to launch free viewing on the internet with the help of a revolutionary Web service that aims to give viewers access to any programme they want from almost anywhere in the world.

A German television development company is planning to launch free viewing on the internet with the help of a revolutionary Web service that aims to give viewers access to any programme they want from almost anywhere in the world.

The project is called Cybersky, a pun on the name of its German inventor, Guido Ciburski, a television software engineer who runs a small TV technology company in the Rhineland town of Koblenz.

Cybersky, scheduled to start in a month or so, aims to do for television what already applies to music and video, which can be downloaded free from the internet. The concept has alarmed Germany's established TV companies, and is likely to concern other broadcasters around the world. Media analysts are expecting a new round of legal action similar to the high-level intensity of opposition to the Napster operation.

Mr Ciburski, 40, had the idea while trying to use the internet to watch live coverage of the 2002 Olympic Games opening ceremony in Salt Lake City, in the United States. He found there were so many like-minded surfers that the server was permanently jammed.

Feeling disgruntled, he and his friends switched on their conventional TV sets and waited for the next sports broadcast. "All we got on our computer screens was 'server busy'," Mr Ciburski told The Independent yesterday. "I just thought, 'How can anyone expect to watch major events like the Olympics on the Web when so many people are downloading at the same time'?"

Now Mr Ciburski claims to have solved the problem. At the end of January, his company, TC Unterhaltungselektronic, will unveil its Cybersky TV web service which will, he says, enable broadband users to distribute video programmes free, and exchange them with others.

Viewers will need little more than a television connected to a computer. The computer will be set up to upload a chosen television programme on to the internet, where other viewers will be able to download and broadcast it on their own sets almost instantaneously.

Mr Ciburski has refused to divulge how he developed the technology: "That would be giving away the vital secret," he said. "All I can say is that without broadband it would have been difficult." In practice, cyberspace should allow fans of programmes such as The Office to go on holiday in Hawaii and still get the show fed live into their hotel bedside laptop with only a five-to 10-second delay.

Mr Ciburski says he circumvented the overload problems that have affected video-streaming applications by developing software that relies on what is called "peer-to-peer networking" technology. He adds: "Instead of using our own servers to distribute programmes, we will be giving the job to the computers of Cybersky's subscribers."

As the system gains more users, the pathways for distribution should multiply. As soon as one subscriber uploads a programme on site, it becomes immediately available to other participants. As a result, the more subscribers Cybersky attracts, the greater the choice of programmes available. Mr Ciburski estimates that as many as 30 million viewers could end up online. "That is about average for a file-sharing programme. Anyone with a webcam will be able to broadcast."

Although Cybersky is yet to go online, it appears to have seriously worried pay-TV channels such as Germany's Premiere, because of its ability to circumvent the subscription system. Premiere has already complained that Cybersky's website disclaimer, which insists that pay-TV material can be broadcast only with the permission of the network involved, is not enough.

Cybersky's response to charges that it will be illegally broadcasting copyrighted programmes without permission is that its peer-to-peer system does not technically amount to distribution, so it is legitimate.

The company is bracing itself for a legal battle with Germany's main TV networks. "We have no other option," Mr Ciburski said. "We are not going to drop the project, because someone else is bound to come along and do it instead."

His company is used to going to court to defend its innovations. Six years ago Mr Ciburski and his partner, Petra Sauerbachs, developed a device called the "telly fairy" which enabled viewers to skip irritating TV advertising. Germany's broadcasters sued but a five-year legal battle ended in victory for both inventors last summer.

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