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Dragging Down the Future of Web Video

Jeff Sauer

September 2000 | My wife and I just moved from the city to a house in a somewhat distant suburb of Boston. We have a young son and recently decided it was time to get ready for the next 18 years of family living and begin his childhood in a country neighborhood. We've got a big yard for him to play in and will likely get him a dog to run with when he gets a couple of years older. We love the fresher air and the room to breathe it, and the dark and quiet nights.

We've both, regrettably, also traded walking/biking-distance commutes for, at best, 45 minutes in a car each way, but we'll take that since the three of us will be able to commute together (us to work, our boy to daycare). Maybe we'll miss some of the convenience of the many eclectic restaurants, too.

But I had not counted on the unavailability of reasonable-speed Internet service. And why should I have known we'd have to give up the niceties of the modern world? The Internet is suppose to be available anywhere. We'd expect to have sacrificed something if we had moved to New Hampshire or Maine, but we still live within the fifth-largest commercial market in the U.S. There are over 350 universities and colleges in the greater Boston area, including, M.I.T., Harvard, Wellesley, Tufts, and several other top-tier institutions. It's the self-proclaimed "Hub" of the intellectual universe with one of the most technically savvy populations in the country. Our Route 128, though it's seen better days, is America's original "Technology Highway." You'd think we'd be in one of the best places in the country for Internet use.

What's more, everywhere I turn I'm bombarded with adds for Bell Atlantic's high-speed DSL service. But when I inquire about service at our new house, I'm told they currently have no plans for DSL "in my area" or that I "don't qualify" for it. The reason is that Bell Atlantic is advertising to build the hype, but it is throttling the work locally and, worse still, is apparently blocking secondary DSL resellers from bringing in their own equipment to set up high-speed access in my new area. Bell Atlantic would like to offer me dial-up Internet access, but if I got that and read the Boston Globe online, I'd be slowed to a crawl by one of their annoying pop-up browser advertisements for their DSL.

My wife and I, admittedly, both have high-speed Internet access during the day--I have DSL service at our testing lab in Cambridge and she works on a university LAN--but we have gotten used to fast cable modem service at home as well. We both work from home some of the time, especially now that we have a child, and the faster service is critical for logging on to workplace networks, downloading files, hearing Web audio, watching news video on the Web, and viewing other rich media content. We were doing our part for the future of our information rich society.

But now our household has, unfortunately, gone from being ready to help drive the commercialism, ecommerce, and rich Web media of the future to becoming just another statistic in the proverbial "last mile" problem. We are now, by our abstinence, helping delay the proliferation of streaming video and thus the tools to create it.

A lot of the Internet backbone is ready to go, with both fiber-optic and satellite nodes for moving heavy lodes of data. Companies like Microcast, Enron, Akamai, and Inktomi are building infrastructures that are more than capable of delivering high-quality streaming video to the curbside of American homes. The problem is that more often than not, today, it's a dial-up connection that gets the data inside the house and that won't cut it for serious video.

Streaming MPEG video appliances [See Sauer's feature, pp. 38-45--Ed.] have become successful over the last year in business and institutional environments because closed networks--local area networks or wide area networks--have controlled and predictable bandwidths from one end to the other. To stream MPEG-1 at 1.5mbps (megabits per second) or higher, one needs confidence that the pipe is big enough all the way from start to finish. Otherwise, the viewing experience will be immediately compromised.

Anyone who's ever watched television can probably attest to the power of video for communicating information and ideas. And finally, after a decade of improving digital video technology, there are signs pointing toward more video in business and commerce. Video production is affordable with excellent quality DV at near-consumer prices. Video editing systems are almost free: literally free in some cases, and in others a mere faction of cost from just a few years ago. And the potential for distributing video and other rich media to wide audiences seems right around the corner.

Too bad it's not happening anywhere near my corner. Here's hoping that streaming MPEG--with its ability to save companies money through reduced travel or actually making money by creating billable hours via remote video feeds--will be enough of a killer application to bring critical mass awareness of the usefulness of video to the world of commerce. If so, video could bust its way out of the confines of closed intranets and out to the greater Web. Unfortunately, if the majority of home users are like me--sitting and waiting for the local monopoly to open its lines to faster service--Web video will remain the lowest common denominator, slide-show, out of lip-sync material it is today.

Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com), columnist for The Moving Picture, is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to New Media Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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