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Let the (March) Madness Begin!

When last we wrote about March Madness On Demand, it was 2006 and CBS had just pulled off one of the most successful webcasts in history, with a peak of 268,000 simultaneous viewers and more than 19 million total streams of live or archived footage.

But now, it’s that time of year again, and March Madness On Demand (MMOD) is back and geared up to surpass last year’s success. "We saw a ton of success last year," says Joe Ferrera, VP of Programming for CBS Sportsline. "But now, we need to take it to the next level because just doing the same for a product of this attention isn’t good enough."

CBS will push MMOD’s video to the next level in a variety of ways: from a window size of 320x240 to 480x360, from a bit rate of 400Kbps to 450Kbps, and from a planned max capacity of 200,000 simultaneous viewers to 300,000--though like last year, if everything’s running smoothly and there’s headroom available on the network, they may crank it up beyond the planned capacity. All told, they’re doubling their capacity over last year from 80Gbps to 160Gbps.

Interestingly, despite doubling capacity CBS has decided to cut back from the two CDNs they employed last year—Akamai and Limelight—and rely solely on Akamai to deliver all of MMOD’s traffic.

Part of what enables CBS to feel confident in their ability to handle any situations that may pop up and degrade the end-user experience is their use of a virtual waiting room. "If we have a situation where the player isn’t functioning properly or there is a major disaster that drives a lot of traffic elsewhere on the Internet, the virtual waiting room allows us to gate and message users. It’s almost like having a preset disaster recovery system," says Ferrera. "The key there is messaging. The worst thing that could happen to a consumer in my mind is to just not know what’s going on. So we’ve built in the ability to message consumers in the waiting room itself."

While the bigger video, larger audiences, and overall size of the load are all great, Akamai’s CTO Mike Afergan is quick to point out what’s arguably most significant about all of this: the success that can be found in the businesses behind these streaming events. "You see people going to higher and higher bit rates and bigger and bigger events for a number of reasons, but fundamentally the content’s not getting there (just) because it’s fun to do," says Afergan. "Our customers are driving real businesses around this content."

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