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The State of High-Definition Streaming

This article originally appeared in the 2008 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.

For years, a video's bitrate was worn as a badge of honor. With streaming graduating from the postage stamp to the playing card, higher quality was the competitive edge that everyone strived for but too often failed to achieve due to immature delivery technology and an immature broadband marketplace.

But in the last couple of years the drive toward higher quality seemed to slow, and bitrates began to plateau. First around 300Kbps for baseline, acceptable-quality video. Then at 500Kbps for getting-pretty-good, high-frame rate video. Settling in around 750Kbps for best-of-breed video that looked OK full-screen.

While bitrates flattened, the last 2 years have seen an exponential rise in the connectivity available to millions of users. 5Mbps is now common, and more and more users are gaining access to 10Mbps-plus, with the potential for 100Mbps fiber-powered speeds on the way.

Internet video is rapidly moving from an era of bandwidth scarcity to one of overabundance. The streaming industry is racing to find ways to fill these pipes with a host of technology companies developing new offerings to support high-quality delivery of full-screen video, including high-definition. (For a discussion of what exactly qualifies as HD, see the sidebar "The Eye of the Beholder: What Exactly Is HD")

And with this higher quality, demand for online video should continue to increase, both in terms of the number of people wanting to watch and the willingness of viewers to watch for a longer period of time.

But within all this opportunity and promise lies potential hazards and the uncertain realities of being on the cutting edge of any technology. How can I deliver full-screen HD video? How might it impact my business? How can I balance the promise with the reality? What are the pitfalls I'd be wise to avoid?

Read on for an exploration of these questions and more as we dive into the future of an online HD world.

Building an HD Future Today
While HD video has been around the internet for a couple of years now, you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the second half of 2007 as being the true birth of the HD Web, due to a few key developments.

On Aug. 21, Adobe released an update for Flash Player 9 that opened up support for H.264 video, the same standard used for HD in Blu-ray. In fact, the same HD video that would work on a Blu-ray Disc could work as Flash. "During our market research and development process for Flash Media Server 3 we talked to a bunch of customers, and it really became evident that people wanted the highest quality possible that their hardware could consume," says Kevin Towes, product manager for Adobe’s Flash Media Server. (Windows Media Player has been able to play back VC-1 HD for some time.)

On Aug. 27, Akamai made a proclamation that The HD Web was here and that they were delivering HD video for some of their customers. Then in late October they unveiled TheHDWeb.com, a proof-of-concept website cosponsored by Verizon FiOS where anyone with enough bandwidth could experience the possibilities of The HD Web. "We’re very excited to be able to be the first to showcase to the industry and to the consumer population the potential of HD," says Suzanne Johnson, senior product marketing manager for Akamai. "Our goal is to build out our network capacity to 100Tbps to sustain the growth of the video industry."

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