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An Olympic Feat

Getting content from one location to another requires a bit of planning, especially if it only happens once every four years.

This point became a key topic of discussion during a panel I moderated at Streaming Media Europe, "Live Broadcasts and HD Video: Can Web Video Ever Scale toTV-Sized Audiences?"

"Major CDNs find it a challenge just to stream 200Gbps, which breaks down to 100,000 people watching a 2Mbps signal," said Octoshape's Stephen Alstrup, adding, "I do believe the media industry is ready when they can believe in the tech industry being ready, but I understand the media industry still have concern about an aggressive streaming strategy."

The discussion during which Alstrup made this assertion centered on this year's biggest live streaming event—the U.S. Presidential inauguration—which was streamed live in standard-definition by several service providers, with the official stream being generated by iStreamPlanet.

The general consensus from Alstrup and his fellow panelists, Suzanne Johnson from Akamai and Josh Gagliardi from Highwinds, was that live events with enough lead time and planning are able to scale to reasonable high single-digit millions of viewers. The Presidential inauguration was estimated at 9-12 million simultaneous standard-definition streams and took about four months of pre-planning.

What about doing the same thing in HD (720p or 1080p) to the desktop? That topic was also discussed during the session, a on-demand version of which can be found here.

But the question was brought into even sharper focus with the last week's announcement of the streaming lineup for the impending XXI Olympic Winter Games from Vancouver. The planning cycle for the Olympics, which will be held in Vancouver, BC, from February 12-28, is about the same length of time as for the Presidential inauguration, but the stakes are higher since the whole event will be streamed to the desktop in 720p HD.

As announced by Perkins Miller, senior vice president, digital media, NBC Olympics, and Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the .NET Developer Platform at Microsoft Corporation, the roster for Vancouver's Olympic streaming brings together a diverse set of team members, led by iStreamPlanet and Akamai.

Akamai has been gearing up toward this type of delivery, launching the Akamai HD Network in September.

"We're at television numbers," said Paul Sagan, Akamai's CEO, during the September rollout, "as we've seen an event—the Presidential Inauguration—that scaled to 10 million streams. Many have said that the internet's not capable of HD delivery. We disagree, and we're rolling out a solution that's capable of scaling beyond any HD delivery that's been done to date."

iStreamPlanet, for its part, will need to encode and transmit a significant number of streams to drive consumer appetite for a variety of content, all available at the same time.

"iStreamPlanet will be encoding 23 video feeds," a press release noted. "All 23 feeds are originating from Vancouver, British Columbia and transported to iStreamPlanet’s Las Vegas Webcast Operations Center over OC12 via IP multicast."

The 23 feeds, including venue and broadcast feeds, an Olympic News Channel and one full-time Press Conference stream, will follow a specific process to be streamed to the viewer's desktop.

NBC will multicast an H.264 1080p signal for each feed from Vancouver to NBC's New York facilities. The multicast will then continue to Las Vegas via iStreamPlanet's private OC12, where it will be decoded to HD-SDI and then re-encoded into 720p Silverlight streams in real time, via a hardware/software solution co-developed with Inlet Technologies.

"Inlet is proud to help NBC deliver the highest quality live streams of Vancouver Winter Olympics coverage," said John Bishop, Inlet's senior vice president of strategy and business development. "Combined with IIS Live Smooth Streaming, our 720p stream encoding will help NBC improve viewer retention and the time fans spend enjoying Olympic Winter Games coverage online."

Another team member, Vertigo, announced that it has been chosen to provide the HD live streaming and on-demand video player for the Olympics. While the company put out a press release headlined with a "first ever" title ("Vertigo to Provide First-Ever High-Definition Microsoft Silverlight Online Video Player for NBC Universal's Coverage of the Olympic Winter Games") it later clarified that the "first ever" only applied to the Olympics, as other HD Silverlight players already exist.

"The use of a Silverlight 720p HD Video Player is a 'first ever' experience for the Olympic Games," a company spokesperson said. "NBC Universal is using the custom player developed by Vertigo to deliver this playback experience."

When asked whether some viewers with very high bandwidth, such as U-verse or FiOS, might be able to view some showcase content in 1080p (or even 1080i), Vertigo listed a constraint of the 720p Silverlight delivery that makes bandwidth requirements high enough to discourage 1080p viewing.

"The Olympic content is encoded to target 720p," a company spokesperson said. "If the internet bandwidth and video rendering capability on your computer is high, you will experience 720p high-definition video playback of the sample content when in Full Screen mode."

What exactly does Vertigo mean by high bandwidth?

"If your actual bandwidth is below 5Mbps, or your playback device is video-challenged, then you will experience the adaptive nature of Smooth Streaming," the spokesperson said.

Discussions with other industry experts indicates that 5Mbps is probably 2-3Mbps higher than the industry average, so it is uncertain whether the limitation is in the Silverlight HD delivery, or merely an arbitrary number chosen by Vertigo, who controls the heuristics of the player.

Closer to the Olympics, I'll update readers on the status of preparations, as well as make updates to the team roster if any additional members emerge.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original posting date. The original quoted a press release that incorrectly stated that iStream Planet would be receiving the content via satellite, and also that Inlet would be doing encoding in Vancouver.]

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