YouTube and iTV


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YouTube's tagline, "Broadcast Yourself," signals the beginning of a new era in digital content, though the necessary production technologies and distribution infrastructure may still be a few years off.

The wide acceptance of blogging as a means of self-expression was the first wave of personal content. The second wave, riding on the phenomenon of iPod and iTunes, is personal podcasting. The third wave, which will dwarf the others in gigabytes of content transferred, is personal video or individual television. Variously called vlogging, vidcasting, or vodcasting (the marriage of video on demand and podcasting), I'll simply call it iTV.

"A picture is worth a thousand words" is literally true for digital content. This 800-word article contains about 4KB of data. Even a small digital still picture contains many kilobytes, and video images are basically moving pictures, with correspondingly larger file sizes. And while bigger may be better, video brings with it a slew of technical difficulties small and large.

Digital video files can stress even a fast DSL connection. The success of online digital video like YouTube and Google Video has depended on users downloading the files at whatever speed their connections allow, then playing them back at full-speed and full-quality on some device. Live iTV broadcasting will require the best of "streaming" technology, which can send video at a rate matched to the viewer's connection speed. Live, after all, means you see a show in "real time" as it happens, though of course, your shows will be recorded and available for playback.

For one-to-one "narrowcasting," the new Skype video beta leads the way, but to look good, you need a webcam that lets you look directly into the camera, the way television anchors do. Unfortunately, webcams mounted above or to the side of your monitor force you to avert your gaze when watching your screen. Averted eyes raise doubts and increase suspicions. There seems to be a deep, built-in psychological reaction to those who don't make eye contact. Most people don't have access to the half-silvered mirrors TV Studios employ. I use Ezonics iContact, with a camera on a swivel arm I can swing over my screen, so I can look you right in the virtual eye (Skype me at bobdoyle to see).

But back to bandwidth, a high hurdle to hop: If you limit your audience size to one Skype viewer, or the three others supported in Apple's iChatAV, your current DSL connection may be barely adequate to the task. If you want your iTV blog show to be reliable, you will need something more. Major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use redundant internet connections on multiple internet backbones to provide "high availability." But their lauded 99% uptime can still mean seven hours per month down—unacceptable for corporate video or even a budding vidcaster who hopes to develop a popular show.

The secret to high iTV uptime is to have two (or more) inexpensive DSL lines, from ISPs on different backbones, connected through a "pipe" aggregator. Pipe or WAN aggregators are already in wide use to provide high availability using inexpensive DSL lines in SOHO environments, such as medical offices under pressure to be up 24-7 by federal HIPAA regulations.

I was involved in the open-source skyPipes project to aggregate pipes using inexpensive Linux boxes with multiple network cards, but now at CMS Labs we are studying low-cost hardware solutions from PePLink and Astrocom that can aggregate two or three lines. The modestly priced PePLink is adequate for one or two servers. If you want an iTV show to be available in QuickTime, Real, Windows Media, and even Flash formats, you may need multiple servers. The PepLink management interface was slow compared to the Astrocom, which is blazingly fast and a dream to manage. It has a built-in DNS that alters the IP addresses served depending on which pipes are working. The PowerLink pro100 model can aggregate an astonishing 15 internet connections.

The final piece of infrastructure needed to support an iTV show is a pipe with speed beyond that of DSL (1.5Mbps at its best), and that technology is fiber-optic connections. Verizon is in the middle of an $18 billion campaign to bring its FiOS service to residences and businesses across the country.

The final piece of infrastructure needed to support an iTV show is a pipe with speed beyond that of DSL (1.5Mbps at its best), and that technology is fiber-optic connections. Verizon is in the middle of an $18 billion campaign to bring its FiOS service to residences and businesses across the country.

FiOS promises very reliable connections with up to 30Mbps download and 5Mbps upload speeds. Aggregating these pipes with devices like Astrocom can support hundreds of simultaneous viewers for your live iTV show, at prices of pennies per viewer for an hour-long show.

Like many others, I'm waiting for the Verizon trucks with large orange spools of fiber to thread past my office. I think we can all see eye-to-eye on the need for speed to hurry the success of user-generated video online.