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The design of the internet is unsuited to the sort of “live” online television services announced this week by Walt Disney, according to analysts and internet executives.
If they attract a large audience, such experiments could force the industry to invest in a new infrastructure that is capable of supporting mass-market online video, fuelling a new round of spending for some of the biggest computer systems and communications networking companies, they added.
Disney’s announcement this week that it would experiment with “free”, ad-supported shows over the internet marks one of the most ambitious tests yet from a TV distributor, though broadcasters in other countries have launched tests of their own, such as the BBC’s experiment with its MyBBCPlayer service.
The internet has already proved itself capable of handling media downloads such as Apple’s iTunes and BitTorrent, a video service that claims to account for as much as half of all the traffic that passes over the internet.
However, streaming video, which relies on delivering “bits” of data to viewers in real time, has exposed weaknesses in the fundamental design of the internet, which is based on being able to send data through a series of “hops” across the network between two distant computers.
The early quality problems of services such as Google Video “illustrate how difficult this is”, said Mark Stahlman, a technology analyst at Caris & Co in New York. “The workload for streaming media content is different [from downloading], both for the network and the [computing] grid that sits behind it.”
That has made short, low-quality video streams a familiar feature of the early internet and will present a challenge to TV distributors whose viewers are used to higher quality.
“Initially, people are willing to put up with the degraded experience,” said Tom McInerney, co-founder of Guba.com, an online video site that streams about 30m videos a month. “But expectations will rise quickly.”
In commercial terms, streaming represents a potential breakthrough for network television companies, since it offers a new “foolproof” way to deliver adverts, said Josh Martin, an analyst at IDC.
Since ABC can determine the rate at which the video stream is delivered, it can prevent viewers from fast-forwarding through the adverts, as they would be able to do through a digital video recorder connected to a TV set.
However, the technological demands involved in sending individual video streams across the network to each viewer are likely to prove too taxing for existing infrastructure, experts say.
The computing and network stresses created by streaming has led to a number of attempted “fixes”. They include services from companies such as Akamai, which specialise in optimising the way data travel across the internet, as well as so-called “peer-to-peer” technology, which relies on transferring data between individual consumers as way to get around the bottlenecks in the internet.