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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Multicasting - The element prior to 2003 that should be added to the Internet History course

I think the course should include multicasting on the Internet. Multicasting is delivering content from a single sender to multiple receivers. It is similar to broadcast, but does not incur broadcast's overhead or router limitations. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are negotiating Multicast protocols. And are advocating a broadcast system that keeps IP traffic to minimum on the ISP's network, no matter how many users are connected. Multicast is for live, scheduled broadcasts only.

Searching for coelacanths

I was involved in a small team that pioneered live streaming broadcasting in South Africa in 2001. I worked with very clever entrepreneurial start-ups and and a team of online mavericks at a traditional newspaper publishing company Avusa Media, then known as Johnnic Communications.

In one of our early video streaming experiments we agreed to live-stream a deep dive looking for coelacanths at Sodwana Bay on the Summit TV website. The team included Geoff Cohen, now CEO of and Jonathan Banks, Digital Product Manager BDFM, owners of Summit TV. With a network of routers and a significant amount of buffering we had an audience of about 10 people who suffered the event streamed across a 64bit line.

“Due to the bandwidth constraints of the connectivity, combined with the poor video compression available at the time, the user experience was very poor. The size of the data made the infrastructure required to have the capacity to make it a viable commercial product impractically expensive to implement." – Jonathan Banks.

We completely ignored the user experience and forged on with our streaming innovations. The business at the time was under pressure as the regulatory financial reporting required by companies listed on the stock exchange was going digital and the newspaper business was at risk of losing significant print revenues. We eventually developed a patchwork solution packaged into a product for Summit TV. We were streaming analyst presentations of company financial results live online. These services were eventually restricted to a talking head with a slide presentation. Very similar in fact to the lectures we have experienced during this Internet History, Technology and Security course with Dr Chuck.

All broadcasts were packaged with PowerPoint displayed alongside the webcasting player. These were offered to dial-up and broadband users. There was an opportunity for the analysts to ask questions using an instant messaging technology. And in time the option of audio or video broadcasts were offered. Audio broadcasts incorporated a photo of the speaker and an audio stream alongside the PowerPoint slides. There was also the option of real-time or delayed broadcasts. Delayed broadcasts would have less viewer demand and users would arguably have a better experience. There were also several storage hosting options.

"While technically feasible it was practically implausible to scale to commercial volumes required for both a great customer experience and an opportunity to monetise meaningfully." - Geoff Cohen. The service never gained popularity.

The experience in South Africa has not changed much since our heady days of innovation. Private ADSL lines are still limited to 384kbps but we are hopeful that these will all be upgraded later this year to 1mbps as our local telco Telkom improves its infrastructure.

Just a little bit of Internet History and in South Africa we are still living it.


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