Despite advances in streaming media technology, the huge numbers of people unable to watch Wednesday's live Victoria's Secret fashion show Webcast showed the Internet still isn't ready to handle mass market video.
This was the most popular video broadcast in the company's history, far outstripping interest in President Clinton's videotaped deposition in the Monica Lewinsky case. Broadcast.com had a total of 1 million hits the day the Clinton deposition was released, compared to a total of 2 million on Wednesday.
Yet many users were unable to reach the site during the live broadcast because of network bottlenecks and other Internet roadblocks.
Broadcast.com president Mark Cuban said the company received a number of complaints about users' inability to reach their site during the fashion show.
The Victoria's Secret site itself was badly overwhelmed. According to Web monitoring firm Keynote Systems, the Victoria's Secret site dropped to the point where it took an average of more than two and a half minutes to download the Web page, compared to about 60 seconds earlier in the day. Only 2 percent of an automated round of requests for the company's page succeeded during the live show, said Keynote marketing vice president Gene Shklar.
But much of the problem in receiving the video itself was due to bottlenecks in the network architecture of the Internet, rather than simply overloaded Web servers, according to the companies involved.
The majority of people complaining about the feed's inaccessibility were America Online users, Cuban said--largely because AOL simply has far more subscribers than any other mass market service.
But America Online said the company's own network handled the video traffic without much trouble. "We test our network constantly," said Wendy Goldberg, a company spokeswoman. "Our network had no performance problems."
But blame for the bottlenecks can't be attributed to AOL's network or Broadcast.com's site, Cuban added.
"It wasn't our site, just the networks between our two sites," Cuban wrote in an email interview. "Their network may be distributed, but there has to be a network pipe that crosses from them to the outside world. If those pipes get filled, or there is packet loss, then people don't have a great experience."
Cache on demand
Large networks such as America Online and @Home employ caching technology to ease the load on traditional HTML pages.
This allows ISPs to set up what is essentially a mirror Web site on their own networks. Once a single user on that network requests a page, future users can download the same page from the ISP's cache site, distributing the workload and reducing the need to download data over the Internet at large. This also greatly cuts down the amount of traffic flowing over links between the ISP's network and the broader Net.
But the technology to do this kind of caching for streaming media--particularly live events--hasn't yet been rolled out. A joint venture between @Home and Real Networks will place a version of this technology on the @Home service later in the year, but it is still not commercially available.
For events like the Victoria's Secret broadcast, the absence of caching technology puts huge strains on the links between content sites' networks, the Internet at large, and ISP networks.
"If you have ten users wanting the live feed, you've got ten video streams going into the [link] and ten streams going out," Shklar noted. "With cached pages, if you have ten users wanting the page, you have one stream going into the link, and ten streams going out."
This problem can be avoided by licensing video streams out to ISPs to put on their own servers. Cuban said that there was an effort to do this with the Victoria's Secret Webcast, but AOL and Broadcast.com weren't able to come to an agreement before the date of the show.
This isn't uncommon for streaming video events, in which even the most sophisticated Web sites have difficulty judging how many people will be interested in their shows, Shklar said.
"One of the things that providers of special events still don't do very well is gauge what peak demand will look like, and what systems they will need to handle it," Shklar added.
But the industry is learning from lessons such as this, Cuban said.
"This is a network application that will evolve," he wrote. "Every network needs to be tested to improve and this will help improve it for the next big event."
Next time, the company will be better prepared for its successes, he added. "No one is at fault, and next time we will make sure that there are bigger, fatter links."