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File-swap TV comes into focus

Public TV stations and independent video bloggers are boosting efforts to create peer-to-peer Internet television networks.

Jeff Clarke, president of San Francisco's KQED Public Broadcasting, is a fan of Internet file swapping.

For the last several months, Clarke's television and radio stations have been putting content online using a four-month-old peer-to-peer service called the Open Media Network, which gives public broadcasters an affordable way to distribute high-quality versions of their work on the Net.

For now, KQED is doing this with only a few programs--documentaries about San Francisco history or a local park, among others--but more content is on the way. KQED has long experimented with putting video and audio on its Web sites, and the peer-to-peer service now makes it much more affordable to distribute its TV programming online, Clarke said.


What's new:
TV programmers are starting to make use of file-swapping tools to overcome bandwidth issues and put video online.

Bottom line:
Peer-to-peer technologies are making it more practical to distribute video on the Net, broadening the reach for both TV stations and ordinary folk.

More stories on file swapping and video

"Public broadcasting has always been about citizenship and having universal access to what we do," Clarke said. "This is using 21st century technology to do that."

Clarke's KQED is at the leading edge of the mix of TV programmers trying to reach people online--a process that's just beginning to do for video what blogs have done for print media, and podcasting has done for radio. By putting professional programming a mouse click away from independently produced content, these tools are democratizing media in still-unpredictable ways.

As with those other tools and media, the changes are being driven in large part by new distribution techniques that let traditional media companies reach people online, and allow ordinary folks to distribute their own content cheaply.

The distribution hurdles have been higher for video than for other mediums. Even short video files, lasting just a few minutes, can be many times larger than an average MP3 music file, and a 30-minute broadcast of good quality video can take hours to download, even on a broadband connection. The bandwidth needed to send that amount of data is also expensive, making straight video downloads impractical for many small companies or individuals.

Peer-to-peer technologies have made that more practical. With these tools, once a computer downloads a file (or a piece of a file, with some software programs), that computer then can start uploading it to others. Thus, every viewer can potentially help distribute part or all of a file to others, sharing the bandwidth burden among a large number of people instead of forcing the original programmer to pay the full cost.

Commercial companies including Kontiki and Red Swoosh already offer inexpensive ways to distribute large files such as video or computer games using their own proprietary file-swapping tools. Independent producers, in turn, have largely turned to BitTorrent, an open-source technology.

From video blogs to high-def downloads
Now both sides, commercial and independent, are stepping up their ambitions.

On Tuesday, an organization called the Participatory Culture Foundation--an offshoot of the peer-to-peer activist Downhill Battle group--will launch the first beta version of its DTV software, an application that will collect and distribute independent video online.

Its first version, for Apple Computer's Macintosh computers, will have the clean lines of iTunes, and full-screen video, all based on BitTorrent technology. Though most of the initial content will be video blogs and independent media, the group also has an agreement to distribute programming from former Vice President Al Gore's new television operation,

"We think that online video needs a home base," said David Moore, the foundation's director of outreach, explaining his group's development project. "It needs an iTunes."

Anyone will be able to publish into the system, by using tools the foundation already produces for turning video into fast-downloading BitTorrent files, he said. A Windows version of the software will be available later in the year.

Last week, HDNet, the high-definition cable and satellite channel run by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, began experimenting with the release of its high-quality content online using the Red Swoosh peer-to-peer tools. The first release was a 20-minute, 1.3 gigabyte clip of the recent space shuttle launch, with more content promised over the coming weeks.

But public television companies are moving into this peer-to-peer world much more quickly than their commercial counterparts.

Many of the public broadcasters are working with Kontiki founder and Apple veteran Mike Homer's Open Media Network. Launched in April with the aim of collecting public television programming such as KQED's in one place online, the nonprofit network now has more than 15,000 files, with an emphasis on audio podcasts.

That may not be as much TV programming as can be found on file-swapping networks such as Kazaa or eDonkey--but unlike the shows on those networks, all of Homer's content has been cleared by the copyright owners, so it's legal to distribute.

But like those unauthorized services, the legal Open Media Network is giving viewers a more active role in customizing the viewing experience. Rather than having televisionlike channels, the latest version of the Open Media Network software organizes its content by categories and comments that are constantly updated by users, a little like the way the popular creates links between subjects.

"The notion of channels doesn't make sense in an environment where you have the ability to infinitely personalize the experience," Homer said. "Once you have a library of video that is constantly growing, you can't just have a few people who sit around and view it and curate it. You need to have the audience itself act as a curator."

These nonprofit networks aren't alone in switching their focus to video. As broadband connections proliferate, most of the major Internet companies are adding video to their offerings. Yahoo, AOL and Google each are kicking off video search services, and Google has even offered to host independently produced video in its own databases.

Homer said that the peer-to-peer television tools will ultimately wind up intertwined with those databases.

The Open Media Network will be providing its index to Google and the other companies, so that casual Web surfers can find links to the network's content, he said. He predicted that the core peer-to-peer technology would ultimately wind up bundled with media players such as Apple Computer's iTunes or Microsoft's Windows Media, making video much easier to distribute.

"That's where this belongs," Homer said. "If you click on something with a media player today, it's using a 10-year-old (technology) to deliver the file. That should be peer-to-peer."