The amount of video online is skyrocketing, whether it's "Lost" episodes or movie trailer mash-ups. The phenomenon is putting new stress on ISP networks, which are seeing the demands on their bandwidth burgeon.
Now a new wave of companies--some newcomers, some with familiar faces--are stepping up to play the role of traffic cop, arguing that they have ways to manage this surge in video traffic and keep networks healthy.
"Everyone loses in the current scenario," said Michel Billard, a former HP executive who recently joined start-up Itiva, one of the companies offering video-speeding technology. "What we need is a way to amplify the bandwidth that's available."
This is far from an academic issue. Whether the new companies can deliver on their promises could have a profound effect on how the Internet operates--and it could.
Business and entertainment content worth billions of dollars now flows over ordinary ISP networks. Internet voice calls, which can be garbled by any network congestion, are increasingly common. Serious online hiccups could be as irritating, and potentially economically damaging, as persistent L.A. traffic jams.
Already, according to network infrastructure company CacheLogic, more than 60 percent of Internet traffic is being taken up by peer-to-peer swaps, and about 60 percent of those swaps involve video content. Add to that the growing amount of legitimate content from companies such as Apple Computer, MovieLink and Google Video, and the scale of consumers' demand for video begins to emerge.
Big ISPS such as AT&T have already argued that they should be able to charge companies such as Google or Yahoo for an extra tier of service, ensuring their content arrives swiftly at its destination. Web companies and civil libertarians have bitterly criticized this idea, calling for "" that doesn't relegate other content to a slow lane, or pass along costs to consumers.
Any technologies that ease bandwidth burdens could help defuse that debate.
"ISPs' rhetoric is increasingly strident about content from outside providers raising the costs of their networks," said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo. "But I haven't seen hard data that suggests the volume of legitimate video is coming close to swamping ISP networks yet."
From P2P to Quantum streaming
As with any network issue, the problem with Web video comes down to too much data trying to fit through the same pipe at once.
In the late 1990s, when audio and video streaming first took off online, Web content companies had a similar problem. When hundreds of thousands of people tried to watch the Victoria's Secret fashion show at the same time, for example, the server hosting that streaming video would collapse under the demand.
Those traffic issues have largely been conquered, thanks to companies such as Akamai Technologies, which has put thousands of servers in ISP networks around the world, allowing people in search of content to get it from a local server, instead of approaching the main host all at once.
Downloadable video files are large enough that few are cached at the local level, and it's expensive for content companies to do so.
Some have looked to long-demonized peer-to-peer technologies to help lessen the load. Indeed, British ISP and cable company NTL said last week that it will, along with CacheLogic network-speeding tools, for a new video distribution service.
Older firm Kontiki is similarly working with the British Broadcasting Corp., and rival Red Swoosh has worked with Marc Cuban's HDTV network to distribute its content online.
Peer-to-peer lessens the load on ISPs by letting customers download files from computers close to them in the network. If, for example, 100 people in a network all want the same movie, that file won't clog the mouth of the network 100 times, but can be efficiently swapped in pieces between nearby viewers.
"The whole consumer electronics world is pushing for video content," said CacheLogic Chief Technology Officer Andrew Parker. "What's being recognized by many ISPs is that P2P is a very large part of that, and that there can be a way to utilize it."
The problem with P2P is that it relies on ordinary computer users' goodwill. To work well, everyone must donate a share of his or her upstream bandwidth, sharing content with others. In the underground world of music or movie-trading, this regularly happens, but it has been less widely used for commercial applications.
Billard's Itiva is one of a newer generation of companies that say they have better ideas, midway between file-swapping and Akamai's technology, that will let even high-definition video stream quickly online.
Itiva's technology works by taking a huge movie file and breaking it up into tiny individual pieces that are formatted just like ordinary Web pages. When they're downloaded by a user, these individual pieces--Itiva calls them "quanta"--are stored in ISPs' Web caches, which are already distributed in every network.
Once stored separately like this, they can be quickly downloaded and pieced together by anyone else in that network, in a way that's much more inexpensive for the ISP than if everyone was going back to the original download site.
"It's like BitTorrent for ISPs," said one top network company executive familiar with the technology, but who asked not to be named. "It's very much of interest to telcos."
Content companies and network providers are increasingly experimenting with these technologies, and the next year will likely see commercial experiments as well. But it remains in its early days, and network experts say it's far too early to say whether they'll be more efficient than simply buying more bandwidth.
"Technologies like (these) are still developing, and will be important if we get to the point where the Internet is the only communications channel," said EarthLink Chief Architect Robert Sanders. "But I don't think that day is quite there."