Video may have killed the radio star, but it doesn't have to kill the Internet.
That is if Internet service providers can figure out how to keep up with the video-driven bandwidth demand on their networks. Peer-to-peer technology provider BitTorrent says it can help.
Video consumes more network resources than any other media distributed on the Web. Even poor-quality video from YouTube eats up more bandwidth than e-mail, music downloading, and voice over IP services. And when you throw full-length high-definition video into the mix, you're talking about even more bandwidth. Depending on the compression used, a single HD video stream can eat up 20 megabits per second worth of bandwidth.
And as consumers subscribe to faster and faster broadband connections at home and sites like YouTube and Hulu come online offering all kinds of video choices, more people are watching video on the Web. According to ComScore Video Metrix, Americans are currently watching upward of 10 billion videos online a month. By the end of 2007, online viewers averaged more than one video a day.
This is just the beginning. ABI research forecasts the number of viewers who access video via the Web will nearly quadruple in the next few years, reaching at least 1 billion in 2013.
This summer's Olympic Games in Beijing marks the first real test of online video as NBC embarks upon the most ambitious online video project ever. NBC plans to offer 3,600 hours of live programming from Beijing, which translates to about 212 live hours for each of the 17 days of the Olympics. The majority of this viewing will be delivered online.
All this video is great for viewers, who are able to pick and choose what they watch and when. But for Internet service providers like the phone companies and the cable operators, it represents a massive challenge. Some providers, such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, are testing out new ways to deal with "bandwidth hogs" or individual users who use an inordinate amount of bandwidth.
Last month, Comcast began testing a new system that will throttle back or slow down traffic during times of congestion for heavy bandwidth users. The new system was developed after Comcast faced stark criticism for singling out and slowing down peer-to-peer traffic.
Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable, which says it faces the same capacity headaches, also began testing a new billing system that charges customers who exceed their limit for uploading and downloading material.
P2P as a solution, rather than a problem
Eric Klinker, chief technology officer for BitTorrent, which has commercialized the peer-to-peer technology, says that what the cable operators are doing is a good start. But more can be done to help operators deal with the onslaught of video.
For one, peer-to-peer protocols, such as BitTorrent, which are often cited as major headaches for network operators because of the big file transfers they enable, need to be utilized rather than singled out as a source of the problem, he said.
"I think what Comcast and Time Warner Cable are doing is a great first step," Klinker said. "It gets ISPs out of the business of deciding which applications are important and which aren't. But there are enhancements to the peer-to-peer protocol, in particular, that can make it easier on all ISPs."
Peer-to-peer technology has gotten a bad rap for years. Since the days of file-sharing networks like Napster, which allowed people to exchange songs on their computer hard drives with others on the Internet, peer-to-peer technology has been demonized in the press. But the truth is that peer-to-peer technology actually allows large files like videos to be distributed more efficiently. And as more video makes it way onto the Web, it's increasingly being used. In fact, peer-to-peer traffic accounts for about 43 percent of all traffic on the Internet, according to a recent study by the network management company Sandvine.
The way peer-to-peer works is that when a user requests a video, the peer-to-peer network queries other users in the network and takes pieces of the file from different peers and sends it to the user requesting the file. This distributed architecture means that content owners don't have to assemble large and expensive data centers. It also means that a content distributor doesn't have to pay for expensive high-speed links to serve up an entire file from a single server farm.
That said, peer-to-peer protocols in the wild can eat up lots of bandwidth because peers on the network can silently and continuously upload pieces of files from their computers all day and all night, seeding dozens or hundreds of file requests. And because upload capacities are generally much slower than downloads, it can create bottlenecks and capacity crunches on the last mile of service providers' networks. For network operators that are already capacity-constrained, this phenomenon can dramatically affect performance for all users.
The enhanced version of peer-to-peer
Peer-to-peer companies, such as BitTorrent and Pando Networks, have recognized this problem and have been working with service providers, such as Verizon Communications, Comcast, and others to come up with solutions. Verizon and Pando Networks have been working on a project called P4P, which advocates ISPs share information about their network topography and use an enhanced version of peer-to-peer to locate peers in close proximity to the file request. Getting files locally can help reduce the expense associated with carrying peer-to-peer files over long distances.
BitTorrent, whose founder created one of the most popular peer-to-peer protocols used today, has also been working on a solution. The company has developed its own enhancement to the peer-to-peer protocol that tells peer-to-peer applications to stop seeding the network with content when the network is congested.
For example, if a teenager starts playing an online video game at the same time his mother makes a voice over IP phone call and his little sister is downloading music from iTunes, the protocol will tell the peer-to-peer movie application that is running in the background on their family computer to stop uploading bits of the Spider-Man movie that had been ordered from an online movie rental service and is now stored on a hard drive in their home. Instead, the network will search for the content on another peer that is on a network that is less congested.
"If there is contention in the network, my application will back off," Klinker said. "And it will automatically and seamlessly find someone else in the network to complete uploading that content. The video quality is never disrupted, and the user never knows where the content is coming from."
BitTorrent has already tested the enhancement with more than 10 million users and it's currently working with the Internet standards body, the Internet Engineering Task Force, to standardize the technology so that other peer-to-peer companies can embed it in their software client.
Klinker said that new technologies, such as the one developed by his company, as well as efforts on the P4P enhancements will help ISPs manage and control their networks so that even more video can make it to the Web without crippling the infrastructure delivering it.
And once service providers learn how to harness peer-to-peer, they will be able to develop business models that reap the benefits of the technology. For example, Comcast, Verizon, or any other TV provider could add peer-to-peer software to the set-top boxes sitting in their customers' living rooms to create a distributed peer-to-peer movie network. Instead of serving up on-demand movies from their own servers sitting in expensive-to-run data centers, these TV providers could leverage the content already stored on their customers' set-top hard drives.
"The cable and phone companies are already spending capital to put set-tops in everyone's home," Klinker said. "They could use that same hardware as part of their content distribution model. Then the user pays the electrical bill. And they pay for the bandwidth. It's just much more efficient."
Klinker said a solution, such as this one, requires a slightly different business model from BitTorrent's current business model. But he said that it's something the company is investigating.
"It's interesting enough that we're in discussions and testing some scenarios with ISPs," he said. "In general, service providers move slowly. So nothing will happen overnight. But I think we'll see some interesting changes within the next three years."