THE FUTURE IS STREAMING
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- In 1980, I dreamed that streaming particles of lig= ht came flowing through my room in waves that passed with equal ease throug= h flesh and plaster. Later, as I began to hear about theorized faster-than= -light particles called tachyons, I wrote a short story called "The Eyes of=
the Future Are Upon You," about a future time in which masters of the tach= yon stream had invented TT, the successor to TV, which filtered the stream = of old light to tune viewers to events occurring in the distant past.
Gen= ealogical services that helped locate ancestors in time andplace long ago w= ere the fastest-growing business on the planet. Onlyhigh-ranking government= officials, however, could peer into the stream ofthe past 50 years: They w= ere afraid that if people knew what went on inthe halls of power last week,= they'd have little use for them orgovernment.
At the June 20-22 Streaming World West conference (STW) that wrapped up = Friday in Long Beach, Calif., the immediate past is streaming out of a thou= sand different devices, applications and software packages into our immedia= te future. Although they are not yet saying so, for government the stakes = may be enormous, both politically and socially.
That is because streaming video and the public Internet are likely to = be a team that unites people throughout the world in understanding and reac= ting to events, just unlike television, which united an earlier generation,= streaming media will do it largely outside of governments' control.
Just as television has proven to be a powerful tool in the hands of go= vernments who use it to spread a message of stability and contentment, stre= aming media gives individuals across the world a way to spread their own po= werful messages -- of instability and discontent, perhaps, or of art as cha= os and dissonance, of society as oppressor and government as enemy.
Today= , there is virtually no clamor on the Left for control oftelevision station= s. There is no KPFK or LA Weekly of the air. There hasnever been a truly = Left-leaning or progressive television network, despite the perceptions of = several White House occupants about anchors like Dan Rather and reporters l= ike Daniel Schorr.
But in these waning days of the power of television, when networks are l= osing audiences even for Monday Night Football, the advent of streaming med= ia is a death knell. Private data networks can now deliver high-quality vid= eo over fiber optic lines to the public Internet, and at prices low enough = for your average ADA chapter to afford. Who needs free television when a wo= rld of better choices is available on the Internet?
The paradigm of point= -to-multipoint broadcasting is beginning to crumble, and emerging in its pl= ace is the paradigm of many-to-many: the whole world talking to the whole w= orld, all at once. As Shakespeare wrote, "Tis a consumnation devoutly to b= e wished."
At STW, though, the world was not on anyone's mind this week. Butwhat is= bugging the several hundred exhibitors here is the too-slowly expanding nu= mber of households with fast Internet access whose dollars will make it fin= ancially feasible to deliver a wealth of interactive services and huge amou= nts of data overthe new networks. Enabling those streams is the business o= f virtually everyone at STW.
Some want to show off the capacity of the networks to carry HDTV(2NetF= X), some the ability to deliver DVD-quality movies-on-demand todesktops (st= 3); some want to encode and encapsulate the data (JMG of Korea) to stream i= t through different players, like Windows Media Player, Quicktime and the o= minpresent Real Player; some want to enable corporate intranets to stream t= he boss's words and image instantly to 750 Morgan Stanley offices, or Muzak= to 1,200 Home Depots (Optibase). Flicks Software want to secure the intel= lectual property rights of such data, wherever it goes; VTrails wants to st= ream with less bandwith by having users' machines cache and re-stream it; J= GM, a Korean company, wants to manage all of those functions.
Some of this stuff makes your eyes pop. A Finnish firm called oplayo s= ends streaming email video messages that run as soon as you click on your e= mail, and this week they've teamed that with a six-inch, next-generation br= onzed Nokia cellphone that opens up to reveal a tiny, functioning wireless = laptop. They already have a competitor doing the same thing.
Jonathan Klein, a former executive producer of both 48 Hours and = 60 Minutes, has created the Feed Room (www.feedroom.com), where the = future of news is streaming video from local television stations around the= country available -- and searchable -- all on one site (the company's big = customers are local stations and corporate intranets).
Amid the entrepreneurs are new giants like Virage, who with partners Te= lestream and PacketView make it possible now to carry a handheld encoding d= evice attached to a handheld Sony digital camera to pipe action video via s= atellite or landline from a riot in downtown Jakarta to a Website streaming= the feed from a server based in Van Nuys to viewers around the world.
And all of these firms, however delightful their technology, are holding= on to these fragile niches for dear life, because while the bandwidth is t= here now that the fiber optic networks are in place, the money to realize t= hese real dreams is not. And sometimes the imagination isn't, either.
That's the complaint after listening to a simpleton from Disney defend h= is company's glacial launch of interactive networks. The guy has just told= an audience of maybe 50 geeks in a far corner of the Long Beach Convention= Center dubbed the Digital Media Zone (the DMZ, get it?) that Disney is wai= ting for a generation of users who can simply push a button to watch and ta= lk back to Disney productions on the Internet. He rejects a suggestion that= millions of users who are not simpletons are primed for Disney movies and = other content.
"They just don't get it," a guy whose dangling badge identifies him as E= ric Wall tells me. "They don't want to know that there is an audience out = there that's ready now."
Indeed, that's a common theme: Millions of people have spent the extra= $30 a month to hook up their PCs and Macs to high-speed solutions like DSL= , cable, satellite and wireless, but traditional entertainment companies li= ke Disney are not streaming any useful products to us over those costly hig= h-speed connections.
In the gap the majors have created, though, companieslike New Generation= Films (www.newgenfilms.com) are streaming DVD-qualityindependent feature-l= ength films over the public Internet for free. They can do that because a = company called st3 has made a multimillion-dollarinvestment in creating a p= rivate data network composed of fiber optic cable laid from the East Coast = to the West Coast and back again, roughly from Chattanooga, Tenn., st3's ho= me, to Los Angeles to San Francisco and Portland, back to New York and Bost= on and south to Raleigh, Atlanta and Miami, with a major node in Dallas, an= d connections to most places in between.
Headed by a Princeton comparative literature grad named Bryan Rockwood = -- a former student of American Reporter columnist Clarence Brown --= st3 has a huge empty pipe through which to push newgen's films at a cost t= o newgen that would have been unthinkable just two years ago.
When a film is downloaded by me in Los Angeles, for instance, the movi= e is pushed through the fiber optic pipe, momentarily occupying a small por= tion of its capacity; when it reaches LA, though, it is cached on the serve= r located at st3's POP (that stands for point of presence, sort of like the= local 7-Eleven stands in for Southland Corp.), so that the next time someo= ne in LA asks for it, there doesn't have to be that 3,000-mile shove.
"The big expense is in the network. The model we're pursuing issort of l= ike buying your house up front instead of choosing to rent," Rockwood expla= ins. "Then you can really bring your cost of goods sold way down over time.= "
The thirtysomething son of a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, = Rockwood grew up in New Mexico and immediately after Princeton went to work= as a Boston investment banker. After 13 years of that, he came south to C= hattanooga to last November to help the company -- backed partly by the big= fiber optic provider Broadwing -- put together and lease its 30,000-mile n= etwork of fiber optic lines.
The company opened for business 90 days ago, and in the real-time, ligh= tning-fast business pace of the Internet, st3 plans to announce a deal in t= he next few weeks with "a company that is already on the Web selling video = on demand; it's backed by a major studio."
In the past 30 days st3 has announced 15 deals, including one with Medi= astation to network video games. After the video-on-demand announcement, In= ternet users with broadband will be able to download feature films at a mod= est price and watch them on their PCs and Macs with none of the jerky frame= s formerly associated with Internet streaming. Rockwood's private fiber opt= ic network will carry it all to you.
"Everyone could put together a network," Rockwood concedes when asked ab= out the ability of the major studios to quickly overwhelm st3. "But why wo= uld they want to? They would most definitely in absolute dollars terms spe= nd more than we did." And most of his competitors, he says, "are a collecti= on of servers around the country. They don't have a physical network they = can control."
Neither does the ADA, or Pacifica Foundation, or any of the larger progr= essive organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, PEN and Amnesty I= nternational. But streaming media makes it possible when the will and the = money are there, and today -- with only about 5 percent ofthe 100 million m= iles of fiber optic in the ground being used and the companies that own it = badly pressed for cash after their $35 billion investment -- it doesn't tak= e so much.
Progressives are only a dream and $10 million away from being able to = mount networks of their own that serve up video, live or on-demand, to mill= ions of people who register and may even pay for it. Loma Linda's Crystal = Cathedral and cable tv's religous network, Trinity Broadcasting, are alread= y streaming on st3's lines.
And just like that, the power of governments to control the stream of in= formation that reaches the public -- either directly, through ownership of = telecom companies, licensing and censorship, or indirectly through taxation= or simple fear -- begins to crumble like the Berlin Wall. It happens fast;= the barriers of flesh and plaster vanish, and we peer into our past before= it is frozen, before it is too late to change.