The Digital Olympics: Beyond the TV

While NBC holds exclusive rights to broadcast the Games online in the U.S., viewers in other countries will be able to watch events on YouTube

When the Olympics comes around, following the events on TV may be the last option for the digital crowd.

Users will be able to watch the events both on demand and have them streamed live on a variety of devices, including phones and PCs, and vendors are prepping to make the digital experience a reality in time for the Games.

In particular, a lot of the burden falls on the shoulders of Web content delivery networks which have to ensure the throngs flocking to the streaming sites experience reliable video quality.

U.S. broadcaster NBC has a plan to Web cast 2,200 hours of video over—limited to U.S. viewers only—made up of both live events and 17 days of archived videos that users can call up on demand.

The Microsoft Silverlight-enabled site will rely on Limelight's network to move content to users quickly.

David Hatfield, Limelight vice president of production and sales marketing, said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia it is during live streaming events that the delivery network will "really shine".

"With [an event] like the Olympics, you can't allow for stuttering, especially during crucial moments like a goal. It's a black eye on the branding of the broadcaster, too," said Hatfield.

This stuttering is caused by delays in traffic having to go through many "hops" from the access provider to the user. While objects typically go through 14 "hops", Limelight aims to cut that figure down drastically to prevent skipping videos, he explained.

Hatfield said allowing users to pick which events to watch poses a further challenge for networks. "It is easier to pre-populate a network with one item.

"First-generation networks placed tens of thousands of servers with one item to serve it up, but a million separate files wanting to be seen by a million different users is a bigger challenge," he said.

NBC's site is expected to receive over a million hits over the event, he noted.

Eric Schmidt, director of media and advertising evangelism at Microsoft said via e-mail he expects the regions in the United States with denser populations and broadband to be the "hot spots" for origin traffic.

He added that with the time difference, the peak hours and majority of live events will be late at night for U.S. viewers.

NBC's site also relies on Sun servers on the backend. Darrell Jordan-Smith, vice president of communications and media practice at Sun Microsystems told ZDNet Asia the server vendor is supplying 160 x64 quad-core Intel Xeon-based servers for the operation.

Sun has worked with NBC previously in 2006 for the Torino Games. "NBC significantly increased the specifications for systems availability this time around given the extensive plans for video streaming," added Jordan-Smith.

Following the Games outside the United States

While NBC holds the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics online in the United States, viewers outside will be able to follow the Games on YouTube.

This will be made available to 77 countries including Singapore, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam in the Asia-Pacific region.

U.S. viewers will be blocked from accessing the YouTube channel, and Chinese viewers are also restricted to CCTV's site, which has rights in the country.

However, users in the region may not be able to expect an experience matching that of the Chinese and U.S. sites. According to a report, only three hours coverage daily will be broadcast, with the International Olympic Committee on alert for illegal sports clips showing up on YouTube outside of the designated channel.

Limelight competitor, Akamai, will be focusing on handling traffic outside the United States for the event.

An Akamai spokesperson told ZDNet Asia the delivery provider is working with the European Broadcast Union to deliver video to its European audience in France, Finland and the United Kingdom watching on Eurosport, TF1, Canal+, Y.L.E and France Television.

To support the demands of live streaming, Akamai has focused on scaling resources as a Web site needs, the spokesperson added.

The provider aims to place servers near end users to shorten the distance traveled, cutting down on loading time and reducing the chance of packet loss over longer distances, explained Akamai.

For Olympics news, is also using Akamai to accelerate delivery of relevant content, which will include raw news clips for Chinese journalists, Akamai added.

The Games on the go

In Singapore, several mobile operators and one broadcaster are getting together to beam the Games to users while they're on the move.

National broadcaster MediaCorp, together with the three local telcos, M1, SingTel and StarHub, are running a trial over 300 users to stream the event to their mobiles.

The Olympics will be streamed over one dedicated channel via DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld), which is expected to offer better picture quality compared to streaming over the cellular network, according to MediaCorp.

Beyond the collaboration, StarHub is also live streaming the Olympics for free across six channels on its mobile platform to all its 3G and 3.5G subscribers.

When contacted, the operator expressed confidence in supporting the expected traffic demands for the event, saying the bitrate required to stream video to the mobile phone is fraction of the network's capacity.

"We do not expect the streaming service to have any large-scale impact on the network," a spokesperson said via e-mail.

StarHub hopes the availability of more content over mobiles will attract more viewers to the smaller form factor. "The biggest challenge for mobile TV is user acceptance of the technology.

"While TV and the Internet are established platforms for streaming and broadcasting content, mobile TV is a relatively new technology platform and it will take time for users to adapt to viewing programs on the mobile phone," said StarHub.

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