Electronic Design

Film Industry Plans To Speed Internet Bits And Boost Its Revenues

To understand what will increase the Internet's already voracious appetite for bandwidth, storage, and content protection, consider this. Within 12 to 24 months, it may be possible to deliver full-length feature films via the Internet. That was one of the messages sent to attendees at the Film Information Technology Conference and Exposition (FilmIT), held recently in Los Angeles.

It's easy to see how tantalizing it must be to these entrepreneurs to market their films on the Internet. There's a hitch, though. The Internet can't simply imitate the practices of TV. As keynote speaker Robert Cooper, CEO of Landscape Entertainment, Los Angeles, Calif., and a former president of HBO Pictures, told the audience, "The Internet is creating chaos."

"What's more," he added, "the film industry and the IT community simply don't understand each other." To succeed, each ISP must bring something unique, such as interactivity, and in particular, transactions. TV and print can't, in and of themselves, close a transaction. But a Web site can, with just a couple of viewer mouse clicks. So ISPs must put the Internet to work, first ferreting out customers and then convincing them to close the transactions.

Two-thirds of what travels across the Internet today is text. But within five years the text portion will drop to one half, with the other 50% being video/audio. Although the assets are ones and zeros, the trunks they traverse, their storage, and access rights are becoming ever more crucial to ISPs. Also important is controlling the content through encryption and other means. By doing so, the Internet is no longer a porous sieve, and assets won't simply slip away.

Those who originated the Internet never intended it to carry streaming media. Yet that's where things are headed. Streaming media on-demand will rapidly supplant downloading, with data rates ranging from 100 to 350 kbits/s, all the way up to 750 kbits/s and higher. Today there are companies feeding 7.5 million streams at 56 kbits/s. And while fiber to the door is still far away, it's a promising option. Over fiber at 1.5 Mbits/s, a 650-Mbit full-length movie can be moved in less than one minute.

But the Internet is already making dents in other businesses, such as express services. For instance, instead of expressing individual advertisements as DVDs or films in a can, McDonald's now sends them by e-mail. They're delivered to destinations throughout the world, so they can be aired locally. Savings are said to be seven figures per year. So why ship a celluloid copy of a full-length movie, given that it costs $2250 to do so, when a DVD disk goes for $3 and Internet transportation costs nothing?

Or consider indexing. For CNN, which has about 37 feeds streaming into its headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., manually cataloging all these clips is a horrific task. By applying sophisticated indexing techniques, however, the network is reportedly saving about $1.2 million each quarter.

To handle the load, bandwidth is expected to increase by four times in 12 months and 30 times in the next three to five years. And storage requirements are doubling annually.

But simply adding more servers and bandwidth isn't good enough, because servers would sit idle during intervals of low demand. As an alternative, advanced techniques are being introduced to enhance caching, load balancing, and bandwidth management. All are aimed at relieving network congestion.

There are as many as 170 companies broadcasting HDTV. Nonetheless, this technology isn't playing out as expected. To be sure, CBS is still actively pursuing the production of prime-time programs in 1080I. HBO also is running 1080I, along with PBS, which airs several hours of 1080I each month.

The real surprise is that HDTV production is finding applications in nonbroadcast venues. These range from museum exhibits and theme parks to electronic cinema and retail outlets. So in markets unfettered by broadcast standards and rates of consumer adoption, independent producers are exploiting the creative and technical power of HDTV.

As for servers, models designed specifically to accommodate HDTV playback are on the horizon. Edge servers, at 100 kbits/s, are the start of what can be thought of as broadband. Today, between 1 and 2 million households have broadband. One ISP, Akamai Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass., has installed nearly 6000 servers in regions across the country, supporting about 300 net service providers.

Within the film industry, there's also a compression debate under way. Though many employ variations of MPEG compression, some claim that wavelet systems cause fewer picture artifacts, making these systems better suited for large-screen presentations (see "JPEG 2000 To Arrive In December With Tantalizing Array Of Features," Electronic Design, Oct. 30, p. 25).

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