Peer-to-Peer technology isn’t just about cheerfully downloading the new Justin Timberlake album from some bloke in Greenland. Really. In fact, P2P could be the gateway to watching legal, full-screen webcasts from big broadcasters and media companies.
At least this is the view of RawFlow, a provider of, you guessed it, live P2P streaming technology. So why are the concepts that powered Napster, Kazaa, BitTorrent and co now being taken up by Big Media? Tech Digest talked to RawFlow’s Mikkel Dissing and Ian Keeling to find out.
The problem with current video streaming technologies is that they’re costly for the content providers, says Keeling. “Right now, when you broadcast over the Internet, there’s a success penalty. Every new audience member incurs a cost for the broadcaster in terms of bandwidth and server capacity."
His view is that this is why webcasting hasn’t taken off properly yet. In a layman’s nutshell, RawFlow’s P2P technology harnesses the unused bandwidth of internet users to provide more efficient streaming, and lower the costs for broadcasters.
The firm is ultra-keen to make a couple of things clear, however. Firstly, this is a live streaming service, it’s not about downloading stuff. And secondly, this isn’t piracy – a stigma that Keeling says has been attached to P2P technology since Napster was in its heyday.
“It’s live, and it’s not possible for an end user to capture the content,” says Keeling. “You consume the content, and it’s gone. It doesn’t download onto your computer, so you can’t pass it on or share it in any way.”
Rawflow’s technology also supports full copy protection technologies as well as ‘geo-locking’ – where webcasts can only be viewed by users with an IP address in a specific country or territory. That’s great news for Big Media, but what’s the benefit to us consumers sitting in front of our PCs?
“The bottom line is that now, if you’re an end user who wants to watch video on the Internet, chances are you’re watching it in a small window not much bigger than a business card, and if lots of people log on, you get buffering and jittering,” says Keeling.
“P2P is a more efficient way of using bandwidth, so if a broadcaster invests £100,000 in webcasting a music concert, rather than watching this little window, you could be watching it full-screen. And because P2P is more cost efficient, they don’t have to roll the costs of the webcast onto you, the consumer.”
Keeling says there’s a big surge in the number of large broadcasters and media firms who want to use P2P technology for live streaming, naming the BBC, Disney and Warner Brothers as examples. However, CEO Mikkel Dissing says that P2P streaming also suits smaller companies who want to broadcast online, but haven’t been able to afford the bandwidth before.
“Say you were Swindon football club, there’s no way you’d be interesting enough for Rupert Murdoch to put you on the Sky platform,” he says. “But that’s the beautiful thing about the Internet, as you can do it yourself. But it’s not been affordable for a lot of these smaller broadcasters and companies before.”
With that in mind, RawFlow has just announced a new tool called QuickStart, aimed at small-to-medium sized broadcasters, media companies and presumably home counties football clubs. The results will hopefully be an explosion in niche webcasting.
But back to Big Media. In its dealings with broadcasters, Keeling says he has seen a number of them loosen up when it comes to their attitude towards copy protection and digital rights management.
“We’re seeing content owners be a lot more relaxed about how content is being used,” says Keeling. “The biggest earner is advertising, so the more people you can get in front of your content, the better.”
To take the example of a music concert, this might mean that you could live stream a gig, which when it finishes downloads to your computer, although you’ll have to pay to watch it again. Or you might be able to share it with friends, although again, they’ll have to pay to watch the whole thing. There’s still plenty of work to be done though in convincing the Hollywood studios and record labels to make full use of P2P.
“We see ourselves as spokespeople for P2P,” says Dissing. “We want to convince people that it’s not bad, it’s good. And in my opinion, it’s the only way the Internet can become a broadcast medium. There’s no way you can build proper business models around a model where every single new viewer costs more money than you can demand.”