Friday, April 01, 2011

A Collapse of the Internet Narrowly Avoided

The world championship in skiing, Oslo. Photo by Erik F. Brandsborg under a Creative Commons license.

Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) recently broke the national record of web tv streaming. During the World championship in Skiing in Oslo last month, 134,000 simultaneous streams were consumed across Norway at the most popular event (the mens cross country relay). That is an estimated three times higher than the previous national record. Very impressive!

This was furthermore something NRK would previously have been unable to achieve. This time, a CDN agreement with Akamai, ensured that the content was distributed more evenly throughout the Internet in Norway than what has previosuly been the case (when everything was streamed from NRKs servers in Oslo).

But what happened in reality? NRK offers different qualities of available web tv streams, HD quality at 3.2Mbps being the top notch one. Normally, the average bandwidth per user is somewhat lower at 2.5Mbps. NRKs solution serves adaptive streaming, meaning that the bandwidths being made available varies on network conditions, network load, your own bandwidth, etc.

During the men's relay the average bandwidth per user was as low as 1.5Mbps, according to my friend and colleague, Mr. Bjarne Andre Myklebust who is NRKs Head of IP Distribution. He says:

"The infrastructure clearly told us that it was filling up. The Internet in Norway was suffering and the world championship showed us that there are limitations to what the web can deliver. The Internet is only a supplement for delivery of TV and radio. Using the web to transport such data consuming services blocks other users from using the infrastructure to more important and sensible tasks."

People not interested in sports were denied optimal access to other services as NRKs users were almost killing the Internet thanks to the vastly popular skiing contest.

Watching big events live via web TV when there is a broadcasted option borders to selfishness. The bandwidth consumed can be better utilized by others that have no option but to use an Internet-only service.

New gatekeepers revealed
What is also worrying is that certain city councils even shut down the access to NRKs website which offered access to the web tv streams for all their employees and all schools. Random IT officers did in other words suddenly act as gate keepers of some of the content on the Internet. CTOs of certain companies supposedly did the same. Why? Because their local networks were crippled and unusable for what they are ment to do: providing communication between employees and systems, possibilities for research, access to teaching materials, etc. Even NRK as a public service broadcaster provides news and a lot of educational resources used by teachers and students, and this was blocked together with the web TV traffic from NRKand made inaccessible to those affected.
The Internet is certainly becoming faster and faster all the time, but the Internet is not made for transport of the same content to many at the same time. Broadcasting is perfect for that, the Internet is perfect for interactivity, communication and on demand services.

This case again shows weaknesses when the Internet is used in ways that it was never intended for. And the weaknesses are not only related to capacity or gatekeepers, there are at least 11 other reasons.

To repeat myself yet again, combination of technologies is the only smart and sensible way forward when it comes to distribution of radio and TV. Let me rub this in through some pity theft. I have below stolen and slightly rewritten a very well put paragraph from a recent blog post of James Cridland who writes about radio:

The internet is a rubbish way of reaching mass-market audiences; it doesn’t work reliably well in a mobile situation, and is many times more expensive to broadcast to large audiences. Broadcast fixes all of that. However, the Internet is excellent at niche content, out-of-area content and additional information – lots of things that are difficult or impossible to achieve through broadcasting. The future is multi-platform. It’s not a war.