Informs and engages the UNB community on IT developments and news

Looking at Audio and Video Streaming

Author: ITS

Posted on Jun 15, 2011

Category: Geek Speak

videoAudio/Video streaming is a term you may not hear very often, but it's a core technology at the heart of today's internet experience.  If you've ever watched a video on YouTube, rented a movie from iTunes, or subscribed to Netflix, you've used streaming video technologies.

In the old days (in internet terms, that's anything more than about seven years ago), most video or music content delivered over the internet was downloaded, which means for the most part the video had to be pushed across the network from the originator to your computer before you could start to watch it.  If two people or a thousand people wanted to watch a video of a dancing baby, they all had to get a copy from the originator's website and they would all end up with a copy on their computer.  This was inefficient, slow, and bandwidth intensive, and it didn't scale well.  A popular video could easily bring a site to its knees if it "went viral" (that is, became very, very popular in a short period of time).  Times have changed, and downloading still has a place in the form of peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, where you receive pieces of a file(s) from many different people who all have a piece of the whole until your copy is complete.

Streaming video works differently.  Huge networks of servers called content delivery networks (CDNs) push a few copies of many files (such as YouTube videos, Netflix TV shows and movies, etc.) to many delivery end-points throughout the internet. When a person in San Francisco and a person in Fredericton decide to watch the first episode of the Twilight Zone on Netflix, they receive a stream from a content delivery end-point located near them.  The payload on CDNs fluctuates constantly based on popularity, availability and demand.

Streaming video is gaining in popularity as the barriers to entry drop.  A Netflix account inCanada is a flat $8 a month and many TVs come with software built in to allow you to consume internet-based content almost as easily as hooking up cable or attaching a pair of rabbit ears. Dedicated add-on devices such as Roku and Apple TV, which can stream Netflix, content from iTunes, Youtube, Flickr pictures and more are equally approachable, costing less than $100.  Streaming video is so popular, in fact, that recently Netflix has begun to account for more than 50% of the internet's traffic.  Until Netflix took the crown, BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer networks held the top spot.  This means that currently more people are streaming content than downloading it.

This, of course, has major implications for the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that deliver all this content to your home.  In the last federal election, the idea of usage based billing (UBB) for internet services -- essentially, users who use more pay more -- was a hotly debated topic. More than half a million Canadians signed a petition arguing against the concept of UBB and all the major parties addressed internet bandwidth issues in their platforms.  All the drama was based on the fact that Canada's major ISPs -- Rogers and Bell -- proposed usage models in which "heavy" users could be charged as much as $5 per gigabyte after a certain cap was reached (caps range from 2GB for light plans to 175 GB for the largest plans).  But with video streaming services such as Netflix, even a moderate user can blow through a 175GB monthly ration in a couple of weeks.  The logical question to ask, of course, is how much all that extra bandwidth that streaming video uses actually costs ISPs, and the answer might surprise you. Rogers might charge you $5/GB if you hit your cap, but the actual cost is more like $0.08/GB.