Large-scale bandwidth provider Akamai says it has a solution to a riddle that has caused Mark Cuban and others to declare the internet unfit for the streaming of high-definition video: getting around internet congestion that occurs between the company’s servers and the last mile of service that connects consumers’ computers to the internet.
Its solution is obvious in retrospect: putting 50,000 HD video delivery servers in that last-mile-of-service layer so that when congestion strikes, Akamai can serve video from closer to the viewer’s home. So far, the company says it has embedded these servers in 750 cities around the world to deliver Flash, Silverlight, and iPhone video at high definition bit rates to millions of simultaneous connections.
“The internet today is ready for HD,” declared Akamai co-founder and chief scientist Tom Leighton, in a meeting with press and investors on Tuesday that was webcasting using the very same Akamai Edge Network HD Video system.
Akamai’s Edge Network system toggles video bandwidth depending on the user’s internet connection, processing speed, and network congestion. That’s familiar technology by now, but Akamai says its version of adaptive bit rate is different because its last-mile servers let it switch between bandwidths in a way that’s less noticeable to the viewer.
Akamai says it can deliver 2 Mbps streams to over two thirds of U.S. users, and 5 Mbps streams to over a quarter of them, and expects those speeds and percentages to improve. That’s still nowhere near the resolution of Blu-Ray, but it does approach the resolution of many “HD” services that broadcast via cable and satellite. According to Akamai, the real innovation here is in figuring out how to route around internet congestion by putting servers near the edge of the internet, rather than relying solely on centralized data centers to pipe content through ISPs.
“We’ve optimized HD video to be more responsive,” said Akamai CEO Paul Sagan, adding that Akamai’s “unique network model” of putting servers on the edge of the internet lets them offer more responsive controls. If the typical user pauses the programming, said Sagan, less than a second will pass between the button being pressed and the stream pausing.
Akamai seeks big customers for its HD video streaming service in the television, film, and cable industries, but says smaller video producers and distributors could become a part of the equation. In addition to routing around the “middle mile” of the internet, Akamai says its value proposition includes the ability to scale to prime-time audiences on the level of the one that watched the Obama inauguration (10 million), and improved analytic capabilities.
The company said it expects most uses of its technology to be supported by advertisements rather than paid subscriptions.
So, who does Akamai think will want to watch these high-quality (if not strictly high-def) streams? People sitting at their desktop or laptop are obviously contenders, but Akamai also pointed towards the 50 million gaming consoles and 45 million iPhones that can receive high-quality video programming as areas ripe for exploration.