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Streaming Video: A New Era in TV Broadcasting?

Streaming video--the transfer of video files on the Internet--can be accessed by any computer connected to the Internet at high speed or via broadband. With the increased availability of such connections, which allow the transmission of larger amounts of data, including larger pictures at higher resolution, and improved audio, to individual users, a new kind of advanced television broadcasting is becoming widely available. As such streaming video (and streaming media in general, the latter term embracing radio broadcasting) may be considered a further step towards building a hi-tech knowledge-based society with more reliable and portable news sources.

Streaming video augments the potential for TV broadcasting to reach everyone. With the spread of high speed wireless Internet connections, the availability and reliability of broadband broadcasting increases. The use of the computer for TV reception restores to broadcasting the convenience and portability of radio. (Portable TV sets, on the other hand, usually have weak reception and cannot be used for satellite broadcasting.)

Broadcasting TV on the Internet also has the advantage that it does not require the permission of the host country, while reception requires no more than a simple Internet connection. A single server is now more than adequate to host a channel, especially with the availability of more storage spaces at lower prices. The threat of censorship and of pressure from host countries to influence content are thus removed. With ownership of TV channels no longer concentrated in government hands, video quality approaching TV standards, world-wide wireless telecommunications coverage hosted by big companies, and the introduction of mobile phones with Internet access, streaming video is likely to provide an important new weapon for the market against the state. At the same time, the need for the self-regulation and accountability systems appropriate to the new media grows.

Since programs stored as streaming video may be accessed at any time, it has the further advantage of allowing TV stations to provide viewers with programming on demand, reducing the risk of dissatisfaction due to missed programs.

Streaming media is buffered from the server to the user and does not take up permanent disk space on the user's computer. By the same token, the user must be connected to the Internet to view it, an aspect of the technology that has positive implications for copyright protection.

Accessibility features common to digital media apply equally to streaming video, meaning that the viewer can rewind and review all or any part of the clip.

E-commerce and advertising potential may also be enhanced through streaming video, with consumers able to view advertisements for products in which they are interested and witness demonstrations and simulations.

Search by keyword, as in text services, is a feature that is due to be introduced soon. Streaming media will thus become searchable on the Internet, aiding research by providing material on demand according to user-defined criteria.

Streaming video is not without its downsides, however. It depends on costly technology that is beyond the reach of poor countries. Conventional television broadcasting will therefore remain for some time the main source of visual news wherever this technology is lacking or unreliable.

It may also be the case that although it may be produced and distributed through the Internet beyond the reach of government control, the potential of streaming video to undermine totalitarian regimes and destabilize entrenched private economic orders may also threaten legitimate public authority and individual liberties. These threats can only be faced through the development of international institutions and common regulatory policies capable of addressing challenges to national jurisdiction over global information resources.

Given the availability of streaming video to anyone who can afford it, it may also comprise a potential hazard to national and global security. Terrorists have been quick to take of advantage of the medium for the propagation of their messages. With the aid of small, high-resolution, digital video cameras and portable computers with Internet connection terrorists are able to send untraceable video messages to TV stations and policy makers. Bin Laden and others have of course taken full advantage.

At a purely technical level, there is a problem in that playback software for streaming video is not standardized, some suppliers using Real Media while others use Microsoft's Media Player. To reach the widest base of users, suppliers will have to produce programs in both formats.

The service is currently limited to news and music channels. CNN puts its news bulletins on the Internet and sometimes broadcasts through its website exclusive coverage of events deemed to be of sufficient interest to their audience. Al Jazeera provides all its programs on the Internet in video format, not to mention transcripts of all programs for the previous four or five weeks. Melody Hits, an up-and-coming Arab music channel on NileSat, puts all its video clips on the Internet for access via a dial-up service number. While quality is not as good as the MPEG format used in DBS (Direct Broadcast Satellite), it is on its way to improvement with the widespread increase in using the Broadband services around the Middle East.

On the international level, America's MTV has long provided video streaming of the latest music hits. The list is growing fast and the technology is becoming more reliable as the computers and websites hosting it are becoming more and more user-friendly and powerful.

Questions remain, however. How will entertainment and state-owned channels that do not have enough funding to host the service be affected? What about encrypted feed channels, channels requiring subscription on DBS, or service suppliers? Internet passwords are vulnerable to hacking, implying the need for additional, costly security.

The largest question is whether streaming video will continue to be available as a free public service, or whether in the near future it will require an access subscription. It also remains to be seen whether it will be governed by national, international, or market laws. In any case, the service is likely to provide substantial benefits for those that have access to it.

About Usama Najeeb

Usama Najeeb is a graduate of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo. He works as researcher for Austrian TV in Cairo and is an assistant editor of TBS.

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