Blog Post

Web Video Is Still an Inexact Science

[qi:032] Dave Winer wrote a poignant post this week about President-elect Barack Obama’s interview on “60 Minutes,” prompting me to actually go to the CBS web site in search of the most-watched “60 Minutes” episode…ever. It was hard to find the video on, and only after I searched for it on Google did I end up at, where the video interview — along with a full transcript — is available. That alone was an annoying experience, though the viewing experience got worse with time.

The interview was engaging, illuminating and informative — a throwback to a classic style of journalism that has been largely lost in this era of sound bites and bombastic proclamations and the drone-like newscasts on cable TV channels. But the viewing experience was ruined by a video that would stop, freeze and restart every so often.I did the speed check on my broadband connection and also checked if my wireless router was working properly — it all looked good. Beyond this, it could have been one of many problems — network congestion on my ISP’s network, congestion in the intercity networks, or perhaps CBS’s content delivery network wasn’t up to snuff. Or maybe CBS’s servers were simply overwhelmed by the demand for the Obama interview.

One way or another, it’s not just a CBS problem; problems like this can be found on almost all services — including YouTube, even despite having the unfair advantage of being hosted on Google’s infrastructure. There are too many points of failure when it comes to web video. These problems are only going to increase in the near future as more and more of us are going to watch more and more video online. According to a study by IBM, nearly 76 percent of consumers surveyed said that they watch video on their personal computers, indicating that watching videos on the web is quickly becoming as mainstream an activity as sending emails and instant messages.

And yet we continue to have a marginal experience with web videos. There is a lot of talk about offering HD-like videos on the web, but if the networks and the infrastructure can’t really deliver that experience seamlessly, then we have a problem.×3.swf
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13 Responses to “Web Video Is Still an Inexact Science”

  1. I agree with your observation that web video is an inexact science – compared with the consistency and clarity of broadcast television. Competitive (duopolistic, or otherwise…)forces will cause the experience to improve over time. The value of being able to watch what I want, when I want, where I want far outwieghs the pain associated with a less than optimal viewing experience.

    Cellphones are an inferior (although improving) experience to landline phones.

    Convenience often trumps quality.

  2. Jesse Kopelman

    Steeply falling prices? I’ve been using Comcast for 7 years and my broadband costs have stayed exactly the same for the entire time, while the price of my TV packages have continued to steadily increase. This is in the supposedly competitive Boston and DC markets, mind you. Yes my speeds have increased, but I was perfectly ok with the 2-3Mbps downlink I had 7 years ago. It is only since I came to DC this year that my uplink increased beyond 384kbps . . .

    Fiercely competitive duopoly? That’s some hyperbole. This competition is like one of the boxing matches where the crowd boos the whole time because nobody wants to throw a punch. Duopolies are always like this. Just look at the mobile telephony industry. For 10 years there was just the A-side and B-side carrier and buildouts went slow and steady and while prices came down rapidly, the thought that rates would ever be low enough to replace a landline was laughable. Then came PCS and 2-4 additional competitors in every single market. Suddenly per year capital spending was greater than it had been those entire previous ten years. Rates dropped at an even greater pace, innovations like nationwide plans were introduced, and landline replacement became reality.

    As for the cost of entry thing; that is something I have learned all to well from first hand experience. I spent the last 4 years consulting with various players wanting to build competitive municipal broadband networks. Not a single one of these networks was built. The best outcomes achieved were either pressuring the primary incumbent into improving things to stave off competition or convincing a second tier incumbent to step up their competitive efforts by building out their network. Look at the results of the spectrum auctions in the last 10 years: all dominated by incumbents and all spectrum mostly unutilized still. Look at what’s happened some non-incumbent has built a fiber network: endless legal challenges and eventual lack of funding to complete the planned buildout. I certainly don’t think we are done building access networks, but clearly something has to change and the solution isn’t let’s leave things up to the incumbents. Of course, wrong-headed regulation won’t help matter either. But to blindly say never regulate is just as stupid as to blindly say regulate to death. Extremism is never the correct answer.

  3. Be careful with the implicit conclusion that duopolies are one short step away from monopolies. This is a fiercely competitive duopoly that has given us 60% broadband penetration, steadily decreasing prices and increasing speeds. Let’s keep regulators as far from this as we can get them.

    I’ve also been on record, here and elsewhere, maintaining that caps are ill-advised and will backfire.

    But it would depress me to think, as you evidently do, that we’re done building access networks (because the “cost of entry is far too high”) and we’re going to have to live with what we have. I do not believe this to be the case but there is one sure way to make it so–regulate it.

  4. Jesse Kopelman

    @Kevin Walsh

    You think the broadband duopoly, whose television business plans rely on lack of competition from the Internet, are going improve our Internet video experience through less regulation? What incentive does Verizon, who is counting on traditional TV revenue to pay for FiOS, have to improve your ability to circumvent their TV services and watch stuff via the Internet? You must also buy into the propaganda that bandwidth caps are being implemented to improve QOS. I’ve worked for these companies. They value control of their networks beyond even profitability, let alone customer satisfaction. Cost of entry is far too high to have real competition anytime soon, so the only possible answer is regulation. There is a very good reason Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt Rushmore — proper regulation is the best friend of capitalism, not its mortal enemy.

  5. Regarding Kevin’s comments: If you think watching streaming videos in the North America can be problematic, try viewing from most Latin American, Asian, Middle East, Australian…..and other places far far away. However (and I know this sounds seld serving – sorry) but many ISPs in those areas have figured out that the way to solve the end-to-end streaming problems (congested Transit, peering and access links) is to appropriately use caching at the edge of the network. Less congestion, more pleasing, costs less.

  6. I agree with James McQuivey, watching TV on a PC window that rebuffers even on a good broadband connection gets old pretty fast. Even Hulu, which is better than most, suffers from this.

    The technology exists to create an internet video viewing experience on a 50″ HDTV that is virtually indistinguishable from a locally attached DVD player. CDNs have already tackled much of the problem, now it’s time to address the portion of the delivery network CDNs don’t control: the broadband access infrastructure.

    Unfortunately, doing that will require a newly emboldened Government do something that is not in its DNA. Namely, refrain from regulating.

  7. James McQuivey

    Have to confess I often gloss over this in my coverage of online video. It’s such an amazing convenience (and the hour a week people spend with this emerging medium validates that), that’s it’s easy to be so happy to have it that you will endure some annoyance.

    But that only lasts so long. There comes a time when the newness of online video wears off and you start to want it to be as reliable as the TV you grew up with. Sometimes I hear cable execs make this point in hopes that it means that online video will be a fad, a fling we dabble with until we realize what we really want — cable — was right there all along. I appreciate their optimism, but I don’t share it. In the end, online video is a game changer, and your correct observation that it is often terrible only motivates CDNs and networks to improve their technology so that these experiences get better.

    Thanks for starting this conversation. I’m going to take it to my clients and readers to hear how frustrated they are:

  8. Flash and / or Streaming are the issue, and even worst : unicasted streaming in Flash ! That is the worst thing to do, and that’s what almost everybody has adopted thinking stupidely than that would fix copyright issues… or perhaps because of a lack of initiative from the developper (youtube did it, so let’s do the same)

    Progressive download + CDN, P2P, multicasting (if you really want to deal with live broadcast) are much better solutions.
    Has anybody had any issue with viewing trailer in Quicktime on the Apple web site ?
    That is QuickTime + Progressive download + efficient CDN
    My choice would go to Miro + podcast associated to P2P files

    @randy : Hulu does not count : its access is limited to the US
    – Foxnews does not use streaming but progressive download

  9. Memo to online video publishers: Contact Keynote ( and sign up for their Streaming Perspective service. It will tell you what your video looks like to end users all over the world.Then take that data and beat up your CDN, stream host, IT guy, etc … Until it is rock solid.

    Reliable online video IS possible. I know – I’ve seen the data. But you can’t fix whatyou can’t measure.

    Disclaimer: I don’t work for Keynote but I was cofounder of Streamcheck which they bought and turned into Streaming Perspective a few years ago.

  10. Hulu gets it right, Fox News gets it right.

    • Hulu: experiencing increasing success!
    • Fox News: experiencing increasing success!

    Meanwhile… CNN can’t get it right. CBS can’t get it right. Local TV news affiliates, totally hopeless.

    • CNN: declining ratings.
    • CBS: declining ratings, bad press.
    • Local TV affiliates: plummeting ratings.

    Wow, I see a correlation!