Share That Content With Your Neighbor

You click. You wait. And still, maddeningly, the Victoria's Secret fashion show refuses to play

You click. You wait. And still, maddeningly, the Victorias Secret fashion show refuses to play.

Soon, though, using peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to distribute content, we may all be able to watch the scantily clad underwear models traipse the runway without worrying that access will be denied due to bandwidth constraints. And at the same time, content providers may see much lower bandwidth bills.

Heres how streaming works today: An Internet user makes a discrete connection with the content owners media server and begins downloading the content. This model is very expensive, and a single system can easily get clogged with more user requests than it can handle. "The worst thing that could happen on the Internet is too many people come in and block the server, and the whole broadcast could crash," says Marc Steatham, chief marketing officer of P2P streaming technology provider AllCast.

A way to get content closer to users is via a content delivery network, such as that of Akamai Technologies, Digital Island or iBeam Broadcasting. But this is also a relatively pricey option, compared with the potential cost advantages of P2P content delivery. While most P2P delivery networks are not available yet for commercial deployment, AllCast estimates a system that would support 100 simultaneous streams would cost $500.

P2P streaming delivery networks set up a virtual chain between users who have already downloaded the content. When someone wants the content, that person downloads it from another user — a peer in the network — who is best able to deliver it. The cost savings come from using the bandwidth and storage of the users in the network.

"What the software network tries to do is optimize the delivery of the content over the network given the current network conditions," says Tony Espinoza, vice president of products and services of Kontiki, another P2P content delivery startup. The Kontiki Delivery Network is in private beta testing right now, with a public beta scheduled to launch this month.

To overcome the Napster stigma of unreliable — and illegal — content distribution, several of the new P2P services, including those of CenterSpan Communications and Kontiki, incorporate a level of authentication and content protection. CenterSpan, for example, uses digital watermarking so a user cant substitute a video of his fishing trip for, say, an Aerosmith video.

Although they enlist users PCs as delivery nodes, the P2P content delivery companies claim their systems have very low impact. ChainCast Networks, for example, uses a measly 2 percent of system resources to stream content and takes up 20 kilobits per second of a users upstream bandwidth, which goes mostly unused anyway, says Joseph Rozenfeld, ChainCasts chief technology officer.

As for stored content, todays hard drives have the gigabytes free for the taking, says Michael Hudson, CTO of P2P streamer CenterSpan. Most PCs today leave the factory with at least a 20-GB hard disk, about 12 GB of which remains largely unused, he says.

Prospective customers of these P2P systems include content providers — everyone from Net radio stations to movie studios — and service providers that sell streaming services, as well as enterprises looking to more efficiently distribute video presentations, such as e-learning content or CEO speeches.

None of the P2P providers, however, has reeled in a big fish like Victorias Secret. Hudson concedes that the technologys first big market could be Internet porn — an industry that is often an early adopter of new technology. "We did not design our network to deliver porn," he says, "but if I was in the business of doing porn subscriptions, this would be the kind of network I would want."