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Speedy Service – Caltech is developing way to send video online even faster.

Speedy Service

Caltech is developing way to send video online even faster

By MICHAEL THURESSON

Staff Reporter

A program that speeds delivery of data via the Web, recently developed by computer scientists at Caltech, has piqued the interest of Hollywood studios as a potential breakthrough in the distribution of video-on-demand services.

The technology, called Fast Transmission Control Protocol, or Fast TCP, more efficiently routes data across networks. It can be downloaded onto a computer server and used for swapping large files within seconds.

Before it is commercialized, Caltech expects to deploy the technology this fall as part of a 200-university fiber network used to exchange massive files of scientific data.

The universities are tied together by a fiber optic network, something missing from the consumer side of the equation and, to date, limiting wider use of the program.

Still, the school’s demonstrations of the technology have led several companies, including Burbank-based Walt Disney Co., Microsoft Corp. and Sony Pictures in Culver City, to inquire about video distribution applications.

“There is the potential for them to use this for media delivery. It’s just a technical discussion now and it’s premature to talk about business deals,” said Steven Low, a Caltech computer science professor leading the Fast TCP project.

Low said Howard Liu, director of digital network architecture at Disney’s new technology and new media division, has had technical discussions with his team about Fast TCP.

“We have attended demonstrations of the technology,” said Michelle Bergman, a spokeswoman at Disney, who declined to elaborate. Liu was unavailable to comment.

Low also said he planned to meet with Sony Pictures next month to discuss technical issues. Sony officials also declined comment.

Preliminary steps

Fast TCP, which constantly monitors network conditions and allows computers to send data at optimal speeds, will likely be rolled out for internal distribution and in more limited entertainment applications before it can be used to pipe films onto personal computers.

“The big thing being discussed is digital distribution to theaters,” said Bruce Eisen, chief executive at CinemaNow Inc., a Marina del Ray-based provider video-on-demand services backed by Lions Gate Entertainment, an independent studio.

But that, like piping films into people’s homes, also has hurdles to overcome. Exhibitors have thus far been reticent to lay out the cash needed to equip theaters with the latest digital projection technologies.

“The speed has been great on some new technologies but they haven’t been cost effective. This goes far beyond most technologies we’ve seen lately and could have a profound impact on the Internet,” said Sean Badding, senior analyst at the Carmel Group, which tracks broadband technologies.

Even with that potential, it may still be some time before the technological and practical barriers to a wide rollout are cleared.

The broad application of Fast TCP would allow movie studios and other content providers to potentially bypass their current distribution partners.

“If you are Disney and you rely on Blockbuster and cable providers to distribute content, you want to create a one-to-one consumer relationship and bypass the network,” said Michael Greeson, senior broadband analyst at Parks Associates. “This technology certainly makes them more powerful.”

The other hurdles are technological.

Computers receiving the data must have high capacity networking devices on them. A Fast TCP demonstration at a November computing conference used state-of-the-art desktop computers with $1,000 network devices that allow file transfers of up to 1 gigabyte of information.

Most cards sold today only allow for transfers of a tenth that size, although the prices for the 1-gigabyte cards have dropped by more than half in two years, said Low.

The other holdup is that the technology works best with fiber optic connections. The speed benefits of Fast TCP are lost on slower connections, which choke the fast-moving data.

The program advances the routing technology now used to move data over the Internet Transmission Control Protocol, which was developed in the 1970s by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of an inter-university communications network.

TCP divides Internet traffic into small packets of information that carries data on both the sender and recipient. Each packet often waits for a signal that the preceding packet reached the recipient before setting out to the recipient. This is equivalent to “driving while looking only 10 meters in front of you,” said Low.

On slower networks using standard phone lines for Internet connections, this works fine. But as more broadband connections have enabled traffic to move faster, TCP has dragged down performance.

“TCP is a severe limitation on efficient use of high speed links, and the Fast TCP approach helps overcome this situation,” said Leonard Kleinrock, a computer science professor at UCLA and the creator of the packet data structure now used on the Internet.

As of April, home broadband penetration in the U.S. was at 35 percent, according to Nielson/NetRatings.

“Until we all have fiber at home,” said Eisen, “this is like forcing a fire hose amount of content through a garden hose.”

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