Live Video Is Coming to a Local Government Site Near You

When the C-SPAN cable TV channel debuted in the 1980s, supporters declared there was nothing as politically intimate as bringing government-in-the-making into your living room. In 1999, live, local government is getting intimate enough to fit comfortably in your lap-or laptop, at least.

Plugged-in citizens in several states and municipalities around the country can watch a live State of the State address or monitor an ongoing city council meeting while they work or play on their PCs.

States such as New Jersey, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington and cities including Torrance and Santa Monica, Calif., and Indianapolis are among the state and local organizations entering the wide-open world of Webcasting.

In South Dakota, citizens can log on to a broadcast-specific World Wide Web site that carries live coverage of events such as the governor's State of the State address and sessions from both houses of the state legislature. Next year, the state plans to add live broadcasts of all 26 legislative committees.

Webcasting gives viewers the flexibility to watch something live or later, said Otto Doll, commissioner of the South Dakota Bureau of Information and Telecommunications and the state's unofficial chief information officer. "With TV and radio, the downfall is it's live. You've got to be there when it's on," Doll said. "With the Internet [broadcasts], it can go live, but it's all ultimately archived so people can see it when they want."

Like nearly all the state and local sites surveyed, South Dakota broadcasts using video streaming, a relatively low-cost technique that delivers fair-quality audio and video in near real-time without requiring users to wait for large files to be fully downloaded. Streaming is friendly to users with dial-up modems, even those logging on at a modest 28.8 kilobits/sec. Once viewers have downloaded the free software needed to play the video streams, users can tune in to a live event or click on an archived video clip.

Doll is in a unique position to talk about the relative merits of different broadcast media: He's the only state CIO who has full control of the public broadcast system. That includes South Dakota Public Broadcasting, which encompasses TV, radio and Webcasting. Doll also created DakotaCast, an Internet broadcast service that is on par with SDPB's TV and radio broadcast groups, to oversee online audio and video programming and Webcams.

"It's a new broadcast medium; that's why I created a new group," Doll said. "We can do radio- and TV-type things online, but the ultimate power of the Internet is that it's a computing platform with an actual viewer or listener at the other end. So we're not sure where this is going to lead us."

In addition to its government-related Webcasts, DakotaCast is experimenting with including interactive video clips in informational materials on the state's Web site. For example, a page describing the damage caused to the state's highways by overweight vehicles will include an interactive video simulation of vehicle characteristics to help viewers determine if their own trucks are illegal.

Despite his range of responsibilities, Doll is not the only manager mulling over Webcasting's true mission. Even as state, county and city Webmasters concentrate on the basics-implementing the technology, building an audience and beefing up the infrastructure-they already are exploring ways to push the technology to its limits rather than just replicating radio or TV broadcasts online.

On the technology front, Internet video is in its third or fourth cycle, according to Mark Hardie, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. But content for Internet video is still in its infancy. "Or maybe even earlier. It's just been born," he joked. It is rare to see Internet video that isn't just "repurposing" audio and video made for cable or closed-circuit TV. "Content is woefully inadequate," Hardie said. "We're still waiting for video that's unique and indigenous to the Internet platform."

The state government of Washington is one organization that has come up with a technology-enhanced Webcast that truly could exist nowhere but the Internet (or, more specifically, the state's intranet). The state's Department of Information Services (DIS) this spring conducted a series of internal Webcasts to determine whether Internet video technology is feasible and, if so, for what purposes it would best be suited, said Clare Donohue, the chief deputy director at DIS and the moderator of two of the Webcasts.

During one test, DIS employees from five buildings viewed a live, on-screen presentation of a managers' meeting detailing the department's electronic commerce plans. Viewers watched the speaker in a main window on their computer screens while following along with his Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint slide show presentation, which was open in an auxiliary browser window on each viewer's computer.

A link at the bottom of the main screen let viewers e-mail questions, which were fielded by a facilitator in the studio and answered live during the presentation. Alternately, viewers could call in questions on an toll-free telephone line. Or-in a true display of technology integration-viewers who were set up to use the department's videoconferencing system could ask their questions live, as if they were in the same room as the speaker. The voice-activated videoconferencing cameras picked up users' images and broadcast them over the intranet, enabling all viewers to see and hear who was asking the question.

The interactive nature of Washington's Webcast certainly qualifies for Hardie's definition of "unique and indigenous to the Internet," but it's not something a government organization is likely to set up overnight from scratch.

For starters, Washington state and most other government sites dabbling in Internet video are committed to video technology. Renee Klosterman, acting multimedia services manager at Washington's DIS, said her state's commitment to video technology is proven by a special Interactive Technologies Division within DIS, a mature videoconferencing system and a satellite TV studio that has all the cameras, production equipment and personnel needed to produce broadcast-quality video.

The commitment of personnel is also significant. The e-commerce Webcast required two moderators and a presenter on camera; a director, producer and audio person in the control room; and an Internet technician, Jonathan Krack, to route the production feed to the Internet.

"It took awhile for us to determine how we were going to approach [the Webcast,]" said Krack, interactive innovations manager at Washington's DIS. Even with a fairly sophisticated infrastructure in place-DIS used part of a T-1 line to deliver the video stream at 200 kilobits/sec-Krack and his team still had to make changes to network routers and then monitor the network closely during the presentation to ensure performance was not compromised.

(It wasn't, Krack said, thanks in part to a technique called Internet Protocol multicasting, which enabled all 20 or so viewers to pick up the same video stream simultaneously, rather than having DIS pump out 20 separate streams).

What was Washington's overall conclusion? The Webcast/videoconference is not particularly appropriate for meetings that require constant back-and-forth interaction but is an excellent way to deliver a presentation to a dispersed group of viewers and include moderate amounts of feedback and commentary. "I would say it works very well any time you have a large group of people hearing a message and then responding," Klosterman said.

Webmasters say they strive for achievements like Washington's, but they still manage to provide real service to citizens through simple, straightforward Webcasts.

Torrance, Calif., for example, carries city council meetings live every Tuesday on its Web site. The city also runs online the full slate of live and taped programming that appears on its CitiCable TV channel. The city's streaming credentials go way back, relatively speaking. Torrance bills itself as the first city to add streaming audio and video to its site-in December 1997 and November 1998, according to Michael Smith, Torrance's cable TV administrator.

City managers see the Web as just another good way to deliver information, including broadcasts, to citizens. "Cable only has a 58 percent penetration in Torrance, and a higher-than-average degree of people have Internet access," Smith said. "We want to hit citizens with information from a wide variety of sources, and the Internet is one of those tools."

In Santa Monica, Calif., city workers as well as citizens benefit from the Webcast of city council meetings, Internet systems coordinator Keith Kurtz said. If staff members have an item coming up where they need to be in the council chamber, they can be at their desks, monitoring the proceedings online until just a few minutes before they need to appear, Kurtz said. Once new equipment is in place to relieve network congestion, Santa Monica plans to Webcast its Emmy award-winning cable TV programming, a move that will allow city employees to monitor the channel unobtrusively from their desktops as they work.

These type of modest but tangible pluses, combined with the public's fascination with moving images, mean that Webcasting can be in its infancy while also being the Next Big Thing. So even while pundits such as Forrester's Hardie lament the state of video content, the pundits also say the situation will change-and soon. "We'll start seeing unique forms in the next year," Hardie predicted. "It'll come together sooner rather than later."

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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Webcasting 101

What's the quickest way to live video online? The word from state and local government Webmasters: Get real. RealNetworks, that is.

Although Microsoft Corp. is promoting NetShow and the Windows Media Player software, and a few smaller companies offer competing products, RealNetwork's line of encoding, production and viewing software is ubiquitous on the World Wide Web. It is used by every state and local site we surveyed, and most important, most likely to be found on end users' PCs.

To convert video into an Internet-ready stream, you'll need a Pentium-class PC with video-capture and audio sound cards installed, encoding server software from RealNetworks, Microsoft or one of their competitors, and companion editing tools. (David Fiedler, editor in chief at WebDeveloper.com, strongly recommends Streamanywhere, a free download from Sonicfoundry.com that supports RealVideo and Windows Media Player.)

To provide live, real-time streaming, you next send the encoded video to a network server running streaming software, which acts as the host for the Webcast. Fielder said there's no need to maintain a separate server just for streaming, but every Webmaster we spoke to chose to err on the side of caution and keeps video away from day-to-day network traffic.

If all that sounds like more than you're willing or able to tackle, you can always sign up with a video hosting service. New Jersey, for instance, used Broadcast.com this spring when it Webcast Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's State of the State address.

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Video on the Web

Find states, cities and resources using multimedia at the following locations:

DakotaCast

www.sdpb.org/DakotaCast

Access Washington

www.access.wa.gov

New Jersey Home Page

www.state.nj.us

Santa Monica, Calif.

pen.ci.santa-monica.ca.us

Torrance, Calif.

www.torrnet.com

Streaming Media World

www.streamingmediaworld.com

RealNetworks

www.real.com/solutions

www.real.com/devzone/library

WebDeveloper.com's guide to online video

www.webdeveloper.com/multimedia/multimedia_putting_video_on_website.html

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