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Inlet Hits a Home Run with HD Sports
HD sports streaming is taking off, and Inlet is behind many of the major events, including MLB, the Indianapolis 500, the Tour de France, and Wimbledon.
Thurs., Aug. 13, by Troy Dreier

If this were a baseball game, Inlet Technologies would have seats behind home plate. Or, even better, in the home team's dugout. If this were football, it would be on the 50-yard line.

That's because Inlet is behind the HD streaming of many of the world's biggest sporting events. It's streamed Major League Baseball, the Indianapolis 500, the Tour de France, and Wimbledon, to name a few. With that kind of track record and with streaming HD sports suddenly taking off, we decided to talk to Inlet to see where the market is now and where it's going.

Bandwidth is the key, says John Bishop, Inlet's vice president of business development and strategy; that's fundamental. Without bandwidth you haven't got anything. But bandwidth only tells part of the story.

Making a Jump
A few years ago, 1.5Mbps connections were hard to come by, and that's roughly where high definition video starts, Bishop says. Now, many cable customers get 8 to 10Mbps and some FIOS customers get 30Mbps. When those rates become a little more common, HD will take a jump. Currently 1280 x 720 pixel video is considered high definition online, while 1920 x 1080 pixel video is the broadcast standard for HD. That will take a 4 to 6Mbps connection, and he expects sites to start streaming at that level by next year.

"That's absolutely where this train will be going," say Bishop, noting that Adobe and Microsoft are already working on the software that will provide a smooth 1080 experience. It's also a matter of waiting for broadband connections and home computers to catch up. He'd like to see the jump happen in a way that doesn't leave customers confused about what HD on the web means.

The other big improvement that have driven HD online video—and that have made the last 12 months revolutionary rather than evolutionary, says Bishop—is the debut of adaptive bitrate technologies from Adobe (with Flash Dynamic Streaming) and Microsoft (with Silverlight Smooth Streaming). Previous attempts at serving both low-resolution and high-resolution streams put the onus on the viewers to know how much bandwidth they have. Viewers often didn't know and were confused. "We've gotten rid of that," says Bishop. With adaptive streaming, people automatically get the best connection they can handle at any moment, all without buffering." (Click here for Jan Ozer's look at adaptive streaming technologies.)

Glued to the Screen
A funny thing happens when people get a higher quality experience, Bishop has noticed: Retention times go up. "The 'time spent watching' metric is one of the most critical things we're seeing," he says. When customers have an easy and high-quality experience, they watch more.

Inlet's success in covering live events has helped it dominate the sports market. This year alone, Bishop says, the company has streamed March Madness, the Tour de France, the French Open, and the World Swimming Championships. That's given him a ringside seat on where HD video is headed.

We're about to see a paradigm shift in how sporting events are delivered online, Bishop says, especially multi-participant events. While you're locked into one camera view when watching on a television, online broadcasters are starting to realize that they can stream all the cameras they have at an event. The viewers become at-home producers, choosing the streams they want to see. It's exciting from a streaming perspective, he says, and all those streams lead to greater monetization.

"If you've got a higher quality of experience and a higher quality of distinction, then you've got a higher monetization opportunity," Bishop says.

Go-To Guys
Inlet is obviously doing a lot right, keeping customers like Major League Baseball happy. According to Joe Inzerillo, senior vice president of multimedia and distribution at MLB.com, the company streams 10,000 live events per year. At that amount, he says, "a one to two percent failure rate is a significant number of blown encodes." They company needed a partner that could deliver reliability at scale.

"We love those guys. They're really one of our marquis go-to vendors," says Inzerillo.

Challenges for the future are all about scale and automation, Bishop says. Software makers need to ensure that their products can be used by anyone, not just specialists, and can even run without an operator.

"The future's got to be about greater automation and more centralized management," Bishop says. To satisfy the volume of video content the web will need, programs need to be easy and efficient.

Look for Inlet to be there on the sidelines when it happens, streaming the world's biggest sporting events online.