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iPhones Serving Live TV to Go
Live streams to the iPhone are taking off, thanks to Livestation, Akamai, and Inlet.
Tues., Aug. 18, by Troy Dreier

The iPhone is suddenly the hot gadget for live streaming television, and why not? It's already been the hot smartphone, app player, portable game machine, and VOIP client. Now, after a few crucial announcements, you can add live TV viewing to that list, no set-top box required.

There are actually two streaming methods currently serving the iPhone: RTSP and HTTP. The RTSP method, first implemented by Livestation, appeared just slightly ahead. The company previewed the technology in December, 2008, then released a BBC World News live television app in the iTunes Store for 16 European nations in early June of 2008. In early July, the company released a similar app for Al Jazeera live news. Rights agreements currently prevent the BBC app from being sold in the U.S. iTunes Store, although the Al Jazeera app is available for $2.99.

Those are just the start, says Livestation CEO Matteo Berlucchi, who promises that many more news apps are in the works from his company. "If you think of the top five or six news channels in the world, you wouldn't be very wrong," he says.

The BBC World News app was the first live video streaming app approved by Apple to work not only over WiFi, but also over a 3G connection. Berlucchi attributes that partly to timing: It arrived just before Apple announced its own live streaming support. (For more on Livestation's iPhone apps, see "Livestation to Expand News over Mobile.")

Apple-Endorsed Streaming
With the 3.0 iPhone software upgrade, Apple announced native support for live streaming over HTTP connections with the Safari browser. According to Suzanne Johnson, senior manager of industry marketing for digital media at Akamai, her company had been working with Apple for over a year to create a streaming solution that could scale.

Apple's HTTP streaming offers adaptive bit rate support, automatically choosing the best of the three to five different bit rate streams offered by a provider. The variable support is intended to deliver a reliable connection to viewers moving in and out of EDGE, 3G, and WiFi networks.

To show off the streaming quality, Akamai has created an iPhone test page, where viewers can test different live and on-demand streams. The company was also behind the PGA Championship app in the iTunes Store, which provided live video for the 91st PGA Championship and let viewers choose from different camera angles. Major League Baseball uses Akamai for its MLB At Bat application.

Using the Apple solution requires using Apple's stream segmenter software, which helps prepare the files and creates a manifest that rides along with the files, identifying them and their bitrates. Akamai works with Inlet Technology to take in the live feed and break it into HTTP chunks. So far, Akamai is the only CDN offering this service. (For more on how Apple's adaptive bitrate streaming works, see "HSN Brings Video Shopping to iPhone.")

The Apple/Akamai solution has the advantage of being able to work through Safari or through an app, but the app route is the more popular one. "Nearly all the [premium content owners] I'm talking to have app strategies," Johnson says. Having an app allows for better security and monetization opportunities. It's an attractive market for content owners, she says, since iPhone owners are an upscale demographic.

An Alternative to Apple
Apple's closed system is the biggest advantage to Livestation's RTSP approach, says Berlucchi. "If you go to Akamai, they'll charge you quite a high premium because they know they're the only ones that can do it right now," he says. In that scenario, the content provider has no negotiating power. While his company does use Akamai as its CDN, he stresses that it doesn't have to. RTSP streaming can work with iPhones running the 2.2 OS, and doesn’t require the 3.0 software.

Expect iPhone video to be focused on news for the near future, says Berlucchi. "Viewing sessions on the iPhone, or any smartphone, tend to be snacking based," he says, and news is perfect for quick-take viewing.

While neither system delivered flawless video in our testing for this article, the market is still young. We hope to see more live video, and more smooth streams, on the iPhone in the near future.