CITYTV ON THE WEB
City Council Meetings Live On-line in Santa Monica
by Keith A. Kurtz and Roslyn Wythe
So, somebody thinks that your municipal television broadcast ought to be on the Web. Once you get past your initial reaction (how are we ever going to do that?), you will probably be thinking about why this service is considered valuable.
After all, how many people in town can there be who have access to the World Wide Web, do not have cable TV, and want to watch your channel? We were thinking just that when two citizens sent unsolicited E-mail asking if we broadcast CityTV on the Internet. Both explained that they did not subscribe to cable TV but would like to watch the City Council meetings without having to come to City Hall (Council meetings have long been broadcast on the local college radio station, KCRW). OK. Point taken. There is demand.
There are, of course, two important groups that do not normally see the cable broadcast. First is anyone who is outside of the City during a Council meeting. This includes interested parties not based in the City, residents traveling that day, and staff who live outside the City. The second group is staff who need to be present for only a portion of the meeting. With the meeting broadcast available on their desktops, these busy people can easily work in their offices until needed in the Council Chamber.
Having decided to move forward, we looked for other cities already offering this service. Nearby Torrance, California is broadcasting full time on the web. Two telephone calls put us in touch with the staffer who set up the server and maintains the service. Torrance, we learned, is running the RealNetworks server on an Intel based computer serving an audio stream optimized for modem users. In simpler terms, they are using a computer similar to the PCs on staff desktops, only more powerful. They purchased software from RealNetworks and chose to provide a signal best suited to users dialing into their Internet Service Provider (ISP) using a modem.
There are two leading software products that will capture an audio/video signal and "stream" it to the Internet, RealNetworks RealSystem G2 and Microsoft Netshow. The RealNetworks product has a number of technical advantages while the Microsoft software is free. Both require that the user download and install a free "plug-in" on their own computer. Note that since RealNetworks has most of the streaming media market share, it is more likely that users will have already installed the RealNetworks software.
The RealNetworks basic server, G2, bundled with Real Producer Pro, is sold on a tiered pricing system depending upon how many streams, or simultaneous users, are required. When we investigated, we learned that the RealNetworks product was free for up to 25 streams, moderately priced for up to 40 streams, and relatively expensive beyond that.
Why pay RealNetworks for software that Microsoft is giving away? RealNetworks technology provides a more efficient and straightforward method for simultaneously broadcasting different quality streams without adding significant administrative effort. This makes it possible to offer streams optimized for both modem and network users with virtually no additional system resources or complexity. Despite the availability of ISDN, cable modems and DSL, most home users are still accessing the Internet using a modem. Many business users and almost everyone in Santa Monica City government has high speed network access to the Internet. The RealNetworks server will actually transmit more data, which provides a better quality picture, on a network optimized stream.
The RealNetworks Server also has the ability to adjust its signal based on network load for each stream. That is, when things get congested, there is a fancy compression that occurs and a slightly degraded signal is transmitted that can wend its way through a crowded network more easily. This is similar to pulling a motorcycle out of your trunk when traffic backs up on the freeway. You can't carry as much stuff, but you don't get slowed down either. Not slowing down is very important during a live broadcast. For all of the above reasons, we elected to purchase the RealNetworks Server with a 40 stream license.
NUTS & BOLTS
RealNetworks recommends that two servers be used, especially if multiple optimizations will be employed. One server needs to be connected directly to the television signal and is used to "capture," or encode the signal into a digital format. The second server is used to stream the signal onto the Internet. While this can all be done with one server, using two computers helps spread the load and assure that there are no service interruptions when usage gets heavy.
Consistent with Santa Monica City policy, we solicited bids for and purchased two Hewlett-Packard servers. Anticipating future growth, both are dual processor capable but contain only one CPU. Both came network ready and generously equipped with RAM and disk storage. The more RAM, the better for video processing!
For the web server, we chose a HP LPR NetServer equipped with the Windows NT operating system and the Microsoft IIS Web Server. The video capture server is the lower cost HP Kayak multimedia workstation. The Kayak comes with an audio capture circuit similar to a Sound Blaster, but we had to purchase a video capture card. RealNetworks recommends some specific video cards, the best of which we thought was the Wavetech TV-PCI product.
Unfortunately, the Kayak's extensive multimedia capabilities used up all of the interrupt request (IRQ) choices available on the Wavetech card. After three days of trying, we reluctantly decided to try a different card. The Matrox Rainbow Runner video capture card connects directly to the computer's video display card and is working well. We discovered the hard way that it was necessary to disable the Kayak's video power saving mode which automatically shut down our broadcast after 15 minutes. Another complication was that we had to replace Windows NT with Windows 98 on the Kayak to accommodate the video capture card.
We purchased a rack mounted VCR and 13 inch television monitor along with all of the cables needed to connect everything. Century Communications, the local cable franchise, dropped a line into our computer room. We connect the feed from Century directly to the VCR where the signal is split into audio and video. These, in turn, are run to the Kayak for capture. The Kayak puts the digitized stream onto our LAN where it is accessed by the LPR Server and streamed onto the Internet. A composite RF line is run from the antenna output of the VCR to the television to monitor the signal. All equipment is mounted in a 19 inch rack with a shared computer monitor and keyboard.
We are enough concerned about the load on our network that we are "netcasting" only during City Council meetings. The video stream requires considerable network capacity and we felt it necessary to restrict use to the evening hours when internal network usage is at a minimum. Note that Torrance is running their netcast full time with no reported problems. Still, we opted for the more conservative approach. We expect to be able to netcast CityTV full time once a planned network upgrade is completed.
The service is publicized both on CityTV and in City publications. Our development efforts are presently focused on developing programmable controls for the netcast as well as improving the size and quality of the video broadcast.
Today, nobody asks why we should offer this service. Rather, the public and staff are clamoring for service enhancements. This, we think, is the mark of a successful program. We are reaching an appreciative and attentive audience beyond the city limits. The City of Santa Monica's netcast has proved itself an integral element in the electronic delivery of electronic services and information.