Michigan lawmakers give bird's-eye view of sessions

Legislature uses streaming video for its staff and the public

The Michigan Legislature now broadcasts all of its hearings and committee sessions live over nine channels of streaming video. Constituents can watch over the Internet, and legislative staff can tap in via a secure IP intranet.

Cathy Hunter, deputy director of House information systems, said the video cameras and streaming video servers cover the main sessions as well as House and Senate committee hearings.

About 700 staff members have access to the intranet. 'We frequently have 60 percent of our stations logged in and watching video at the same time,' Hunter said.

Legislature staff members can continue working at their desks while a hearing runs in a window in the background, she said.

At the end of sessions or hearings, the channels show a live CNN feed.

'When we first installed video streaming, we thought it was going to be a nice feature, but it ended up being critical,' Hunter said. Staff members 'can filter out the stuff they don't need as opposed to reading minutes. They can stay in their offices and be productive.'

And they're now more knowledgeable and responsive to constituents, she said.

Hunter bought the hardware through reseller Nortel Networks Corp. of Brampton, Ontario.

'We invested in the technology to add efficiency and responsiveness,' she said. It cost about $25,000 to install streaming video servers from Optibase Ltd. of Israel on the legislature's existing IP network. The annual maintenance fee runs about $4,000, she said.

Another vendor, 2netFX Inc. of San Jose, Calif., added an interface to desktop computers that 'looks out to the network, sees there's video coming across, grabs it and displays it,' said John Oliver, director of channel development for Optibase.

Infrastructure in place

The enterprise license for that interface cost about $35,000 for the 700 staff members. 'The network infrastructure was already there, the PCs were already on the desks,' Oliver said.

The Optibase MGW 2000 servers stream the video over digital subscriber lines to constituents, who can watch one channel at a time. The legislative staff can watch all nine.
When the state government moved offices in the fall of 1999, Hunter said, Nortel installed an asynchronous transfer mode network to deliver streaming video. 'But that didn't work,' she said.

The ATM network choked if there was much video traffic. There was a 'very low quality of service,' Hunter said. Pictures would break up, and the audio was choppy. Sometimes the network froze, and employees would have to reboot.

'We had a huge number of complaints,' she said.

Send it again

The Optibase servers now run on an IP network. If something 'doesn't work, IP sends it again,' Hunter said.

Gene Rose, public affairs director for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said most states do not have Michigan's level of public access, but almost every state broadcasts some portion of legislative hearings over the Web.

'The majority of states within the past five years have made their floor sessions available to the public,' he said.

Washington and Missouri in 1996 were the first to show hearings over the Internet and their intranets, Rose said.

Cost is now the biggest obstacle to airing more hearings. The National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated states will collectively have a $58 billion budget shortfall this year, and any new equipment will likely get put on the back burner, Rose said.

Michigan is one of 10 states that have legislatures in session all year. For states with two- to six-month sessions, streaming media is probably not worth the expense, Rose said.

When the idea first came to the table, incumbents feared that political opponents would take information from hearings out of context to use against them.

'Initially, there was opposition because lawmakers were not sure how this information would be presented to the public,' Rose said. His office reassured them, and 'we're seeing more states comfortable doing this,' he said.

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