Who needs an auditorium

The Defense Department streamed video broadcasts to Pentagon and DOD PCs
around the world this month for the third annual Acquisition Reform Week.


Top officials held interactive conferences—viewable through Web
browsers over the Internet or on a Pentagon intranet—using software from Starlight
Networks Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. The audience was able to take part in the webcast
discussions or play back the videos on demand.  


Video streaming created a cost-effective alternative to text chat sessions
and more expensive videoconferencing, said John Downey, deputy director for information
management in the Office of the Undersecretary for Acquisition and Technology.


“We are not trying to mimic a videoconference center,” Downey
said. “Frankly, there is a big investment in those. What we are trying to do is talk
to the guy at his desk.”


DOD designed the application to handle about 2,000 simultaneous users on
both sides of the system’s firewall. Downey said that by midweek about 1,100 users
had registered for video events.


The system lacks tools for monitoring all online attendance, but about 100
sites logged on from outside the Pentagon for a May 6 chat session, and DOD counted
another 150 users on the Pentagon LAN.


An enterprisewide StarLive license cost DOD $49,500, including
installation. Downey said not only was it cost-effective, it worked.


During the annual Acquisition Reform Week, DOD assesses the work of
Defense acquisition personnel at the contracting and program management levels. Bringing
all the players together is impractical, however, Downey said.


Last year, remote personnel took part through text Internet chat sessions,
using Netscape Navigator browser plug-ins from Ichat Inc. of Austin, Texas.


That worked, but slowly, Downey said. “You lose a lot of the
spontaneity of a verbal answer,” he said. “We said, ‘There’s got to be
a better way.’ ” His office spent about six months selecting a video-streaming
product to replace text chat.


The StarLive setup had several components:


Starlight’s StarCast IP multicasting server software digitized the
signals, running on both sides of the Pentagon firewall under Microsoft Windows NT.


A Motion Picture Experts Group-compliant Forge encoder card from
Optibase Inc. of Dallas did multiple-bit-rate encoding.


Starlight’s StarWorks video-on-demand application running under
SunSoft Solaris served up the stored conferences.


A presenter station synchronized speakers’ slides with the video
presentation, and a moderator’s station received and relayed text questions from
remote viewers. Video feeds were picked up by cameras, broadcast, tape and cable.


Pentagon intranet users installed StarPlayer on their desktop systems to
receive the MPEG video feed. Internet viewers downloaded RealPlayer, Shockwave and Active
Movie plug-ins for their Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers.


The browser displayed a video window, a slide window and a chat window for
submitting questions.


The video was adequate, not great, Downey said. Internet users got a
default rate of either 28.8 Kbps or 100 Kbps, depending on network connection speed.


The Pentagon’s asynchronous transfer mode LAN had the best reception.
About one-fourth of the acquisition and technology office’s 1,500 workers have ATM to
their desktop PCs over fiber-optic cable and can receive MPEG-1 video feeds at 1.5
Mbps. “I get truly phenomenal pictures,” said Downey, who has the 1.5-Mbps
connection.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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