Obama Makes Internet History: Inauguration Sets Record for Streaming Online Video

President Obama's inauguration set records for online video viewing.

January 21, 2009, 1:17 PM

Jan. 21, 2009— -- While more than a million people gathered on the National Mall to watch the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, millions more peered at the screens of office computers and personal laptops, breaking records for views of live online video.

But despite the banner day for online video, the unprecedented demand for a live view of the event meant that some people had to frantically hunt down a television or wait several hours to catch Obama's speech.

"It was really frustrating," Heather Adams, 32, a publicist in Nashville, Tenn., told ABCNews.com.

After trying to access the live feeds on the Web sites of at least four or five media companies, she said she gave up and, ultimately, didn't watch anything until several hours later.

"My hope was to watch even a portion of it live streaming," Adams said, adding that her office had few televisions. "It was history in the making – you want to be a part of that experience … You just miss something when you don't watch it in the moment."

It was that hope – to share a pivotal moment in the country's history – that pushed the Internet to its limits and caused some Web sites to buckle under the pressure.

And in light of the day's successes and setbacks, analysts say the inauguration was a case study for online video and will influence how major live events are covered online in the future.

Shawn White, director of external operations for San Mateo, Calif.-based Keynote Systems, Inc., said that because of the huge demand for live video and audio, his company noted significant slowdowns on major media sites.

CBS, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, the Wall Street Journal and NPR were among the sites that seemed to struggle most with the unprecedented demand, he said.

Keynote monitors the performance of Internet and mobile networks and, White said, their data indicated that between 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. ET, the Internet slowed by 60 percent because of the volume of online video viewers.

Biggest Video Streaming Event Ever

"It was the most popular and significant online streaming event in the history of the Internet," White told ABCNews.com.

While the company has observed widespread Internet slowdowns before on major retail days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday or when a hurricane takes out part of the infrastructure, White said that no single event had ever made such an impact.

In the hours leading up to the inauguration, whitehouse.gov, which changed over to Obama material at 12:07 p.m., became 16 times slower than usual.

NPR was almost totally inaccessible. Between 11:30 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. ET, the site was 91 percent unavailable, White said.

Virtually every major media company offered visitors live feeds of the event and that's what made this event unique, White said. Delivering video is very network intensive, as it demands considerable amounts of bandwidth from both sites and servers.

Although total traffic numbers for inauguration day did not rival those from Election Day, live streaming numbers for news Web sites, such as CNN.com, Foxnews.com and ABCNews.com, shattered records.

CNN, which partnered with Facebook so that viewers could watch the inauguration and simultaneously correspond with friends and family, reported that between 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, it delivered more than 21.3 million live streams globally, which nearly quadrupled the 5.3 million live video stream views on Election Day.

FOX, MSNBC, CBS and ABC also reported records, delivering more live video streams than they had on Election Day.

Akamai Technologies, Inc., a leading online video distribution company used by the New York Times, Viacom, the Wall Street Journal and ABC News, said it served more than 7 million video streams simultaneously.

"We saw record demand on our global platform," Akamai spokesman Jeff Young told ABCNews.com, adding that it was the largest day ever for the delivery of concurrent live streaming of video for the company.

'Watershed Moment' for Online Media

"The unique thing about today was that it was about streaming video," Young said. Most days, including Election Day, Internet users hopped around various sites or refreshed a page to catch changing content. "Today was a day where you accessed one stream and you stayed on that stream for a prolonged period of time."

Kaan Yigit, an analyst with Solutions Research Group Consultants who watched the inauguration both on television and online through the CNN-Facebook feed, called the day "a watershed moment for online media."

"It was like drinking from a fire hydrant … there was so much texture to it," he said.

Despite the glitches, he said the event challenged the "on-demand logic" that has dominated online video. Conventional wisdom has held that viewers head to sites such as hulu.com or ABCNews.com to catch video snippets of broadcasts that they missed.

"People felt all along over the past few years that live is the cornerstone of television. [Tuesday] changed that," Yigit said.

With about 200 million Americans at work or away from home televisions, the computer became the only way for many people to share in the event, he said.

But despite the record numbers, some analysts pointed out that the quality of video and service left much to be desired.

"Some sites couldn't even get video to load, others had low resolution and low bit rates … others didn't allow the ability to watch in full screen," said Dan Rayburn, a principal analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Though many in the industry are excited about the overwhelming demand for live video, news operations have a long way to go to deliver Internet streaming that matches the quality of TV video, he said, especially considering advances in the high-definition format that's being rolled out.

"The Internet can't support that – now or in the future," Rayburn said.

Other analysts agreed that though inauguration day was a landmark for online video, it still exposed weaknesses in the medium and highlighted the need for additional investments in the infrastructure.

Broadband Still Nascent

"Broadband opened up a whole new avenue for people to watch the inauguration … [But] the Internet is not ready to support that number of concurrent streams," Will Richmond, a broadband analyst with VideoNuze, told ABCNews.com.

Richmond also said that it's difficult to know why some people had difficulty accessing live feeds. It could have been that content delivery networks supporting the sites lacked sufficient bandwidth or servers. But it also could have been the fault of computers that didn't have enough processing power.

"The way the Internet is built, there are lots of links in the chain," he said.

And, he added, with a live event, it's difficult to anticipate demand. To date, most of the broadband video consumption has been on demand.

"It shows how nascent the broadband medium is and how much learning has yet to be done," Richmond said. "[Tuesday] is a milestone in broadband's evolution but it's not a perfect medium yet."

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