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Experiments with Digital Video for Community Networks
The Canadian Province of British Columbia (BC) covers a very large area, 947,800 sq.
km. Public access to the Internet is available in well over 200 BC communities.
The British Columbia Community Networks Association (BCCNA), a not for profit
society founded in 1993, acts as a support agency for the groups managing these public
For the past three years, BCCNA has held an annual conference. Serving a group of
communities spread over such a wide area is a daunting task. In 1999 the BCCNA
executive decided that they would experiment with using digital streaming video
technology to address the problem.
History and Development
Accordingly, the 1999 conference was held in three communities (Vancouver, Vernon
and Prince George) With the assistance of our corporate and institutional sponsors, "Real
Video" channels were utilized to link these three communities together. Thus all three
communities could interact. When it was their turn to present, the audiences at the other
two locations could see and hear the presentations. The main conference was held in
Vancouver with Vernon and Prince George acting as satellites. In addition, two
individuals gave presentations via videoconferencing, one from St John's Newfoundland,
on the other side of the country, and one from Ottawa, the national capital.
The overall result was very positive, although the technology did prove to have
limitations. Live interaction between the sites was very difficult owing to a perceptible
lag for the round trip between sites. The small Webcams used at two of the sites gave
less than satisfactory coverage.
Another noticeable drawback to the experience was the lack of personal interaction with
the larger group for the attendees at the satellite sites.
Shortly after the 1999 conference, Apple Inc. released their "QuickTime" streaming
software. BCCNA determined to experiment with this software. One of the main
reasons being that, unlike "Real Video", there were no per channel costs, the server and
client software were both available for free download over the Net.
Some initial investigations with turning standard video sequences into QuickTime
streams were successfully carried out. The next step was the successful negotiation of a
development contract under the "Community Learning Networks" program of the
Canadian Ministry of Human Resources Development, Office of Learning Technology.
The proposal was to make use of BCCNA's existing "Provincial Server" and set aside a
portion of that device for the operation of a "QuickTime steaming server". This facility
could be used in two ways:
1. As the server to make available live remote broadcasts.
2. As an archival repository for productions by various community groups.
To gain experience with live broadcasting, a portable unit, consisting of an Apple
"PowerBook" laptop computer and a Sony 8mm digital video camcorder was acquired.
Both units employ the relatively new "Firewire" technology that enable them to be linked
together for real time transfer of digital signals. The end result can be referred to as
"have TV station, will travel" - at least for Internet video stream broadcasting!
The first operational use of this facility was the conducting of a seminar in Montreal,
where the audience was watching themselves with the video and audio signals being
reflected back to them over the Internet from the server in Victoria. A few days later, at
the European launch of the GlobalCN 2000 series of events in Brussels, the same
equipment was used to record most of the sessions for later archiving. Selected content
from this event is currently available at:
At the urging of a member of the BCCNA executive, a special recording was made
featuring a number of the Brussels attendees sending greetings to their Canadian
colleagues in both English and their mother tongues. The resulting recording of greetings
in some seven languages was subsequently presented to the audience at the 2000 BCCNA
conference in Whistler, British Columbia. It was extremely well received and was a high
point of the conference, illustrating as it did the broadly based international interest in all
aspects of community networking. This footage is available as part of the above archive.
At this same event in Whistler BC in late April 2000, the portable unit was used to stream
the conference sessions live to the Internet as well as to record them for archival
purposes. The broadcast was successful and selected archival sessions are available at:
Two of BCCNA's member organizations in BC have also been developing the capacity to
work with video streaming.
Comox Valleylinks Community Network has continued to work with "Real Video" and
has developed several productions in that format. These can be seen as follows:
Don Irvine of Comox Valleylinks and BCCNA will address this aspect during the
The Tatlayoko Think Tank is using QuickTime technology and embarking on a very
ambitious project to record events and present them to the world from their small, very
rural and remote community.
Samples of their work can be found at:
Techniques and Software
Live Streaming requires real time streaming software to be installed on the machine
originating the broadcast. These programs handle the video and audio compression
required. At present, the only really good, inexpensive alternative is "Sorenson
Broadcaster". This is commercial software so it is one of the only mandatory expenses,
other than hardware, that is required for a community wishing to use this technology.
The program receives the signal coming from the camcorder and converts it to a video
and audio stream which is sent to the remote server. The link at the initiating site can be
as simple as a dial up modem connection. The server, which would typically be installed
on a machine with a high bandwidth connection to the Internet, handles all the requests
for connections to view the live stream. Sorenson Broadcaster is a fairly sophisticated
program giving the user access to video and audio level displays etc. It even reports the
number of connections that are currently viewing the stream on the server in real time.
It is not yet recommended to try and record the live stream on the server for later
archiving. A much better option is to record the signal in the camcorder while it is being
sent to the on site computer.
To produce a streamed archive clip from a recorded tape, it must pass through several
steps. The best bet seems to be Apple's "iMovie" software for processing the recorded
image, and assigning start and end points for the clip. The resulting QuickTime sequence
is best for high bandwidth applications.
When storing an archive for viewing, you should take into account that your viewers will
have varying types of connection to the Net. A program called "Media Cleaner" can be
used to prepare different versions to allow for the varying speeds of connections from
users. The amount of information (and resultant window size) that can be accessed by a
28.8 dialup is much less than that available to a full 10 megabit connection. The same
job can be done with iMovie, but Media Cleaner is faster and more automated.
Apple's "iMovie" software, which is available for free download over the net, is very
versatile. In addition to the ability to record video clips it has provisions for importing
still images, and live and recorded audio sources. It even enables you to produce titles,
fades and wipes. Your video production studio can travel with you.
Apple's QuickTime technology is becoming quite popular. Numerous examples of its use
can be found at http://www.apple.com/, ranging from movie trailers to music videos to
BBC television news broadcasts. On this same site can be found iMovie and the server
and client software. The server software is available for Mac OS and Linux and the
client software runs on most popular computer systems.
Gareth R. Shearman
British Columbia Community Networks Association