Richard Dean investigates how new technologies and faster connection speeds are assisting dedicated media networks to deliver new means of collaborative working
In the early 1990s first generation internet systems presented the industry with the promise of video transport. Video could be shunted down phone lines for rough cut approvals and creative collaboration. The vision was speed, flexible working and a production environment where geography was irrelevant to where the talent was.

But the few services that were developed foundered on the painfully slow roll-out of ADSL and the congestion caused by surges in the internet where it was accessible. When it came down to it you could still stick a runner on a plane to LA and get a copy to the agency before it had finished downloading at the other end. For those delivering door-to-door in Soho, 'sneakernet' was always more efficient.

Now, however, the media network's time has come. Faster connection speeds, new technologies such as fibre-optic cables and reduced cost of bandwidth makes inter-facility, international workflow impossible to ignore.

Vendors are vying for critical mass. Commercials production companies, film studios, broadcasters and post-production facilities are extending their local area networks to enable the transfer of video, securely, in close to real-time services that extend beyond client approval into a fledgling framework for remote collaborative working.

Those with a foothold in these high-bandwidth, high-speed private networks may also presage the arrival of digital cinema where the distribution of films to the cinema could be managed from points on the network.

It is no coincidence that the largest of these private networks are concentrated on Europe's most developed media cities. 'There are three trends driving this resurgence in video transport,' says Magnus Stalbrandt, chief executive of network provider Prostream. 'One is the content creation industry's need to respond to globalisation and to the demand for improved productivity. Video transport is key to accessing resources and markets on a worldwide scale.

Another is technology. The conversion of the media industry to digital formats coincides with a huge telecommunications build-out worldwide. There are many transport possibilities once video can be handled as a bit stream or data file. Finally, there's a growing dialogue among users, service providers and manufacturers about the use and evolution of video.'

Stuart Livesey, head of digital services at Printout Video Publishing, says: 'We hated clients asking us to email clips because, even with 2 megabyte QuickTime files, firewalls often refuse to accept them and return the email which can be hugely frustrating for clients in a rush.'

A year ago Printout created Clipvault, a password-protected service designed to allow authorised end users to log-in and view or download video, uploaded onto the company's servers.

'We don't use a special network but normal internet connections, as our aim is to make this as user friendly and accessible for the non-technical person as we can,' says founder Carl Fuss. 'But the next version of Clipvault, under development at present, takes this concept much further.'

Framestore Interactive, run by fellow facility Framestore, enables clients to order downloads of work in progress, playouts and dubs, plus master transfers and artwork up-

loads from its website. E-services manager Stuart Robinson quotes between 14 and 20 minutes to ship a master quality 30-second ad to Los Angeles using Telestream's Clipmail Pro. But for approvals Framestore tends to send each authorised party the website address where material is stored ready for download.

Couriers and e-distribution are not mutually exclusive. 'We often stream footage to facilities worldwide, which then dub it onto a physical format and courier it across to the local end user,' says Matt Cooper, head of beam.tv - the networking subsidiary of The Mill, formerly known as emill. Beam.tv claims it was the first service to deliver and

receive Mpeg and QuickTime files over the broadband Wam!Net secure global network two years ago and it currently boasts 20 post-house partners worldwide including NTT (Tokyo), DES (Los Angeles), The Mill and Rushes (London), Condor (Amsterdam) and Nice Shoes (New York). Each is given their own portal or branded home page containing relevant information such as the rate card.

'The reality of networking is that competitors have to co-operate for the thing to work,' says Cooper. Transit time varies according to quality, but beats courier-all-the-way hands down. Cooper says typical timings of one hour for a 5-minute clip on DVD (1/12th real time) to 45 minutes for a 1-minute DigiBeta (1/45th).

As well as shipping material such as casting tapes, rushes, stills and audio for transfer to a physical medium, customers can use secure online workrooms to collaborate internationally on commercials and feature film production. Mill Film was able to exchange cuts daily with the Los Angeles-based director and editor of Gladiator, while Star Wars footage was sent directly from The Mill to George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. On the ads side, cut approvals of the BT/ET commercials were sent directly to Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks. All yielded significant savings in production time.

'Most of the traffic is between the UK and the US,' says Cooper, 'but we also act as a hub between Paris and Los Angeles.' Beam.tv has contracted an 8 megabit per second (mbps) connection from Wam!Net, 'burstable' up to 100mbps. 'You have to have a critical mass of traffic passing through the system to justify this commitment,' he adds.

Users with no Wam!Net connection, such as producers working from home, can be sent 'progressive downloads' in Apple's QuickTime format, which Cooper says offers better quality for a given download time. Other delivery options are a dedicated Clipmail Pro box from Wam!Net partner Telestream - which incorporates Mpeg encoding, decoding and standards converting functions - or conventional downloading (file transfer protocol). 'We are aiming to build a global community of production partners that can offer Wam!Net, Telestream or FTP delivery to their clients,' concludes Cooper.

Wam!Net now extends to Singapore, Japan and Australia and recently announced new transport and storage services for uncompressed video - including high definition and Half Academy resolution (2K) formats. Wam!Net's managed network concept involves a one metre square 'purple box' SGI server installed at the customer's premises acting as a bridge between the wide area network (WAN) of the internet and the facility's local area network (LAN). One of the benefits is that material can be transferred slowly across a relatively narrow WAN pipe and then played out on local workstations in real time - the so-called 'store and forward' technique. Another is that Wam!Net can remotely monitor the installation.

'We can detect problems from our control centre on their behalf and pretty soon we'll be able to oversee the performance of their LAN as well,' says technical solutions manager John Taylor. Access speeds range from an E1 connection - Europe's answer to the US T1 connection at 2mbps rather than 1.5mbps - up to the 100baseT (100mbps) connection available to beam.tv. 'One of our biggest motion picture projects to date was a 40-minute IMAX movie at 80mb a frame,' he says. 'In 1999 we were shipping 1 terabyte (1 million megabytes) a month, now it's 10 terabytes a week. This summer Wam!Net is to introduce a fixed pricing scheme. 'Customers don't like transaction-based billing, they like predictable costs,' says Taylor.

In a marvellous demonstration of great minds thinking differently, competitor Sohonet is moving away from flat fees to transaction-based charges. 'The introduction of pay-per-use access to high-bandwidth international connectivity, together with extremely flexible charging systems, means that customers can identify precise service costs and assign them to the appropriate project with ease,' says managing director Gareth Wredden.

Sohonet was created six years ago at around the same time as Wam!Net by a dozen London post-houses including Cinesite, The Computer Film Company (CFC), The Tape Gallery and SVC. While Wam!Net expanded, Sohonet remained something of a gentleman's club until its sale last year to Neos Corporation, owner of the UK optical-fibre public and private communications network provider neosnetworks.

Sohonet introduced a unique line-of-sight laser connection in 1999 - installed on the London rooftops of Cinesite, Smoke & Mirrors and VTR - as a means of overcoming local connection bottlenecks. Although fibre prices are falling, Wredden says that steerable lasers continue to lend flexibility for one-off links and avoid not only road digging disruption but also the payment of local connection fees.

Claiming to be the only network dedicated to the exchange of media rather than other large data files, Sohonet has a connection with HBO in Los Angeles and is 'exploring' the possibility of a US east coast connection.

According to Wredden, the first priority is to extend its European reach, with 'Sohonet.eu' roll-out to Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm and Paris planned by the end of this year. This expansion is partly funded by the EU in recognition of the developing intra-European media sector and further metropolitan area networks (MANs) are being considered for Bristol and Manchester. Sohonet says its current access rates of between 2mbps to 155mbps is to be boosted to 1 gigabits/s in anticipation of increased HDTV demand.

The same continental media centres are being targeted by digital processing specialist Das Werk, which has grown to become Europe's largest post-production enterprise since its formation in 1991. Das Werk operates in the four most important advertising industry cities in its native Germany (Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich) plus Berlin and has international links through subsidiaries in Korea, LA and London. It also co-owns the Brussels-based company MAX, a joint-venture between several leading European post-houses, set up to attract large scale film and TV products to its spread of facilities. 'The first tests have already begun,' confirms the group's Thomas Tannenberger, 'To grow our visual effects work we need access to high-speed, high-quality data rates.'

Currently, video images in S-VHS quality can be transferred between the four German centres using a video fax system called SendStation, but the company is planning to launch an international broadcast quality service next year based on a fibre-optic Prostream network.

Prostream is a Swedish-based co-venture between network operator Carrier1 and equipment supplier Net Insight, and uses ground-breaking DTM technology (see box) that promises to deliver the holy grail of uncompressed international video transfer at the full 270mbps studio rate in real time - just like an in-house connection.This could have a dramatic impact on the compressed or store and forward media networks of today and also challenge the multi-billion dollar satellite distribution market among Europe's 260 or so TV broadcasters - with no delay and at lower cost.

Carrier1, which operates a 14,000km-long network connecting 35 (soon to be 50) European cities plus fibre capacity across the Atlantic, has already used Net Insight's powerful Nimbra One switch to run 270mbps real time trials between London and Amsterdam. The company is also understood to be collaborating on a video transfer project with the European Broadcasting Union and talking to the BBC about creating a national in-house network linking all of the corporation's UK studios to a central production hub.

Net Insight product manager Jesper Ansell says that DTM could work with or even replace ADSL. The company's Nimbra 210 switch is capable of supplying 24 independent Ethernet 10/100baseT (10mbps or 100mbps) channels from a single 1gbps fibre-optic cable.

'Even after conventional networks have been strengthened it is still necessary to prioritise traffic,' he says. 'That works if no more than 10 per cent travels on the electronic equivalent of an expressway, but analysts predict that 90 per cent of traffic within five years will be video. The internet needs to be upgraded with a more efficient technology.'