Internet users in Switzerland and South Korea are among the first in the world to be able to turn to the Internet for live coverage of the Olympic Games thanks to two services, one official and one not-so-official, that are pumping images from Salt Lake City into cyberspace.
Until recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has resisted allowing anyone, even TV stations with the rights to broadcast coverage of the Games, to put their coverage online, live or recorded.
The organization cites two main reasons behind its decision. The first will be understandable to almost everyone who has every tried to watch a live broadcast over the Internet: poor quality. The IOC reasons that the jerky movement and unreliable quality of Internet broadcasts just doesn't hit the mark or, as IOC spokesman Stephan Kanah puts it: "You simply cannot transmit the emotion of the Games through a window 2 inches by 3 inches."
Another important factor behind the decision is an attempt to protect the investment made by national TV rights holders. Take U.S. rights holder National Broadcasting Co. (NBC). The company paid US$3.5 billion to broadcast all summer and two winter Games over 13 years to 2008, and live broadcasts online might diminish its audience, especially when it records events to broadcast them in prime time.
"Until the technology that allows us to restrict access to the feed by nation, there won't be any live feed of the Games," said Kanah.
Now technology may have caught up. Developments in the last two years, especially the fast rollout of cheap broadband access to the home, is helping to get rid of jerky pictures and improve the quality of online broadcasts, while service providers and programmers have begun to experiment with ways to limit access to a certain web site or broadcast to users on certain networks or in particular areas.
It is the coming together of these technologies that has resulted in the first official broadcasts of the Olympic Games over the Internet. The IOC-backed trial is taking place in Switzerland and is open to subscribers to the DSL (digital subscriber line) service of Swisscom AG's Bluewin in Zurich, Basel and Geneva. The service provider has teamed up with Swiss national television and Schlumberger Ltd., the IOC's IT partner.
The broadcasts allow full-screen video streaming at a quality equivalent to VHS tape and are limited to subscribers in the three main cities of Switzerland, said Kanah. They were free for the first few days and are now available for a fee.
Despite the IOC's ban on online broadcasting of the Games, that doesn't mean that no one is doing it. The problem is not so much of pirate relays of the Games but of TV stations putting highlights online, either as special packages or as part of regular online news broadcasts.
One such broadcaster that has been flouting the rules is Korea's state broadcaster, the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Like its terrestrial competitors, KBS broadcasts live streams of its all its channels over the Internet -- a service that is very popular in broadband-rich South Korea. Last Saturday morning local time, this regular online transmission included the entire opening ceremony from Salt Lake City, broadcast live.
The IOC is working with London-based Net Results to find such Internet broadcasts and contact the sites responsible in an attempt to stop the broadcasts, said Kanah. The company has already found some offenders, but Kanah declined to identify the companies or web sites involved.
"There were a couple, very few, and all of them turned off their broadcasts," he said.
However, as late as Tuesday, KBS was still putting out clips from the Salt Lake City games as part of its news broadcasts online.