SAN FRANCISCO (06/15/2000) - Michael Weaver had a problem. As a network administrator for Bucknell University, a small liberal arts and engineering college in central Pennsylvania, Weaver is responsible for making sure the campus' Internet connection is able to support the thousands of broadband connections in computer labs, faculty offices and dorm rooms.
That job is made increasingly difficult as MP3 file-sharing services such as Napster Inc. becomes more and more popular. In February, Bucknell joined Yale, Northwestern, Indiana and a host of other universities in blocking Napster when Weaver discovered it was consuming 40 percent of Bucknell's partial T3 connection to the Internet. The solution worked. Almost immediately, Weaver saw "definite improvement" in the speed at which the network could handle data.
Problem solved. But Weaver, who has worked among students at Bucknell for the past 19 years, didn't feel good about the solution. Although Internet entertainment is hardly the primary function of the campus network, he understood that the Internet was becoming increasingly integrated into students' lives. "Our primary goal here at the university is dealing with the academic needs of the community," he says. "On the other hand, we have to realize our students live here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the Internet has become a resource for their recreation."
An alternate solution came to Weaver when he read a profile in the campus newspaper, the Bucknellian, of former student Jeff Boulter. At Bucknell, Boulter had done some work for Weaver and had achieved some acclaim for developing CRAYON (Create Your Own Newspaper) at Crayon.net. This technology, popularized by the "My Yahoo" service at Yahoo.com, allows users to create a customized news page that updates automatically. After graduating in 1996, Boulter, 25, had stints at Firefly Network and Microsoft.
Now, the Bucknellian story said, he was working for Launch.com on "Launchcast," a personalized streaming service for music and videos. Weaver e-mailed Boulter to ask whether Launchcast could be made available on Bucknell's network while bypassing the heavily taxed Internet connection. Those early e-mail messages led to a new service that Launch will offer to universities nationwide this fall. Bucknell and Georgia Tech are the first universities to sign up for Launch College Direct, which broadcasts music and videos onto campus networks via servers connected to Launch by satellite.
The high-volume streaming is achieved through technology developed by iBeam Broadcasting Corporation of Sunnyvale, Calif. Launch is billing it as the ultimate solution to Napster-related network problems at universities. "People want the music, but the way they're getting it is detrimental to the way networks are designed," says Launch CEO Dave Goldberg. With file sharing, he says, "suddenly everyone has become a server for everyone else in the world." A cool concept, he says, but inefficient. The reason Napster causes such a strain on the university's fragile and expensive partial T3 connection to the Internet is because of the way it conducts searches and acquires files. Because a great deal of MP3 files reside on university networks, searches conducted across the Internet strain their relatively small pipe to the outside world.
Add that to the number of students actively searching for and downloading files and it's easy to see why the bottleneck occurs. Weaver began to think of a way students could listen to digital music without pulling or pushing data through the already crowded network intersection. There are file-sharing programs - Pointera and Riffshare - that accomplish this by restricting sharing to other computers on the same local network, but they suffer some of the same legal complications as Napster, which is in a legal tussle with the Recording Industry Association of America.
The RIAA filed a motion Monday requesting a temporary injunction against the music-swapping service from listing songs copyrighted by the five major recording labels. Launchcast allows users to create custom Internet radio stations based on the music they like. Users choose their music but not the order in which it is played because that would violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Launchcast does, however, allow students to share accounts so that one student could listen to a personalized broadcast created by another.
Launch College Direct costs the university nothing. The students pay in the form of their attention being consumed by advertising, and Launch gets a devoted cadre of Launchcast users who might stick with Launch after they graduate.
Is Bucknell's problem solved? Perhaps. Whether students adopt the service remains to be seen, and Weaver says the university is wary of appearing to endorse a commercial product. "It's a tricky situation," Weaver says. "We won't advertise it, but in light of having to shut down Napster, it allows us to say, 'Here's an alternative.' " Boulter is confident that his alma mater will get over any misgivings. "I'm sure this is going to save the university a lot of bandwidth and they are going to make sure the students know about our service."