CBC's Home Delivery highlights video on net

A few years ago, we were expecting to be watching TV-quality video over the Internet by now. Some networks were even worried about websites "repeating" their signals without authorization and helping untold thousands of surfers bypass cable and satellite charges. Well, for the most part, the images are still no bigger than a playing card, and streaming feeds spend as much time buffering as streaming but help may be on the way. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been running a little experiment in getting around bandwidth limitations and putting high quality "television" on your desktop. Welcome to CBC Home Delivery.

Home Delivery is an experiment in delivering content as a multimedia magazine that downloads to your hard drive in a single large file, rather than as smaller independent segments or streaming files. The trial project ends April 21. (The Home Delivery website estimates that each issue takes 30 minutes to download over a high speed modem, but 25-30 hours on a dial-up connection. You'll also need to have about 500 MB of free hard drive space.)

Using a piece of software developed by a company called BackWeb, Home Delivery subscribers "transparently" receive a package of weekly highlights from CBC's radio, television and new media productions.

"Transparently" in this case refers to the unique manner in which the magazine is delivered. The BackWeb application is smart enough to use your Internet connection when you're not - pausing the download while you're surfing or checking your e-mail, and starting up again whenever the connection is free. When the entire file has been collected onto your hard drive, the application lets you know, and you can then view the magazine at your convenience, without worries about connection speed or web traffic. Dated content remains available - via more traditional methods - in an onsite archive, and an archived sample issue is available for visitors curious about the kind of programs offered.

The sample issue (a collection of one radio and two video pieces from the broadcast networks, and four web interactives) effectively illustrates what the Web could do if bandwidth wasn't a limitation. Opening with animated introductions to the three feature pieces, the choice of "A Life Sentenced" (a documentary about a wrongful conviction) reveals a full-screen image and movie insert along with introductory text and music. Viewing the documentary itself (also full screen, though not television quality) should only be limited by the computer's graphics rendering speed. Clearly, audio-only features don't gain as much from the advantages of being downloaded ahead of time, but listening to a program online completely free of the interruptions caused by a slow feed definitely has its attractions.

As each week's magazine is replaced by a new issue, the previous content is placed into the archives. Contents of past editions are no longer available as a package download, but are accessed individually. (Due to the fact that BackWeb doesn't have a Macintosh version of its software, Mac users can only access Home Delivery's content piece by piece through the archives.)

The bad news is that, even though it's possible to download a weekly edition while you're not using the modem for more immediate requirements, each magazine is still a huge file, as mentioned above, so if your Internet account includes surcharges for exceeding certain hourly limits, it may still be beyond practical limits.

But my largest complaint is the lack of publicity about what must have been a major production. I only learned about Home Delivery by sheer chance a few days ago. With luck, the April 21 edition will be left in its single-download form indefinitely so latecomers can still try the all-in-one experiment for themselves. With more luck, the trial might be promoted to a permanent addition to CBC's online offerings.

CBC Home Delivery can be found at http://www.cbchomedelivery.com/index.cfm.

Jim Regan is a graphics artist and writer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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