MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow's Internet

What's on the MBONE?

Today, multicasting is used for videoconferencing, audioconferencing, shared collaborative workspaces, and more. Conference multicasts generally involve three types of media: audio, video, and a whiteboard -- a virtual note board that participants can share.

Perhaps the most sought-after function that the MBONE provides is videoconferencing. The MBONE originated from the Internet Engineering Task Force's attempts to multicast its meetings as Internet videoconferences. MBONE video is nowhere close to television quality, but at a few frames a second, video quality is good enough for many purposes. In the spirit of the IETF's early technically-oriented offerings, many of the MBONE events that take place are technical conferences, ranging from the SIGGraph '94 conference in Orlando, Florida, to the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Glasgow, Scotland, to the Second International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology from Stanford University. Users also were able to tune into the MBONE to see astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavor repairing the Hubble space telescope and panel discussions at the 1995 annual meeting of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

What is the IETF?

The Internet Engineering Task Force is the branch of the Internet Architecture Board that addresses the immediate technical problems and challenges of the Internet. The IETF is a voluntary committee of technical people such as network operators, engineers, and telecommunications equipment vendors.

The IETF's parent organization, the Internet Architecture Board, concerns itself with the technical challenges facing the Internet, now and in the long term. Such challenges include how to effectively handle the continued burgeoning growth of the Internet, how to keep the Net operational even when each of us can pump 2 megabits per second through the fiber-optic cable that will one day be plugged into our computers, and how to help the network better handle the demands of real-time audio and video.

The MBONE's capability to carry remote audio and video makes it a wonderful tool for seminars, lectures, and other forms of "distance education." Imagine sitting in on a lecture that's being given live thousands of miles away and even asking questions or contributing to a panel discussion. According to Navy Lt. Tracey Emswiler, whose experiments with the MBONE are the basis for her master's thesis in information technology management, "Some people believe that teaching over the MBONE can't be done. We've proven that you can send regular live-broadcast lectures over the MBONE." An average of 10 to 12 universities and labs tune into each distance education lecture that is sent over the MBONE, including institutions in the United States, France, Great Britain, Japan and Germany.

Indeed, much of what happens today on the MBONE is of a technical nature, information that most of us would find dull. However, the nerds don't get to keep the MBONE to themselves. Besides esoteric engineering events, the MBONE is home to more exciting fare, such as multicasts of concerts, a do-it-yourself-radio station, and even poetry readings.

The Seattle-based techno-ambient band Sky Cries Mary performed the first live rock concert on the MBONE, and the Rolling Stones multicasted 20 minutes of their November 18, 1994, Dallas Cotton Bowl concert as a promotion for a subsequent pay-per-view TV special.

Radio broadcasts, in part because of their lesser bandwidth requirements, have become common on the MBONE. Some examples include episodes of "The Cyberspace Report" (a public-affairs show from KUCI 88.9 FM in Irvine, California), Internet Talk Radio, and Radio Free vat.

Some MBONE users are experimenting with distributing Usenet news via the MBONE instead of with NNTP (Net News Transport Protocol). NNTP has been used to pass netnews traffic around since the early days of Usenet, but sending Usenet traffic via multicasting could significantly reduce the total amount of bandwidth used to transmit netnews. Rather than having thousands of copies of a message travel from site to site, each message could be broadcast on the MBONE only once and grabbed by each site as it passes through.

For more discussion about what's on the MBONE, see Chapter 6.

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