BitTorrent Live aims to deliver live and linear online video at scale, powered by its users. The BitTorrent Live platform will offer online television channels covering news, sports, music, tech and youth culture. It will initially be available on Apple TV, Android and iOS apps, and on the Mac platform. Even if BitTorrent can address the fundamental technical challenges of real-time distribution, ironically the problem may be attracting a large enough audience to demonstrate this.
Bram Cohen, the creator of the original BitTorrent file sharing protocol, has been working on real-time video distribution for several years. A beta version was released in 2011.
Powered by a proprietary and patented peer-to-peer live streaming protocol, BitTorrent Live claims to allow for large audiences to view live video with less than 10-second latency and without the need for a content distribution network.
Every viewer becomes a broadcaster, which BitTorrent claims enables the stream to be as scalable as traditional television, potentially to millions of concurrent viewers.
As the BitTorrent company noted in its announcement, live television is a communal event that is shared by a society. The vast majority of the most watched television in the history of the medium have been live sports, news, and events, simultaneously consumed.
BitTorrent Live will offer a free tier of programming at launch. So far the offering includes a motley medley of minority channels like One World Sports, FAST&FUN, a new television channel offering extreme sports, and Pursuit Channel, a network covering hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. BitTorrent says that additional channels will follow, including subscription based, ad supported and pay per view premium tiers.
BitTorrent is the name of a popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, used for transferring large files. Although it has many legitimate applications, the term BitTorrent is often associated with unauthorized file sharing.
BitTorrent Inc, based in San Francisco, is the company co-founded by Bram Cohen in 2004 to develop commercial applications of BitTorrent technology. It says that more than 170 million people use its products every month.
Delivering live streams using peer-to-peer distribution remains a challenge. The main problem is the asymmetric nature of most network connections, which provide more downstream than upstream capacity.
As a result it is difficult to sustain a pure peer-to-peer live network, as clients tend to consume more capacity than they can contribute. This may be less of an issue than it once was, as both downstream and upstream bandwidths are generally rising.
Nevertheless, maintaining quality of service, particularly when users are constantly joining or leaving the network, is a problematic.
The road to live peer-to-peer streaming is littered with good intentions that have never quite delivered their promised potential.
There are a number of peer-to-peer television applications that have been developed in China. They are used to deliver television programming online, both legitimately and for unauthorised distribution.
BitTorrent Live will need to show that it can scale to deliver audiences of millions of viewers. It may need more than its proposed channel lineup to demonstrate this. If it works well it could be of interest to broadcasters, but it has a lot to live up to.