As Barack Obama raises his hand to be sworn in as the 44th U.S. president on Tuesday, could the millions worldwide watching the historic event on the Internet be left out?
The answer: Maybe, depending on where you are.
While there may be moments of jittery video performance, experts say no one is predicting a widespread Internet outage or even major regional network outages on Inauguration Day.
This prediction holds even as many major Internet news sites and social networks are gearing up for an unprecedented amount of live Internet video coverage.
Some sites are urging Internet viewers to share their video clips from Washington and from neighborhood parties around the nation that will further tax segments of the Internet.
In one example of the extraordinary amount of video traffic that will be generated, CNN.com is cooperating with Facebook.com to provide multiple video camera angles at the Washington events and elsewhere with a field on the right of a user’s screen to send text comments to Facebook friends.
Obama inaugural organizers have encouraged supporters everywhere to provide video feedback on YouTube and other sites of their local celebrations. With millions of handheld devices that can record video, there is likely to be a lot of video blazing across the Internet on Tuesday.
In addition, more wired and wireless devices will be connecting to the Internet than ever during the approximately one-hour window when the new president takes the oath of office and then delivers his inaugural address.
Tuesday’s inaugural event is unique for the Internet because so many eyeballs will be glued to desktops, laptops and handhelds, many of them using wireless links for a portion of the Internet connection during that short period just after noon Eastern time.
This compressed time period will be more challenging to Internet subnets than the many hours of video streamed from the Olympic games in China over two weeks last summer, or even the recent Christmas buying season, the experts said.
“This will definitely be an unprecedented video-streaming event,” said Shawn White, director of operations at Keynote Systems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif. Keynote provides mobile and Internet testing and measurement for 2,800 corporations, including many of the Internet news companies offering video content on Tuesday.
Bottom line, White said, is that “we expect to see some [Internet performance] issues, but it won’t slow down the Internet in a massive way. The Internet was built to be resistent in these scenarios and engineered so you might get performance (degradation) as opposed to outages.”
He said performance might degrade in highly populated areas, such as New York City or Silicon Valley, where there are many Internet users hitting video caching servers in their cities, resulting in gaps or stuttering in video streams or video pixilating.
Sometimes video streaming services will only let in as many viewers as can be supported reliably, shutting off entry to others.
In neighborhoods, if many users connect to a video stream at once, performance could degrade over the cable’s last-mile connection since that is a shared medium, White said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Internet bottlenecks during that time period,” agreed Matt Poepsel, vice president of performance strategies at Gomez Inc. in Lexington, Mass., which monitors Web performance and provides Web experience management software to 1,000 companies.
Poepsel said some users might not only have trouble with live video, but also with searches and logging on “even on media company sites with content delivery networks.” He predicted problems with “smaller choke points” and “multiple bottlenecks” around the nation and the globe.
Poepsel said that while there are many strategies for improving performance during busy periods, network operators and Web site operators make educated judgments about how many servers or network links to provide.
“It’s hard to build in enough network capacity for a one-time event like the inaugural,” he said. “It would be imprudent to make everyday capacity big enough for a major event, but you do have to have enough capacity so you’re not frustrating a majority of viewers.”
The major network carriers all said they spent millions of dollars to beef up wireless and even wired links in the Washington area, mainly to accommodate the millions who will be texting and calling from inaugural events.
CNN.com officials said in an interview that they are “cautiously optimistic” that they have added enough video capacity to handle cnn.com/live traffic during the inaugural.
Only a fraction of a cell-phone’s text message or voice call runs over a wireless link, eventually hitting a wired network and possibly the Internet, depending on whether a user is seeking content from a Web site, or sending content to a site.
John Thomas, director of network event management at Sprint Nextel Inc., said engineers can manually intervene to route traffic around congestion points if needed. Sometimes, even the various carriers can work together over their networks to route traffic around major congestion, he and Poepsel said.
“We’re certainly expecting a lot of Internet traffic in the hot zone in DC, and even nationally we’ll see increased traffic,” Thomas said.
“The core networks are sized to handle that load,” he said, “but there might be some chokes at funnelling points, maybe as you get off and on networks in the D.C. area. Nationally, there will be much less [disruption], and globally even less.”
Thomas said network capacity engineering is a long-term effort joined by many technology players. “We believe we are ready for Tuesday,” he said. “But networks are not sized for every single person to make a connection at the same time.”
White said Internet technology tries to improve performance primarily in two ways. One is through route optimization, which means that software helps to automatically find the least congested route for traffic.
The other is through load distribution, through which news content providers are using thousands of content caching servers distributed in major cities.
With that approach, video of Obama taking the oath of office will be shipped to distributed servers. For example, the computers of San Francisco residents would be hitting a server in their city that caches Obama’s image. “It will be completely transparent to the user,” White said.
Even though White and others were generally confident about Internet performance on Tuesday, White said he expects that Twitter.com performance will be “problematic,” since there have been “a lot of Twitter outages at major events” because of the large number of bloggers using handheld devices at once.
“We’ve literally seen Twitter crumble, everywhere from five minutes to an hour,” White said. “It’s a symptom of Twitter’s quick success.”
Twitter officials could not immediately be reached for comment.