Online video of inauguration sets national records, but struggles under the heavy strain

For a new president whose main technology initiative is enhancing broadband Internet access, it was perhaps fitting that his inauguration last week helped set records for Internet traffic.

However, the overwhelming demand meant that some Web sites and data networks had trouble keeping up, forcing many people to turn to less cutting-edge forms of media.

“It was really frustrating to have this great technology and still not be able to watch the speech,” Dan Robinson, who runs the box office at the Julliard School in New York, told the “New York Times.” “I had to use this TV from the early ’80s and some rabbit ears to watch it.”

Internet traffic in the United States hit a record peak at the start of President Obama’s speech as people watched, read about and commented on the inauguration, said Bill Woodcock, the research director at the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit organization that analyzes online traffic. The figures surpassed even the high figures on the day President Obama was elected.

“The peak is the highest measured to date, and it appears to be mostly a U.S. phenomenon,” Woodcock told the newspaper, adding that it did not appear that global records would be set.

When Internet users check for election results or the score for a sports event, they tend to produce smaller bursts of traffic spread over several hours. On Inauguration Day, however, most users wanted to watch real-time live video. That produced bulky streams of data traveling from media companies’ data centers out to people at work and in their homes, the “Times” reported.

CNN said it provided more than 21.3 million video streams over a nine-hour span up to mid-afternoon. That well exceeded the 5.3 million streams provided during all of Election Day. At its peak, fed 1.3 million live streams simultaneously.

Akamai, which helps companies meet demand for their online offerings, worked with media companies like the “New York Times,” the “Wall Street Journal” and Viacom to stream live video. It reported a record-breaking day, feeding up to 7 million video streams at one time. The number jumped to 60 percent in North America, with traffic peaking as Obama’s speech began.

While the raw figures look impressive, many people were unable to access the event or lost access during it. “I really didn’t get to see any of it,” Daniel Wild, a Web site editor at the New York University School of Medicine, told the newspaper. “Ultimately, I just saw frozen images of sections of what happened.”

The viewing troubles may have been more a result of the limited Internet capacity coming to offices and houses, rather than a lack of overall bandwidth from the media companies. The United States continues to suffer from less-than-robust bandwidth, which has been attributed to inadequate government attention and limited competition between Internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast.

President Obama, in fact, mentioned the issue in the very speech that people were trying to watch.

See what editor Brad Dick had to say about the online streaming of the inauguration at his blog.