The edit suite at Macomb Township, Mich.
Michigan's Macomb Township decided the time was ripe to stream its town meetings online.
by Robin Berger
The consensus was that the inhabitants of this city, just north of Detroit, wanted to watch meetings at their own convenience rather than being constrained by the rigid agenda imposed by a broadcast.
So, Jim Gillis, broadcast media manager for Macomb Township's access channel, set about looking for an on-demand solution so viewers could watch when and where they wanted. He found the UltraNexus server and PEG Central hosting service provided by Holt, Mich.-based Leightronix.
UltraNexus features dual digital encoders. While recording media files for television re-broadcast, the server simultaneously creates digital media files optimized for Internet streaming. The PEG Central service includes a custom Web site for displaying video, plus bandwidth for simultaneously streaming videos to (potentially) thousands of viewers, plus an online media storage area for Internet programming.
"The price was right, the functionality was reliable," said Gillis, who noted that he had been using Leightronix products for years. "They are a Michiganbased company—that's important. Their systems have always been very reliable, very cost-effective, and we felt the natural progression was to take our existing Nexus and do the capital upgrade to an UltraNexus."
Although Leightronix lists UltraNexus at $9,995 on its Website, Gillis said his cost was a $2,767 upgrade from the Nexus system he has used since the government's Cable Channel 5 studio opened in April 2005. He said Macomb Township is spending another $2,760 per year for the PEG Central system.
The upgrade was complete in April 2009.
"The same day we got the box it was up and running," said Gillis. "It was actually a very easy path to follow."
Jim Gillis in the control room Gillis noted that the use of streaming media by municipalities in his area of the country started to become more common about 18 months ago.
"The prices of the machines have gotten better, and the availability of high speed Internet to the public at large makes streaming video a lot more reliable," he said.
He also noted a non-technical reason behind the trend: the call for "transparency" in government agendas. "Streaming helps in that quite dramatically," he said.
Outreach by Leightronix provided him an added awareness of the trend towards increased streaming online. As Gillis recalled, the company sent him a direct email noting that a neighboring community had added the UltraNexus.
"We try to keep an eye out for whatever everyone else is doing," said Gillis. "Whatever successes they have, we would definitely like to try to incorporate."
The increased move to stream online was also noted by Caren Collins Fifer, president of Michigan NATOA, the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.
"Most of the major municipalities in Macomb County now provide some form of online content for their meetings," said Collins Fifer, who is also executive director of the Southwestern Oakland Cable Commission, one county west of Macomb. "A couple of us jumped on board in the last 12 months—and I know of at least two others that are looking at it."
She said that for the most part, they either use systems provided by Leightronix or San Franciscobased Granicus Inc.
Collin Fifer also noted that Leightronix, which sponsors some of Michigan NATOA's meetings, made a presentation to the group in early 2009 about streaming media. She herself uses Leightronix servers and PEG Central hosting services.
For staffers, the big benefit is the ability to encode once for multiple uses.
"Once we get the raw footage—which is usually on a DVD—we encode that for our cable playback to play off a hard drive," he said. Simultaneously, he noted, UltraNexus "is actually making a file that's being sent to the Web. It does that automatically for you, and then you just get an e-mail that it's completed— that it's ready for publishing on the PEG Central site. That's when you go in there and index it, name it, and make it active for viewing."
Viewers can not only watch a full screen picture online, they can watch whatever part of the town meeting they want to see.
"They can drill down right to the topic that they want to find out about," he said. "No one is sitting down to watch an entire meeting."
The software's view tracking function equates each click on a meeting as a view. By that measure, from May 1 to the end of 2009 there were more than 7,000 views of the 17 meetings put online, said Gillis. In contrast, he noted, "It's very, very difficult for a cable access studio to measure their viewership on cable."
The system also measures outbound traffic.
"It basically indicates how many people are taking small bits of data from you: The more bits of data you're sending out, the more people are watching—or looking at longer segments of things," he said. "On average, we would be looking at about 10-12 GB of outbound streaming per meeting. If I have a really long meeting but I only outbound 4 GB of information in a day, it would tell me that people were looking at a very targeted segment."
As for the future, Gillis said he's "looking forward to faster Internet, faster uploads, faster conversions." He has no plans for another system upgrade at this time.
"We haven't even had it for quite a year—we've been happy with its initial launch and we're hoping to grow our audience online," he said.