A new era of high definition online video will begin on Monday when Akamai launches a showcase portal for videos from customers including the BBC, NBA, MTV and others. 

The term HD has been bantered about quite a lot in the context of Web video.  But by our understanding, "true" high def means full-sized, 720p, 1080i and 1080p.  As far as I know, these files have not been distributed via stream or downloads.   

All this is about to change. Earlier this week, Limelight Networks, another major CDN player, announced the introduction of an HD product.  Its not live yet, but will be up on Fox.com for the new seasons of "24" and "Prison Break."   

On Wednesday in Manhattan, I interviewed Brad Rinklin, Vice President of Marketing at Akamai.  Brad filled me in on the plans for the new HD site. 

Akamai is not getting into the destination business. The site, called HDWeb, is a showcase that will be up for two weeks.  Visitors will see images in quality flash, but the files are downloaded to be played in Quicktime or Microsoft Media Player. The HD don’t yet work in Flash player, but  this is being  solved, I am told. 

More than a showcase, Akamai has several customers who will be streaming programming in HD in the weeks ahead. 

I’ve visited the Akamai beta site  over my Verizon DSL line and the files download quickly and play well in both 720 and 1080.  The videos from the BBC are absolutely stunning.

Although the site is a marketing site, its being sponsored by Verizon Fios.  Those Akamai folks know how to make money these days: The company’s earnings are on fire as is its stock price.

But whether Akamai, Limelight, VeriSign and others will find business success with HD is tough to say.  The barrier could be cost:  The amount of content being pushed through the pipes is enormous.  Also, computers need to have adequate processing power and fast Internet connection.

What About Those Bandwidth Costs?

Getting these files around is costly and P2P will be part of the solution.  Brad told me that P2P will be part of the HD ecosystem in the months ahead. He said plans are in place to integrate Red Swoosh technology.  Jeff Richards at VeriSign (a Beet sponsor) told me that P2P will be a growing and integral part of HD video distribution system.  (Level 3 declined to comment.)

To get the perspective of someone who really knows this industry, I’ve asked Dan "Streaming Media" Rayburn to share his thoughts, which are below.

"Both Akamai and Limelight Networks recent announcements of their new HD
video delivery solutions are really aimed at laying the groundwork for the
future. Today, there is hardly any adoption at all for HD content on the web and
I don’t expect to see any real adoption for at least another 3 years. While many
in the industry say that quality is what’s stopping the adoption of video
consumption, that is not the case. Three years ago the average broadband video
was encoded at 300Kbps, today, it’s still 300Kbps. If content owners wanted to
increase the quality, they could do so overnight by encoding in 750Kbps. Most
don’t do that today due to the additional cost they need to pay to deliver those
extra bits. With HD, you are delivering on average 6-8x more bits than a 300Kbps
file. Until the economics of monetizing video on the web truly happens, the
majority of content owners can’t justify spending more money to deliver their
content in HD. But that does not mean that companies like Akamai and Limelight
Networks are too early to the game. They need to build out the service today so
that by the time HD delivery is an offering more content owners need, they are
already experienced in how they will scale their networks to handle the
additional demand."
— Andy Plesser

Here’s a screen shot of HDWeb which goes live on Monday.  (This image is a low res JPEG, so you’ll have to visit the site on Monday to see the quality.)

You can grab the embed code of my interview with Brian right here.