AOL has moved into bandwidth overdrive, for the first time piping media-rich content to broadband users of its AOL 5.0 software.
Called AOL Plus, the service aims to juice the narrowband network with multimedia content, including streaming video programs from CBS MarketWatch and CNN, music from a new AOL Plus Radio player, and live concerts from the House of Blues.
"This is only the beginning," says Robert Harris, AOL's vice president of broadband strategy. Throughout the year AOL will upgrade its broadband content with pay-per-view concerts, video search, and videoconferencing.
Harris estimates close to 1 million of the 22 million AOL members will be able to take advantage of the enhanced service. AOL now competes more squarely with rival Excite@Home, which has a Web-based portal geared to users with high-speed connections to the Net.
AOL members will be able to check out a limited version of the service at no additional cost as it rolls out this week. AOL 5.0's "speed detect" feature will determine if you are connecting to AOL 5.0 over a cable, direct subscriber line, or satellite high-speed Internet connection.
If you connect to the Net at speeds greater than 150kbps, an "AOL Plus Tower" appears in the lower right side of your AOL screen. You are then prompted to download (one time only) an 8MB file containing the RealNetworks' RealPlayer video streaming client, Macromedia Flash, and IPix plug-ins.
After those are installed, the content and links change inside the AOL Plus Tower as you navigate different "channels" within the AOL network. Choose the AOL Travel Channel, for example, and the Plus Tower offers a short video segment on Las Vegas vacations. Select AOL Entertainment, and you can launch the AOL Plus Radio client or select from a number of music videos.
At first AOL Plus content will start with features from a host of players, including AthletesDirect, CBS SportsLine, FOXNews.com, Travelocity.com and Weather.com.
AOL's Nullsoft division will chime in with its own AOL Plus Radio for broadband-enhanced music programming. Weather.com will feature five-day forecasts. Video sports highlights and team reports will come from CBS SportsLine, and AthletesDirect will supply interactive interviews.
Over the next several months, AOL Plus will expand to include shopping, games, autos, and real estate content.
Media-rich content will be hosted on AOL's network, ensuring optimum performance, Harris says. Streaming media content will also be jiggered to withstand bandwidth connections as fast a 400kbps; however, it can also scale down to 150kbps network limitations.
"People haven't had a really positive experience in the 28- and 56kbps world (with multimedia content)," Harris says. "Our mission is to introduce a larger screen size and better video quality. The time is right now to start adding these."