[icecast] Live from Mongolia

Roy Harvey roy at lamrim.com
Sat Oct 18 17:18:39 UTC 2003

FYI...  A recent article I wrote regarding my streaming adventures.

Hoov's Musings
volume 6, number 7
Source:  http://www.acuitive.com/musings/

Live From Mongolia

Introduction from Mark Hoover

Acuitive people have all kinds of interesting hobbies, a few of which I can 
actually talk about.  In the case of Roy Harvey, his hobby is providing 
live or re-transmitted broadcasts of the Dalai Lama to his students across 
the world. When Roy told me that my first question was “who finances 
that?”  I figured the equipment costs and service costs would be 
tremendous.  But Roy convinced me that it was dirt cheap, resulting in a 
culmination of the movement to commodity status of bandwidth, servers, and 
enabling software.  I was astounded, given that I know many IT Managers who 
are not taking advantage of such services within their businesses due to 
the perceived costs.  Therefore in late June, I asked Roy to write the July 
Musing on his experiences in this area, with special emphasis on the 
economics.  Then we got real busy.  The Musing has been written.  But it’s 
September, going on October.  Oh well.  I guess that means I need to get 
started on the August Musing.

Here’s Roy...


About three years ago, Mark Hoover established criteria for his retirement 
based on the advancement of technology. As the guest “Muser” I thought I’d 
give an update on just how much closer he’s moved to retirement in the last 
three years.

In his August 2000 Musing, Mark figured if he could just listen to 
Philadelphia Phillies baseball from an in-dash Internet Radio system in his 
car, then the time had come for him pour his energies into the next great 
adventure ­ perhaps helping the Phillies out with more than just bedtime 

Like Mark, I too spent my early years listening to AM radio.  While I was 
too far from Philadelphia to get a decent signal, the New York stations 
came in clear as a bell from my room in Northern New Jersey.  From the 
nightly ramblings of WOR’s Jean Shepherd, I moved on to Ham Radio ­ and as 
many DXers (long-distance shortwave operators) have found over the last few 
years, the Internet is a wonderful landscape for pushing the same 
communications envelope.

Some guys are into cars, others are into golf or fishing, still others like 
to spend their free time building high-powered trebuchets to see just how 
far they can toss a pumpkin.[1]  Outside of waterslide parks and camping 
with the family, I like to see how far and wide I can stream packets to 
listeners throughout the world for little or no money down.  In a small 
corner of my basement lives the network operations center for the 
Internet’s first and currently largest “Tibetan Buddhist” Internet radio 
station.  The lectures are usually on various philosophical topics and 
typically run 1 to 2 hours in length.  When I'm not providing a live 
broadcast, "The Station" server streams various MP3 files from its local 
hard disk.  I started doing this casually back in late 1999, but things got 
serious a short time later when I provided audio streaming services for the 
14th Dalai Lama’s lectures at Shoreline Amphitheater here in Silicon Valley.

 From a networking perspective, my connectivity consists of a megabit SDSL 
(1.1Mbps up / 1.1Mbps down) from Speakeasy ­ a very progressive and scrappy 
ISP that’s deservedly become the nation’s largest independent broadband 
provider.  I pay a couple hundred dollars a month for unlimited 
bi-directional transfers and half a dozen static IP addresses.  Should I 
need a little more bandwidth for a special event, a simple phone call and 
their provisioning system makes it happen almost at once.  Overall network 
stability, availability, and throughput has been rock-solid.  Speakeasy 
also includes unlimited nationwide dial-up service; you'll see later why 
this is important.

My servers are all Intel-based, either donated or so low cost as to be 
free.  For instance, last year I bought 3 1-rack unit 750Mhz servers from a 
failed dot.com liquidation for $125 each.  Sold one online for $500, thus 
paying for the other two plus profit.  My primary webcasting box is a dual 
500Mhz 3U that a listener gave to me.  It was sold originally by Entera, a 
caching company that packaged it as a $10,000 appliance before getting 
acquired by CacheFlow.  This box can be thought of as "The Radio Station" 
and as far as MIPs are concerned, it's not breaking a sweat.  Before this, 
a lowly decommissioned 586 desktop handled the task with little or no trouble.

For broadcasting live events, I use my 3 year old, day-to-day workhorse 
laptop (Dell 500Mhz Inspiron 4000) for the onsite encoding and transmission 
of the webcast "signal" to the broadcast server.  The only hardware 
required for a “broadcast quality laptop” are a microphone input jack and a 
56kbps modem, both of which come standard on most laptops shipped since 
about 1998.  The software to drive the server side is Linux running Icecast 
and Apache ­ all free, open source projects.  The laptop itself runs 
Windows 2000 (not free), Nullsoft’s WinAmp (free), the OddCast plug-in for 
WinAmp (free), and an MP3 encoder unfittingly called “Lame” (also free).

In a nutshell, here’s how the system works…  Using a simple lavaliere 
microphone or a bunch of them feeding a cheap Radio Shack mixer, I bring 
the signal directly into my laptop via the microphone jack.  Using WinAmp 
and the Oddcast plug-in, I encode the audio into the MP3 format and stream 
it out the modem port over the Internet via a dial up to connect to the 
server at my house.  The MP3 stream arrives in my basement as a 60 second 
buffered stream (which provides plenty of fault tolerance) where listeners 
connect using Real Audio, Apple’s iTunes, Windows Media Player, or WinAmp 
connecting into port 8000.

Given that I'm primarily delivering “spoken word” webcasts, I can encode 
the signal at a 16kbps rate and still provide a reasonably high quality 
listening experience similar to good AM radio.  This has three benefits, 
(a) the MP3 stream is fairly stable under even the most horrid dialup 
connections, (b) I'm able to support more than 60 active listeners on my 
broadcast server using my 1.1Mpbs SDSL line, and (c) it provides lowest 
common denominator support for reaching the farthest flung Internet 
connections on the planet.  Watching my DNS logs as well as listener “fan 
mail”, I’ve had people tuned in from all corners of the globe, including 
such exotic locations as the Christmas Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Nepal, 
Slovakia, and even Iraq.

There are three types of live broadcast configurations that I've 
successfully conducted since I started doing live broadcasts:

Live Remote - this is where I stay home and someone else operates the 
encoded-upstream MP3 feed to the server (aka “the laptop”).  This was the 
first configuration I used as I thought it might be important to be 
physically near the servers in case something didn't work.  After a couple 
of successful live events, this turned out to not be an issue.  The only 
problem to date has been the fact that our circa 1950s home electrical 
system only sports a 30 amp main fuse which means turning on the washer, 
dryer, and dishwasher at the same time causes us to lose power (and thus 
the whole network of servers, networking gear, and connected 
listeners).  This generally isn't an issue and besides, I'm too cheap to 
install UPS equipment.  But this all came to a head last winter when during 
one live broadcast my wife was using a hair dryer which, in addition to a 
few thousand Xmas lights, caused us to blow the main, thus dumping all 
connections, etc...  I called her on my cell phone to find her in tears 
over the whole thing "I was just drying the kids hair for their school 
picture tomorrow…" We have a good laugh about it now. ;-)

Live Onsite ­ Hey, everything on the server is Linux right?  Which means 
over a modem, I can not only pump the MP3 stream, but I can also have half 
a dozen remote admin windows open via SSH and control and monitor the 
network, servers, and everything while sitting at the event.  As with the 
Live Remote configuration, all that's needed is my laptop and a phone 
line.  Power is good to have as well, though everything works just fine on 
batteries.  With satellite-based IP available in North America, no more 
need for even a POTS line ­ more on this, and Mark’s impending retirement, 
in a moment…

Live Exotic ­ In June I tried something a bit different; an historic first 
in my mind.  What made this different was the fact that the speaker being 
broadcast was located in Ulaanbaatar, capital city of Mongolia.  This is 
about 10,000 miles or so and many time zones from my “station” in 
California.  And just to up the ante, we did the broadcast by having the 
speaker use a cellular phone for an hour-long live event.  The call 
terminated at my house and using a simple Radio Shack phone-patch, I drove 
the audio into the laptop on my desk and then via my server to a worldwide 
Internet-connected audience. The signal never once dropped out or faded 
during the entire hour, and the audio quality was very passable.  Mongolia, 
while being a very poor country, has an amazingly reliable and burgeoning 
cellular industry utilizing GSM.

Note to self ­ while long distance communication fees are accelerating 
asymptotically towards zero, they aren’t free yet.  Make sure you 
double-check your international calling plan rates before attempting such a 
stunt at home.  It turns out that the price of phone calls to Mongolia 
rival even those wacky “phone-like” devices buried into the headrests of 
most airline seats.  Even so, to my mind, my entire broadcast operation is 
damn cheap and near-free given its ability to reach most of the known 
“Internet world” at pennies per serving.  [Question for our telecom 
industry readers ­ anyone know what a worldwide live audio broadcast like 
this would have cost 20, 10 or even 5 years ago to pull off?]

So what about mobility?  I started researching this in earnest during the 
Iraq war when we all got to witness one view of the war from 
satellite-based video transmitters.  Following the evolution of most 
communications technology, it turns out that the prices are starting to 
fall while product quality, features, and reliability simultaneously 
improves.  Mark was thinking live Phillies baseball in 2005 or 2006.  Well, 
turns out not only can he get live Internet audio today, but if he’s 
willing to let his wife Jill drive (at least during the Wild Card race), he 
can get a full DirecTV feed with 300 channels while also checking his 
email, updating the Acuitive website, or publishing his latest Musing.  For 
more information, take a look at TracVision and TracNet from KVH industries 
(http://www.kvh.com/) -- these guys historically built satellite-based IP 
systems for military and nautical use, but have since expanded their 
products to include automotive applications.  John Madden has just such a 
system installed in the “Madden Cruiser” to stay connected as he motors en 
route to each Monday Night Football broadcast.

Hmmmm...  Hey Mark!  Ever considered professional broadcasting?

Back to Mark...


Thanks Roy.  A broadcasting career is probably not in the cards for 
me.  Certainly not TV.  And probably not radio unless they’ve perfected the 
7-second delay.

I’ll have to look into the services you mentioned.  If this Musing had been 
written a few weeks earlier, with the Phillies still in the pennant race, I 
probably would have gone for it.  Now, I need a winter to forget and get 

Ironically, after Roy wrote this Musing he got a job offer from Electronic 
Arts to help drive their online gaming strategy for products like Madden 
Football.  This is right up Roy’s alley and presents an opportunity to 
swelter in Orlando, FL in the summer.  So, Acuitive’s loss will be the 
Internet gaming world’s gain.   So long to you Roy and much luck.  We’ll 
miss you.

[1] http://www.worldchampionshippunkinchunkin.com/

(volume 6, number 7)

Lam Rim Radio
Tibetan Buddhist Internet Radio
Over 500,000 hours served since 1999

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