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Who Is Out There? And Where Are They?

By Larry Barrett Print this article Print

The subsidiary responsible for operating the Web sites of 30 baseball teams must get a line on where its fans live before selling them video streams. Or else, it will run afoul of its lucrative TV deals.

Who Is Out There? And Where Are They?

To avoid infringing on those broadcast and cable contracts, MLB Advanced Media installed software called GeoPoint from Quova, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company that specializes in finding the geographic location of Web site visitors. Quova—from the Latin term quo vadis, which means "Who goes there?"—uses a computer's Internet Protocol (IP) address as the starting point to determine the location of a computer in use.

An IP address—assigned to a computer by an Internet service provider—is a 32-bit numerical address written as four numbers separated by periods, such as Like a house address, it helps one computer or network device find another computer over a network. In all, more than 1.4 billion IP addresses are recorded in five global registries.

Quova's software takes an individual IP address and searches the registries to find out which Internet service provider (ISP) owns that IP address, says Gary Jackson, the software company's vice president of operations.

As data moves over thousands of private and public networks—switching from region to region and country to country—to the MLB.com site, it passes through dozens of routers and gateways that form intersections throughout the Internet. Quova's software captures information about how traffic is routed to and from the individual IP address to create a network "map" that narrows down where the routers and gateways are located.Then, information on routers, gateways and other devices is compared to IP address registries housed in Quova's database.

Once this information is recorded in Quova's database, the company executives say the software employs artificial-intelligence algorithms to process the data gathered from servers connected to ISPs around the world to identify the location of the computer within a 20- to 50-mile radius.

Quova's network analysts then examine the raw data compiled by the database to determine how each ISP routes its IP addresses through the Internet. As they identify these patterns, the information is manually entered into the database for further deconstruction by the algorithms.

The locator software can also tell its customers whether the computer is connected to the Internet by a DSL connection or a cable modem or through a corporate virtual private network. This data is compiled to create a profile of each IP address.

The nit and grit of the geographic-locator software is its data delivery server. It's a Java-based application that includes an application programming interface (API) that can be integrated with other business applications. MLB Advanced Media links the server to proprietary point-of-sale applications to bolster the profile of a prospective subscriber—namely, identifying customers by ZIP code from their mailing address.

Choti says his 40-person information-technology staff implemented GeoPoint in about two weeks during the fall of 2002. The bulk of the time, he says, was spent testing and retesting the system.

"Basically, we were trying to break it," he says, by logging on from corporate VPNs, using anonymized proxies—a privacy service that allows users to visit Web sites without allowing anyone to gather information about which sites they visit—and logging on from satellite-based Internet connections. "But it held up," he adds. "It gave us the confidence we needed."

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The GeoPoint software was installed locally on the MLB.com and individual team sites. Once in place, GeoPoint updates itself by connecting back to the database in Mountain View. As visitors log on to these sites, their IP addresses are added to the database for future reference.

When a baseball fan goes to MLB.com to log on to a game, the software assigns a confidence rating, on a scale of 1 to 100, that helps the Web site operator decide whether or not to let the fan view a particular game.

Jackson says MLB Advanced Media won't approve the release of streaming video to an IP address that scores below 72; a lower score indicates that the computer in question is not likely to be in a ZIP code eligible to receive a live broadcast.

For example, a would-be customer dialing up from his PC in St. Louis would not be allowed to view the streaming video Webcast of the Cardinals game—home or away. But if that same Cardinals fan were connecting from a hotel room in Baltimore or from an Internet café in Prague, he'd be granted access.

Previously, companies could best determine the whereabouts of online customers by relying on the ZIP code associated with the mailing address for each customer's credit card account.

MLB Advanced Media still uses that information to help create a customer profile. But the personal data is now used in tandem with the IP address locator and the "confidence rating" to assess whether or not someone should be allowed to view the requested game online.

At MLB Advanced Media's headquarters on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan's trendy meat-packing district, Choti and his staff must also deal with complicating factors, such as the fact that some cities—Las Vegas, for example—fall under the broadcast territories of multiple MLB teams.

This article was originally published on 2005-03-07
Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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