Over the past five years, the ways in which we choose to watch television have shifted dramatically. It wasn’t too long ago that live TV was the only option available to us. We had to make sure we were seated with the television on, at the time our favourite shows and movies were scheduled to be broadcast. If we didn’t, we simply missed them.
Rémi Beaudouin is VP marketing at Ateme
Fast forward to the present day and the situation couldn’t be more different, thanks to the introduction of on-demand and over-the-top (OTT) content providers. This “anytime, anywhere, any device (ATAWAD)” concept is now integral to the broadcast industry, and OTT is now the preferred method for watching TV. A study about content and viewing habits produced by Qualtrics found that 30% of all respondents accessed Netflix to watch TV, compared to just 23% who still tuned into live TV broadcasts.
With an increase in these linear and on-demand OTT services from both new and traditional broadcasters, competition is fierce. The biggest selling point for such operators is primarily the content catalogue they can offer to consumers, but they must also consider quality of service as essential. Even if you’re offering TV shows or movies that aren’t available anywhere else, the quality of service available needs to be as high as possible, especially with the increasing expectations of consumers in regard to 4K, HDR and HFR content. It has never been more important for businesses to prioritise their quality of service if they want to reach a customer base of millions.
All on-demand and OTT content that is enjoyed by viewers is sent to their television screens via an Internet connection of some form. While this might be preferable for the viewers at home, it can present challenges for the providers when it comes to guaranteeing great quality of service
Delivering higher resolution content to an increasing number of users within the same bandwidth capacity is not an easy equation. For example, let’s say that there are 10 million people across the globe trying to watch the same TV show, using the same OTT provider, at the same time. In this case, every single viewer must share bandwidth capacity with everyone else, and the less bandwidth that is available to a viewer at any given time, the higher the chance of experiencing poor video and audio quality, buffering, artefacts and latency. This, unsurprisingly, makes for a frustrated television experience, and can often result in the viewer turning towards another provider.
Why Not Build Out Networks?
So why not invest in network capacity? Well, with users paying a $10 monthly subscription fee on average for a single platform, OTT operators have limited network investment capacity —this can often run into the millions of dollars — which can make it difficult to remain or become sustainable.
While being able to meet the expectations of consumers has become a much more complex proposition for all parties involved, the main goal lies in being able to accurately monitor, analyse and optimise the performance of these diverse delivery channels. This way, each consumer can experience a consistent quality of service, regardless of delivery method or device.
This is where next-generation video compression can greatly help OTT providers. For a given piece of content, operators drastically reduce the bandwidth they need to deliver the video to the users. Within the same bandwidth, you can either increase video quality or serve more viewers simultaneously. This is often a win-win for businesses, as it means they can continue growing their OTT offering while achieving a sustainable business model — small costs and faster growth equals fast profit.
HEVC and AV1 Provide a Solution
The problem that can arise with using older video compression technologies, however, is that operators require a large amount of bandwidth if they are to offer decent video quality to their subscribers. With new technologies, including the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) and AV1 (Alliance for Open Media Video 1) codecs, however, operators can use their existing bandwidth to deliver higher video quality while serving more subscribers at the same time. These codecs can provide up to 50% bandwidth gain when compared to H.264 for a given video quality, resulting in substantial quality improvements.
While HEVC is a well-known compression standard that has been on the marketplace for several years now, AV1 is a work-in-progress that has been developed by the Alliance for Open Media as an open, royalty-free codec applicable for broadcast and OTT workflows and is scheduled to be released in early 2018. With a video compression technology such as this, broadcasters and content providers are also able to enjoy an additional cost saving benefit, with no need to invest significant amounts of money in revamping infrastructures or increasing the existing bandwidth capacity.
The latest research in this field is focusing on the potential of cutting edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to further reduce the size of the video content, which will improve the efficiency of operators’ bandwidth capacities. This amazing development in video compression optimizes video encoding profiles by analysing video stream complexity in real time and recommending the encoding parameters to apply to get a consistent quality rate across all content. It’s a major transition from the existing ‘Constant Bit Rate’ approach to a ‘Constant Quality Rate’ one. The compression gains involved are huge — between 30% - 60% — it’s codec and resolution agnostic, and it’s done without any CPU penalty, meaning you don’t have to modify your existing IT architecture to integrate this feature. Based on machine learning, the more you encode content, the more your database grows, and therefore the more you can optimize the next encoding.
Whether viewers are aware of it or not, they have video compression technology to thank for being able to sit back and enjoy their favourite TV shows and films on OTT platforms without issues. It forms a fundamental part of any successful and popular platform, yet it can put viewers off for life if the issue is neglected. With OTT and on-demand viewing already replacing our appetite for live broadcasting, content providers must consider video compression and quality of service as a top priority if they want to thrive in the years to come.
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