The Streaming Tsunami: Securing Universal Service Delivery For Public Service Broadcasters (Part 3)

Like all Media companies, Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) have three core activities to focus on: producing content, distributing content, and understanding (i.e., to monetize) content consumption. In these areas, where are the best opportunities for intra-PSB collaboration as we move towards PSB-scale streaming?

Differentiation between PSBs in a market is almost exclusively based on content and consumption. Distribution is not normally a point of differentiation. Points of differentiation are generally the items to own. They are the areas where the big investments get made.

Regardless of the form of distribution and place of consumption, content is the most obvious point of direct ownership for a PSB. PSBs are already prolific content producers in their own markets, with mandates to service their audiences by producing broad-reaching, representative content.

For consumption, the point of ownership is the customer experience of the PSB’s content discovery and consumption experience. In other words, PSBs must deeply understand how consumers are satisfied (or not) by their content discovery and playback experience. Streaming has revolutionized how PSBs must invest in understanding their customers’ experiences (see the Streaming Return Path article). More data is available than most PSBs can manage and utilize, but with data as the currency in the Media industry it must be managed and utilized to maximum effect. Streamers have described their need to improve service observability, and to quickly mine consumer data to better understand the impact of the content being consumed. Owning customer data, and being able to understand it, is critical to every Media company, including PSBs.

Distribution can sometimes be seen as a relative commodity, but as explained in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series it is becoming more complex for PSBs. Legacy and Next-Generation networks and platforms mean there are more environments to manage than ever before. Whether a PSB manages the supply chain directly or relies on a managed service provider is an ongoing debate for every PSB. However, while legacy networks and platforms are generally outsourced by Media businesses that rely on managed service providers to guarantee platform availability and service performance, most streaming distribution networks are outsourced to cloud and CDN providers and rely on platform availability only, rather than service performance. This has been a sufficient situation while streaming revenues and brand reputation impacts are relatively low compared to the traditional methods of distribution. For PSBs, streaming has been like running a start-up organization that is allowed to have different operating parameters to the larger parent organization. But as PSB start-up streaming turns into the mainstream business, this needs to change. Platform Availability and Service Performance both need service assurances. Not just for media delivery, but also for the consumer’s overall access to the PSB’s media service.

Figure 1 describes the PSB Distribution Chain, looking through the lens of delivering media access vs. delivering the media content itself. Because of the wide range of free-to-air media provided and the broad audience served, it is a markedly different picture to that faced by most subscription-based streaming providers.

Figure 1: The PSB Distribution Chain, covering Media Access and Media Delivery.

Figure 1: The PSB Distribution Chain, covering Media Access and Media Delivery.

Collaboration Between PSBs

This situation begs the question – how do PSBs obtain greater economies of scale given the complexity of streaming distribution? Can they collaborate somehow to achieve this?

Collaborating on streaming distribution can be a delicate subject because there is a natural inclination to see distribution as a source of competitive advantage. However, as PSB streaming scales up, there appear to be more advantages from economies of scale and service assurances than disadvantages created by taking a shared approach to distribution.

The starting point for collaboration is the list of common requirements. What service requirements do PSBs in a market share, and how can this be leveraged so that distribution can be a source of business efficiency? These are a list of observed common requirements between PSBs:

  • National Audience Reach (>95%).
  • Multi-Platform Distribution to serve almost all types of devices across all network types.
  • Sufficient delivery capacity available “on-demand” to support performance at scale for both the Media and the Media Application itself.
  • Content Security for important content rights.
  • Platform Security that meets stringent regulatory requirements.
  • Innovation to ensure public service broadcasting keeps up with global commercial services.
  • Sustainability credentials and transparent energy consumption reporting.
  • Comprehensive and transparent performance reporting.
  • Resilient Return Path Feeds and Big Data Mining Platforms to support Consumption analysis.
  • Economies of Scale for maximum cost-efficiency.
  • Service Delivery Performance Guarantees, with financially-backed SLAs.

In this list there are some typical trade-offs, for example security vs. innovation, and maximum cost efficiency vs. service delivery performance guarantees. But while trade-offs will inevitably be made that optimizes some requirements over others, how close can we get to delivering all these requirements in a balanced way?

How Can Service Be Guaranteed?

The most basic requirement in this list is for reach – it is non-negotiable that PSBs must reach their national audiences. Following this requirement, the balance needs to be found between service guarantees, cost-effectiveness, and innovation.

Today, PSBs typically have two different service guarantee models. First is the traditional way of broadcasting over satellite, fiber, and DTT, which has quality of delivery at its core and which is accompanied by stringent standards and SLAs developed over decades. Second is streaming over the internet, which is generally still built around a best-efforts service model, underpinned by basic platform availability, the IP “resend the packet” approach, and a PSB-self-managed content origination and Media Application ecosystem. A key question as we move to PSB-scale streaming is how can PSBs have the stringent SLAs of traditional broadcasting in their streaming domain? Serving the news, sports, and entertainment on a full national scale via a streaming platform without robust SLAs does not appear to be a reasonable option.

The crux of the matter is that broadcasters can either guarantee their own service delivery and insure themselves against their own service failures, or they need to contract with a service provider that is willing to do this for them. But who will do this for them in Streaming?

If PSBs take a manage-it-yourself route for their PSB-scale streaming, then their operational teams need to oversee 24x7 performance and ensure strong SLAs are in place with the broad mix of ISP, CDN, and technology businesses they will need to interact with. The ISPs and CDNs themselves will need to provide suitable security and service management for PSB needs. Will PSBs scale out internal NOC operations to monitor and manage every conceivable service outage or interruption? What will customers without service be told in case of service outages, and who will tell them? How will networks be managed to ensure planned works and unplanned incidents do not take a PSB’s service down?

All these questions raise a set of extra questions. Can guarantees be safely offered without dedicating capacity to a broadcaster? What capacity needs to be dedicated to make guarantees safe? How are on-premise, cloud, edge computing, and device-level technical environments overseen to quickly understand where problems have arisen and could arise that affects PSB delivery? Is it a single entity or a set of entities that should manage the service delivery chain? Will each PSB in a market do all of this themselves, or should they do something as a collective group? What happens if PSB-scale streaming happens and these guarantees are not in place? The list of questions is long and each PSB will need to have good answers in the move to streaming at full-scale.

The Infrastructure Constraint

Any guarantee in media distribution is underpinned by infrastructure availability and service monitoring and management. Infrastructure must be available when required, so it must be created, managed, and protected. Physical security is fundamental, as is service management to prevent and resolve service-level incidents. For PSBs to stream at full-scale, they need secure and reliable infrastructure to be fully available (see the article A National Blueprint for Video Streaming Delivery for a description of the streaming capacity that PSBs expect to require).

For such a fundamental and universally relevant subject as media delivery to a national population, we can look at analogies with other types of national infrastructure, like national electricity grids. Building a national-level grid levelled out many national level risk and capacity challenges that had existed when individual regionalized entities had their own vertically integrated solutions. There is an argument that PSB-scale streaming needs a similar approach, much like today’s existing broadcast networks that are given “critical national infrastructure” status and are subject to specific and tight government regulations that protect service availability. Amongst other benefits, this could potentially be the best way to control the environmental impacts of media distribution in future, primarily by not overbuilding.

An associated point is that this infrastructure constraint also relates to how ISPs need to manage their network expansions and investments in support of an increasingly digital world. Regulators are working to somehow address the key issue that consumers have enough bandwidth on their devices to stream, and PSBs and other Media businesses are seeing increasing popularity of their streamed content, but the ISP networks need to expand to manage the levels of viewership we are quickly moving towards. ISP networks require some expansion, some re-architecting, and some intelligent methods of handling the demands of streaming media. Net neutrality rules are under review around the world, and PSBs are participating in the debate that could fundamentally impact their ability to reach their audience.

Balancing Security, Innovation, & Cost

Critical National Infrastructure does not naturally conjure up a vision of fast innovation, operational efficiency, and competitive costs. Generally, the highly significant impact of a major outage or a security threat requires a heavily engineered approach to both security and maintenance, which can inevitably reduce agility and risk-taking and increase operational costs. But that does not mean a balance between security, innovation, and cost is impossible. So how can a PSB find this balance when working with CNI-grade infrastructure and services?

Innovation for Media Distribution will most likely be achieved by specialist Media-focused service providers – not data-agnostic network operators – working to optimize media delivery. Optimizing costs across all forms of IP-network infrastructure, to all types of consumer devices, for all types of media consumption use cases, will be a specialized domain. Like broadcasting over the past 100 years, media streaming will require a specialist approach in the next 100 years to manage the specific workload that transporting live and on-demand media places on delivery network infrastructure.

PSB needs will continue to cover a wide spectrum of requirements. From RF radio to UHD live sports, and from mega-bandwidth-consuming immersive viewing to ultra-low-latency gaming. In this there is a need for, and space for, innovation from a range of technologies including multicast, WebRTC, and open caching, on top of the ubiquitous unicasting model. All types of technology to drive innovation, network efficiencies, and cost efficiencies can be tested, proven, deployed, and managed to meet each individual PSB’s need, as well as the collective commercial need of all PSBs in a single market.

A specialized Media Distribution service provider can aggregate and simplify operations in this multi-technology, multi-network environment, while also helping to navigate the complex discussions about delivering media at PSB-scale over the ISP networks that need to be expanded. Someone needs to manage the complexity, while offering service guarantees and innovation roadmaps at reasonable costs. In this future environment, there seems to be a strong case for a specialized service provider to work on behalf of PSBs. Simultaneously, between PSBs there can be cutting-edge innovators deploying new technologies alongside low-risk simple distribution methods for mass-market audiences. The beauty of IP-based delivery is that these technologies can easily co-exist alongside each other.

A perceived commercial risk of using a shared media distribution service provider is to be locked into pricing and technology roadmaps that create unwelcome commercial constraints. But the example of how best to manage this comes straight from the PSB playbook. As highlighted in Part 1 of this series, the BBC Charter from 1927 contained principles that would govern how services would be provided to meet public and national needs. As we head towards the year 2027, the streaming industry could benefit from Media Distribution Managed Service Providers with Innovation and Value for Money Charters that assure their PSB customers of best possible technology, service, and price over a long-term relationship. This charter will help PSBs navigate the next 10-20 years of seismic change in the transition to a world dominated by IP streaming.

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