'Broadcast quality is best defined as a perception by viewers, and is also a moving target'
Sports arguably lends itself to live online delivery more than any other content genre. One reason is that broadcast production creates far more content than is delivered in the feed to audiences through traditional viewing. Event concurrency within competitions lends itself to OTT since linear TV is not designed to scale for such short-term peaks. Fans can view sports on a growing number of OTT devices, even during live. With media streaming devices and connected TV’s added to the growing list of smartphones and tablets in the market, global audiences expect to receive content on their devices at anytime. Having a platform that supports the introduction of new players in this market is crucial. More and more premium sports properties are encompassing an OTT component - yet how prepared are these platforms to handle live events to the scale, consistency and reliability of broadcast? Charlie Kraus, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Limelight Networks shares his view.
The Broadcast Bridge: How prepared are OTT platforms to handle large scale live events?
Charlie Kraus, Limelight Networks: I would say very well prepared. Consider the current large scale events so far this year that have been delivered via OTT very successfully. June and July have had back to back major sports activity in Europe, with the Euro 2016 football championships, Wimbledon Tennis, and the British Open golf event.
For Euro 2016, the July 10 final match between Portugal and France drew 20.8 million viewers in France, 13.6 million viewers in the UK, and Germany saw the biggest Euro soccer audience ever - 29.8 million. Fans watching matches online on OTT with mobile devices was expected to be 20% of the viewers. Wimbledon TV coverage also enjoyed healthy viewership, with the men’s singles final drawing a peak audience of 9.2 million viewers, and an average of 7.3 million, again with 20% viewing via OTT online. Final round coverage of the British Open earned a 3.3 final rating and 4.9 million viewers on NBC Sunday morning.
In the US, an NFL game played in London was available to viewers in the US on Yahoo’s OTT platform. Here’s a quote from Dan Rayburn of SteamingMedia Magazine – “Yahoo’s stream of the NFL game between the Bills and Jaguars kicked off this morning and from a quality and technical standpoint, appears to have been very successful. I tested the stream being played back via TiVo, Roku, Xbox, Fire TV, Apple TV, MacBook, iPhone and iPad and experienced very few problems. The stream was split between multiple content delivery networks including Limelight and others. Streams started up fast, within 1-2 seconds at most and I never experienced any buffering or stuttering…”
The Broadcast Bridge: Do OTT services deliver 'broadcast quality'? Perhaps you think they exceed broadcast quality?
Charlie Kraus: Yes OTT services do deliver and sometimes exceed broadcast quality. What passes for broadcast quality today will change as market traction and content availability of 4K UHD TV and High Dynamic Range video come into play. So, broadcast quality is best defined as a perception by viewers, and is also a moving target. A large part of the capability to deliver broadcast quality comes from Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) like Limelight Networks, and the HTTP protocols carrying the traffic. CDNs have monitoring in their networks to measure bandwidth and latency, and the players in the viewing devices also beacon video quality metrics such as re-buffering rates. All this data is monitored in the CDN Network Operations Centers NOCs so issues can be addressed before any impact is observed by audiences. Adaptive bitrate transmission, such as HTTP HLS to mobile devices, ensures the best possible quality video for given network conditions at any point in time. I should add that not all parts of the world will experience this level of quality due to network bandwidth issues.
The Broadcast Bridge: Have buffering and latency been solved to the extent that an OTT delivered feed is indistinguishable from broadcast?
Charlie Kraus: I would say OTT delivered to smart TVs and through OTT devices such as Roku, AppleTV, and ChromeCast, etc. is absolutely broadcast quality. The delivery network is relatively stable in terms of bandwidth and latency. Most OTT services use MPEG-dash as their delivery protocol, which is adaptive bitrate, to optimize video transmission to network conditions. My personal experience with Netflix and Amazon Prime service viewed on a large home theatre screen, is really very high broadcast quality. As for viewers experience worldwide, bandwidth issues can still have an impact.
The Broadcast Bridge: How does this differ when streaming to mobile devices?
Charlie Kraus: Because mobile devices are roaming, network bandwidth and other conditions will be variable. On a high speed WiFi connection, video should have good quality. Mobile device screen resolution will of course effect video quality as well.
The Broadcast Bridge: What are the challenges around QoS and what tools need to be in place to detect and respond to issues?
Charlie Kraus: Digitizing video for transmission in IP packets adds a huge amount of traffic to networks already congested with web content, email, and audio traffic. Internet traffic has been treated as “best effort” and QoS has not been a priority. With video growing to become the dominant type of traffic on the Internet, it will not be acceptable to rely on best effort delivery – dropped packets, re-transmission, latency and jitter will result in the poor quality video often experienced today, manifested in re-buffering, frozen images, and stuttering. So, QoS is going to be very important in delivering video.
Some of the ways QoS is handled is reserving bandwidth for video traffic, and monitoring network conditions to enable making pre-emptive adjustments to the network before issues show up on audience screens. Many CDNs use in-network bandwidth and latency monitoring, along with beaconing data from video players to get constant video quality data that is used by the Network Operations Center (NOC) to make adjustments on the fly. This is why OTT on-demand and Live video has such high quality today.
The Broadcast Bridge: What additional constraints on the network and / or QoS will 4K UHD streaming bring?
Charlie Kraus: The biggest challenge 4K UHD streaming will bring will come on the network side, as Cable MSOs and satellite companies face the network bandwidth requirements to support UHD. 4K TV has twice the horizontal and vertical pixels as 1080P for an 8.3 megapixel image size – quadruple current HD. Various compression technologies are being explored to mitigate this, but the bandwidth for high quality 4K is around 20Mbps or higher. This is much higher than most households currently have, and consider that many homes have more than one TV. Delivery will have to rely on new compression technology, or network expansion. For mobile devices, due to their relatively small screen size and resolution limitations, 4K is a pointless discussion at this time.
But 4K streaming is more than a technology problem, it’s also a business problem. If we look at the entire workflow – the costs of cameras, editing equipment, storing huge files, and encoding video in 4K, only premium content owners can afford to play with 4K. Even Netflix charges more for 4K movies. The current business models for video delivery do not support profitable 4K video delivery, so there will not be significant volume for many years to come.
Charlie Kraus, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Limelight Networks
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