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Straight Talk Media & Entertainment

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Conventional wisdom has held that ever-increasing broadband speeds will always provide the necessary room for video streamed over the top (OTT) of the public Internet to grow in scale and sophistication. However, at this year’s Content Delivery World (CDW 2016) conference, held in London on November 8–10, service providers (SPs) were urged to adopt new techniques to ensure that best-effort delivery remains good enough for tomorrow’s viewers.

OTT video: A "hit-play-and-hope" medium

What OTT video offers in flexibility, it lacks in reliability. For every network it can traverse and every device it can reach, it creates multiple points of failure, often beyond an SP's control. Emerging formats such as 4K and virtual reality (VR) video will not only demand more broadband bandwidth, but place new kinds of pressure on networks which traditional content delivery technologies might not be able to alleviate.

But there was plenty of evidence at CDW 2016 that the industry is looking beyond these limitations, to solutions that promise to improve the quality of OTT video and scale infrastructure to meet the challenges ahead.

Beyond conventional live streaming

A key topic of discussion at CDW 2016 was how to improve the experience of live TV streamed over the Internet. Various measures to protect quality of experience (QoE) were discussed, from building buffers and failover mechanisms into SPs' systems to working with multiple third-party content delivery networks (CDNs). As one SP put it: "Large sporting events can break CDNs. We have broken CDNs."

Another key topic was how to reduce the lag between conventional TV broadcasts and online streams, to avoid the "spoiler" effect of hearing about a goal on social media, for example, and provide more synchronized second-screen experiences. Sky Italia and Tata Communications presented solutions that they claimed reduced the delay from tens of seconds to mere milliseconds.

Beyond unicast

Multicast is still discussed as a solution to the challenges of live streaming. Various SPs, CDNs, and vendors are looking to save on network capacity and costs by employing the one-to-many distribution method at various levels of network before switching back to the one-to-one unicast mode required to connect to the vast majority of connected devices.

At CDW 2016, BT and Orange said they were investigating using multicast to broadcast live video to a special kind of home gateway or TV set-top box (STB) that converts the video into unicast streams that connected devices can access over Wi-Fi. The challenge with this approach is that conventional home gateways and STBs would require modification to handle this kind of application because they are currently optimized to serve different needs.

Beyond the appliance

As with many technology conferences these days, virtualization was the subject of much debate at CDW 2016. Equipment vendor Edgeware argued that dedicated appliances remained the most effective option for video delivery, but SPs and vendors suggested that the growth in video traffic and emerging formats such as 4K and VR video meant the move to software-based CDNs running on commodity hardware or cloud infrastructure was inevitable.

The big question remains when and where. Most speakers and delegates agreed that the transition would happen gradually with service providers virtualizing the least sensitive parts of their CDNs or using virtualized infrastructure to handle overflows from unusual peaks in traffic. Certainly, the dream of a fully virtualized model where the CDNs of the likes of Akamai, Google, and Netflix exist only as software-defined instances on cloud infrastructure rented from carriers seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

Beyond the network

Perhaps the most significant development at CDW 2016 was the news that several SPs were looking to gain an understanding of their customers’ experiences beyond buffering times and bit rates. Examples included using "social listening" technologies to capture what customers were saying on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks, and conducting interviews with users posting one-star app ratings to find out the source of their dissatisfaction. These inputs will give SPs a more rounded approach to providing great video experiences.

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