Bill Wohnoutka

Tales from the edge: the big shift from VOD to TV channel streaming

In the world of video streaming, you’ll find a lot of differing opinions on how to execute various tasks and workflows, but I think we can all agree on the top industry goal: create a consistent, high-quality experience for the end user. At the EdgeNext Summit – an event held in association with the NAB Show in New York – leaders from a variety of players in the industry shared their ideas, research and technical know-how around distributing content at the edge. The closer the video content is to eyeballs, the better the experience for the end user.

I was fortunate to join Dan Rayburn, organizer of the summit and one of the industry’s leading authorities on streaming media technology, during a wide-ranging fireside chat session as part of the conference. The focus was the shift from video on demand (VOD) to over-the-top (OTT) and what’s happening in the streaming space to deliver high-quality video to millions of end users in the most efficient way. Here are some key takeaways:

We are seeing a sharp increase in the consumption of linear channels streamed over the internet.

CenturyLink, which operates a global content delivery network (CDN) and IP backbone, has been in the streaming space since the beginning. During those early days of internet streaming adoption, live events and VOD dominated viewership. However, now we work closely with many large providers of linear streaming (one million viewers and up), and we are seeing significant end-user traffic on these platforms.

Operational network considerations have been made to accommodate changes in traffic profiles.

End-to-end workflow monitoring is critical and necessitates changes in tools to monitor streams. Even if streams fail at or before ingest into the CDN, customers still see us playing a critical role in identifying and triaging problems.

Another area we’ve been examining is cache efficiency, which can fall dramatically for less popular channels. This has an impact on network cost and throughput considerations.

Low latency and device synchronization is top-of-mind for streaming companies.

The time from camera to web browser has diminished over the years, but there’s always a desire to close that window even more. As part of that, there’s a concerted effort among streaming companies toward device synchronization, where playback of streamed content is simultaneous among various devices in the home, bar or workplace.

The emergence of linear channels on the internet has created a significant impact on event viewership of mega events.

Not too long ago, large events like this year’s global soccer championship in Russia were distributed by a handful of rights holders. That meant fewer sources of the content, which could result in massive traffic spikes and consequently, latency, buffering, etc. However, this year, we saw a significant increase in rights holders, which spread out the traffic.

Overall, though there were more online viewers of the event than there were four years ago, the ability to disperse those viewers among more streams reduced the likelihood of overburdening the network.

In fact, we worked with 16 CDN customers for the event, more providers than we had ever worked with on previous global soccer events.

Looking to the future: consolidated workflows, standardization and 4K linear channels.

A trend I anticipate will continue is the consolidation of workflows for live events and linear programming, as well as a reduction of vendors in the live event and linear workflow space.

Recently, CenturyLink began offering direct connectivity from its Vyvx broadcast platform to Amazon Web Services (AWS), providing access to AWS Elemental Media Services and the full breadth of third-party media services available in the AWS Marketplace. In the media space, it’s all about simplification/streamlining, and enabling the use of fully cloud-based workflows through fewer vendors is an effective way to do that.

In the near future, I also envision the adoption of standards to support low latency and device synchronization. As many in the industry are aware, we don’t have clear standards that govern the way we support multi-CDN delivery of low latency services. This needs to be addressed quickly given the quality of experience end-users expect.

Finally, we’re seeing the production and delivery of 4K content; however, 4K linear channels remain elusive. I anticipate 4K channels are coming soon and that they’ll establish themselves first on the internet before traditional broadcast avenues. That’s because of the relatively “upgrade-ready” state of the network. According to Broadband Now, the average internet speed across the U.S. in the last year or so was 35.36 Mbps, which is 10 Mbps higher than the recommended minimum bandwidth needed for 4K. Programming is still limited, but we do have an example of a 4K linear channel in NASA TV. In collaboration with Harmonic, CenturyLink and Accedo, NASA was able to launch a new UHD HDR channel delivered directly to a 4K-capable Roku streaming player.

As consumers’ viewing habits evolve, so does the video experience, and it’s incumbent on those of us in the industry to monitor and anticipate the needs of viewers. From what I saw and heard at EdgeNext and NAB, we’re having the right conversations to ensure we not only keep up with demand, but also innovate to deliver the best end-user experience possible.