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Tackling Tech

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Stronger Networks Needed - Stream on or Dream on?

Posted Jul 17, 2014

In this week's column, Bob discusses why brains-and-brawn networks are required to deliver a streaming video experience that keeps fans coming back for more.


The success of new video streaming services, apps and viewing devices that require better content delivery rest almost entirely with the strength and technology of the network infrastructure over which they travel.

Thinking that streaming live and on-demand video to the wired and wireless fan masses is without ongoing and costly network infrastructure challenges is akin to assuming that' the world is at peace. They are both great assumptions but clearly couldn't be farther from the truth.

Most any video viewer - football fan or not - is familiar with buffering, picture freezes, tiling, delays and worse that typically occur when there's not enough bandwidth to deliver the chosen content from source to destination(s) as intended.

Why should pro football fans care about network stuff? Because the league continues to open its vast video vault to offer fans access to a wide array of new and improved programming live and via on-demand technology.

We don't see it, but network infrastructure is what carries video from point A to you, point B. A weak or overburdened network infrastructure will cripple the best-designed video service and live-streamed event delivery. The same holds true for streamed video-on-demand.

Extreme Measures - Netflix

The predicament of mega web-streamer Netflix epitomizes the challenges of delivering high-quality (TV quality) video content. The company has taken aggressive above-and-beyond steps aiming to do just that. They include:

-Created its own content delivery network for Internet Service Providers (ISP) to connect to.

-Cut a deal to pay TV archrival and broadband king Comcast to ensure faster and more reliable access to its Internet access subscribers.

-Is fighting with Verizon, claiming the network operator is slowing its streaming traffic (throttling).

-Created, maintains and periodically issues a ranking of U.S. service providers by average bandwidth their networks provider.

Are You Ready for Some Streaming?

Bandwidth is also a problem for those wishing to drive the 4K Ultra HD TV movement, which is considered an evolutionary step for TV and still a big work-in-progress.

Consider this, recent research by Cambridge, MA, content delivery king Akamai Technologies estimated that only about 17 percent of U.S. is 4K ready as in has the bandwidth required to simply receive Ultra HD TV/4K streams from the web and that's assuming the streams are being compressed to eat up less bandwidth in the first place.

Akamai knows a little about video delivery challenges having pioneered online deliver of March Madness from CBSsportsonline.com date back to the turn of the century. Their sports customer list alone is too long to cover. The company's content delivery network is used for the optimal delivery of video to viewers around the globe.

Network-Now Focus

Faced with fast-increasing demand for TV services be they traditional or from the web, video providers have to keep pace with broader viewing and higher speed services by fortifying their own networks with technology accompanied by expensive capacity upgrades. The alternative is underwhelming service performance and challenges launching new services and features.

However, cable companies, telephone companies etc. generally prefer not to invest in upgrades of network infrastructure already in the ground or air. Those include copper to fiber, coax cable to fiber or even the connection from your street to your house. There's a long history of cable companies and one-time telephone companies being unable to deliver robust TV and Internet services - and other service and feature rollouts being delayed or limited in availability - because the network infrastructure couldn't handle the load.

Plight of the Content Owner

So what's a content owner to do, given that they don't own the networks over which their precious video assets are transported? The NFL, and other owners of programming, have typically partnered with wireline and wireless service providers to launch and enhance streaming services whether the action is live, on-demand, or a mix of both.

For now, the majority of the NFL's streaming is to wireless devices, though the type of programming is expanding to live game casts. The broadcasters that televise games as partners with the league also stream some games live - Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football and Thursday Night Football using widely available apps such as NFL Mobile from Verizon Wireless.

Clearly aware of the damaging effect that live sports streaming over challenged or overloaded networks can have on viewers, it's very likely the NFL is holding out until network infrastructure is addressed. The league doesn't want fans of America's game that are used to a broadcast TV viewing experience to be presented with anything less than that quality when checking out live streamed games elsewhere.

Show Fans the Money!

Operators far prefer to upgrade equipment and software at the ends of transmission facilities and at network hubs and junctions as it is quicker and less expensive that the massively disruptive process of digging up buried cables and wires or those strung along telephone poles.

What can network operators do to enhance and advance video streaming? Here are a few suggestions:

-Implement and expand encoding options. This enables the compression of video which helps transmit video using far less network bandwidth. The more efficient use of capacity sets the stage for additional efforts to optimize video delivery.

-Widely deploy Adaptive Bit Rate (ABR) technology across their networks. Software drives switching between coding options when needed to make the best use of available bandwidth to the consumer. It is designed largely to kill buffering and delay by sensing network congestion and “adapting” to available capacity during streaming. (You get the best picture available bandwidth can handle).

ABR streaming is popular as it works with older encoders and is not player-specific (Microsoft Windows, Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, etc.)

-Deploy Progressive Download technology. Video delivered using this approach is typically stored on the consumer's hard drive once it's received. The hard drive then plays the video. Live streamed video is not saved.

-Replace or upgrade access equipment in the home to deliver new and enhanced services. This includes set-top boxes, cable modems and wireless routing device, older versions of which contain little software brains and therefore support limited high speed networking capabilities. In some cases, software upgrades can stave off replacements.

-Invest in video optimization and analytics packages/services. When it comes to live streaming, being able to see what's going on with your content and takes corrective action if necessary is paramount to ensure a high quality viewing experience. Analytics can tell you how long the average viewer watched your live-streamed event be it a sporting event, concert, breaking news or a press conference event.

Without these packages, which are available from Akamai and most all other content delivery networks (Level 3 Communications, Limelight Networks and Mirror Image Internet as well) live streamers are essentially flying blind. Some provide critical stats in real-time as well as detail-packed post-event reports. Numerous non-NFL sports groups and the TV networks that pay for the live streaming rights - ESPN, Turner Sports, etc. - have used these packages.

The Bottom Line - NETWORK STRONG?

While the rallying cries of TV/video viewers should be NETWORK STRONG! , the reality is that consumer complaints about problems and limitations caused by challenged networks probably continue to fall on deaf ears. The actual content owners, such as the NFL, can only press their partners to enhance and advance so much.

A case in point: Readers of this column have complained over the last several weeks about the problems facing today's network infrastructure and the need to address the issue now and head on.

Money talks and business is clearly all about the Benjamins. So until revenues are seriously threatened and or money-making opportunities demand more brains and brawn networking upgrades and investment, the race to extend and advance streaming video will be run at a slow pace with no winner in sight.

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

DISCLAIMER


The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on the Tackling Tech column represent those of individual authors, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the New England Patriots organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. Authors' views are formulated independently from any inside knowledge and/or conversations with Patriots officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.

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