Today’s viewers want to sit down, turn on the TV and watch their favorite content — whenever and wherever they like. This ties nicely into the offerings of over-the-top service providers and is driving traditional broadcasters to launch their own OTT offerings.
However, delivering content to an ever-growing number of devices while maintaining a smooth and consistent video experience without latency, buffering or image freezing isn’t easy. Delivering a quality of experience (QoE) on par with linear TV broadcast is the goal that OTT operators have long been striving toward.
One of the reasons OTT offerings haven’t been as successful as they could be is the consumer experience in the home. A big complaint about internet-protocol video in its early days was that it was tailored around a second-screen experience (mobile phones, tablets, laptops) and wasn’t a good experience on TV (or wasn’t available at all on TV). For IP to be viable as a main delivery point, viewers needed a set-top box, which the industry thought would eventually be replaced by smart TVs. But that hasn’t happened. Smart TVs are terribly fragmented, with different brands supporting different apps and giving viewers different app experiences.
Set-top boxes are here to stay. Their presence in the home makes it more difficult for consumers to switch to an alternative IP service, giving incumbent providers an advantage and a means to keep OTT providers out of the market for primary screen devices. The success of YouTube TV, for example, has been limited by its app-based functionality. Consumers don’t want to have to set up apps to work on their TVs or worry about which apps their TV supports to watch their favorite shows.
To increase their market share, OTT providers need to fix the customer experience in the home by replicating the ease of use of a set-top, which viewers become accustomed to. If they’re serious about targeting the primary-screen market, that means shipping STBs. They don’t need traditional custom-made STBs because they don’t need special RF connections. It could be an off-the-shelf Android TV box with the app preinstalled and everything set up so that the consumer simply plugs it into their TV, turns it on and it works.
The other major challenge to making IP as reliable and feature-rich as traditional broadcast video is latency. Viewers expect a consistent low-latency experience. When they change channels, they expect them to change relatively instantly. They don’t expect to have to wait for a stream to buffer. This is particularly important for live content like live sports — a key reason why viewers subscribe to traditional TV packages.
A range of technology advancements can reduce latency, including lower latency encoding techniques, lower latency player techniques, more aggressive buffering and using smaller group of pictures (GOP) sizes and segment sizes.
There’s currently a lot of noise around using WebRTC as a protocol rather than joint segmented HTTP delivery, which would give OTT providers much more control over content delivery. Traditional STBs operate on streaming rather than segmentation, which means they don’t have to worry about segmenting video or using multiple bit rates. With HTTP/3 support for WebRTC, this could be made available to OTT providers, which would be a game-changer for both latency and reliability.
CDNs — Public, Private or Hybrid?
Most OTT providers use public CDNs, but if a provider builds its own CDN — either by rolling out its own network or introducing its caches into network providers it partners with — it can achieve much more granular control over how the CDN operates and performs. If they’re using a public CDN, they have no control over how close their cache is to the customers that are important to them, how they’re configured or other variables that affect latency.
Another benefit to a private or hybrid CDN approach is the ability to monitor and analyze the CDN’s performance and content data. Monitoring the entire system — from ingest to multi-bit-rate encoding all the way to delivery — can help OTT providers design and configure their CDN in a way that lowers latency and makes it more reliable and successful overall.
To differentiate themselves and compete on a more equal footing with the incumbents, OTT providers must fix the customer experience in the home and take advantage of technological advancements to achieve lower latency delivery. Whoever figures out how to achieve this in the most economic and efficient way is most likely to be crowned the winner.
Kyle Goodwin is vice president, Product and Innovation at Vecima Networks.