Streaming video has come a long way in just a short time. Compared to how long it took broadcast television to take root
and gain widespread adoption, online video has
happened in the blink of an eye. Of course, the
environment for adoption was different. When
TV first showed up, people had to buy their first
television sets. They had to believe that “moving
pictures” were better than the radio and make
what was an expensive initial investment. Today, people have a plethora of connected devices (smartphones, computers, tablets, STBs,
etc.) from which to connect to the video content
they want to watch. Coupled with the birth of
direct-to-consumer offerings (Netflix, Amazon
Prime Video, iTunes, etc.), online video has
exploded in popularity. Most recently, though,
consumer interest in online video has begun
to shift toward live streaming. From sporting
events to concerts to reality TV to eSports, demand has been steadily increasing over the
past several years.
But streaming video isn’t quite like broadcast
television yet. In many cases, an online stream
might be 30 seconds or even 2 minutes behind.
The resulting experience is anything but satisfactory for consumers. Imagine being connected to Twitter while watching a favorite sporting
event only to see tweets roll past about a big
event, like a goal, way before you actually see it.
The culprit? Latency.
As online video has moved away from proprietary formats (such as real-time messaging
protocol, RTMP, and real-time streaming protocol, RTSP) and more toward chunked HTTP,
the result has been disastrous—latency has increased 10-fold, if not more. But perhaps even
a bigger problem than that is a lack of industry best practices or standards on how to improve it. WebRTC. Websockets. Chunk sizes.
Although everyone is tackling the problem
as best they can, they are doing so inside of
their own walled gardens. So NBC Sports, for
example, may have a latency of a few seconds
for Olympic coverage, while another content
distributor may have minutes of latency for
a football match. This makes for a fragment-
ed consumer experience and, more impor-
tantly, a breakdown in trust. You see, people
trust broadcast television. Traditional cable
delivery just works. Sure, broadcasters have a
built-in delay but, from provider to provider,
the delay is the same. Consumers know what
It’s clear that this problem needs to be
solved, though, and given that most big stream-
ing providers utilize CDNs, that’s where the
innovation needs to happen for two reasons.
First, because the majority of video, according
to Cisco’s Visual Network Index Report, will
be delivered by CDNs. Second, because if the
CDNs improve their delivery latency, there’s
a better chance of it affecting multiple con-
tent distributors and, in essence, providing a
more consistent end-user experience regard-
less of where the stream originates. The ques-
tion, though, is whether or not the big CDNs
will be able to make the kind of changes in
the way they deliver content. Limelight Net-
works recently announced a buffer reduction
guarantee. Its ability to do so probably results
from very low-level TCP stack optimization.
And then there are newer entrants to the CDN
market, such as Instart Logic and PhenixP2P.
The latter has developed its own stack and de-
ployed it on top of Google’s infrastructure to
reduce latency for streaming to near zero.
Of course, there’s no silver bullet to solve
the latency issue. Delivery is critical, but even
incremental changes to workflow can add latency to the delivery, which makes solving the
problem not just a technology issue. It’s about
business processes. It’s about network relationships and peering. It’s about optimizations.
There are so many variables that can impact
latency, it’s difficult to chase them all down.
That makes delivering a great streaming end-user experience really hard. But it has to be
done, and it has to be done now, if streaming
video is ever going to replace traditional broadcast delivery.
Latency: The Final Frontier?
Jason Thibeault is the executive director of the Streaming Video
Alliance. Follow him on Twitter @_jasonthibeault.
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