How to Choose a Live Streaming Schema
Whether you want a provider to handle everything or want to add cloud transcoding and packaging to an existing workflow, these are the questions you need to ask.
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Viewers are watching more and more streaming video on mobile devices, which imposes two realities on all streaming producers. First, you have to deliver adaptive bitrate (ABR) video, so you can delight those watching over high-bandwidth connections, while providing an adequate experience to those viewing over cellular. Second, though it’s possible to deliver one format of ABR packaging to computers and mobile devices, most publishers use two or even more: HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) or MPEG-DASH to desktops, and HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) to mobile. I look at how to meet this challenge for VOD content in “Encoding and Delivering to Multiple ABR Formats” (see page 168). In this article, I look at the implications for live streaming.
Live event producers have two basic approaches for producing and delivering multiple ABR packages: You could purchase an expensive encoder/transcoder and provision sufficient outbound bandwidth to encode onsite and deliver all streams to the cloud for distribution. Or you could send a single stream out to the cloud for transcoding into the multiple files in your adaptive group, which are then packaged (or "transmuxed") into the necessary ABR packages. If you’re streaming 24/7, owning your own gear often makes economic sense. For most other producers, cloud transcoding is likely the way to go.
In this article, I explore the cloud transcoding/ packaging options available to two classes of live event producers. The first class simply wants to hand off all live streaming tasks, from transcoding to player creation to video delivery, to a third-party service provider. The second has an existing live streaming workflow, or wants to build one, and simply wants to acquire cloud transcoding and packaging to insert into that workflow. For members of each group, I identify the class of service providers they should consider, and identify some options and differentiating features.
Before getting started, let’s briefly identify the steps in the live event production workflow that must be performed, either by you, or by a service provider on your behalf. This will help differentiate the alternatives discussed below.
Onsite production. This is the audio/video creation step and includes obtaining the necessary A/V gear and the operators to run it.
Onsite encoding. Taking the signal from the camera or video mixer and encoding it for delivery to the cloud. Signal transport. Delivering the encoded signal to the cloud for transcoding and packaging. Transcode/packaging. Transcoding the incoming stream into the different quality levels and packaging them for playback on the various target platforms.
Origin server. Providing a server for viewer access of the streams.
Delivery. Delivering the streams to the viewers, typically via a content delivery network (CDN).
Player development and maintenance. Creating the player used to view the live stream and to interact with the producer, other viewers, and social media. This element is both critical and complicated, because it involves achieving and maintaining compatibility with all target PCs, mobile devices, and other platforms.
Now that we know the components of a live event, let’s examine your service-provider options.
Live Streaming Service Providers
Profile: Your organization is using video as a tool, rather than a product or service. You want to stream one or more live events and you’re looking for a service provider to input your single live stream, then transcode, package, and deliver the video to your target viewers.
Best match: Your best match will be one of a group of companies roughly called live streaming service providers (LSSP). This diverse group includes Ustream, Livestream, DaCast, and YouTube Live, companies that make it simple for nontechnical users to stream to the masses. Some traditional online video platforms (OVPs) also offer live streaming services, and Wowza recently launched the Wowza Streaming Cloud, a flexible service that will be relevant to a broad base of potential users.
All services input your live streams, transcode and package them, and then deliver them to your viewers. Most create a page on the service where viewers can watch the stream, while also allowing you to embed the player on your own or third-party sites. Basically, you supply the input stream and they do the rest.
For the record, I should note that Livestream doesn’t perform live transcoding, so you have to encode and deliver all streams to the service that you want to distribute to your viewers. I include Livestream in the article because it has some interesting features and is one of the best-known companies in the space.
This pricing model from DaCast is pretty typical of those offered by the LSSP group.
How to choose a service: Here are the key questions to help identify the best solution for your organization.
What are my support options and what do they cost? Free is good, until there’s a problem at the live event you’re producing and there’s no number to call. This simple reality removes YouTube Live from the equation for many producers. With other services, check the support level available for each pricing tier, and give precedence to services that offer phone support during the times you’ll be broadcasting.
What’s it going to cost? Both classes of users will have to bone up on their spreadsheet skills to differentiate between the service providers. In this class, factors that affect pricing include broadcast hours, GBs of video transferred, and viewer hours. Significantly, Livestream is one of the few service providers that offers unlimited pricing on some plans. If you’re concerned that an event going viral could break the bank, this makes Livestream a very attractive option.
Can I use my own branding? Some systems don’t let you disable their branding, which makes sense for a totally free service. Other systems offer a “white-label” player that you can brand as your own at certain commitment levels.
How is the user experience? Does the player offer DVR functionality, so the users can pause the stream to take a break? Does the player enable chat, comments, and access to social media? How does the feature set change, if at all, if the video is watched on an embedded player as opposed to the player on the service’s website? Beyond branding, how much can you customize the player to integrate its appearance with your own website?
What are my monetization options? If you plan to monetize your video, be sure to check the available options. For example, DaCast is one of the few service providers that offers pay-per-view capabilities. Others offer advertising insertion support. If monetization is critical to your live event, get that on the table early.
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