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Long in the Making, BitTorrent Live Is Finally a Reality

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In October 2010, Streaming Media spoke to Bram Cohen, BitTorrent’s chief scientist and the creator of the BitTorrent protocol, about his pet project: using peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to stream live video. While he wouldn’t comment on a release date, he knew that he was close to cracking it. He just needed to finetune some latency and packet loss issues and he’d have it.

“I’m trying to get it so all that video compression can be moved online, so that television will truly move to the internet,” Cohen said.

In May 2016, BitTorrent finally launched a live multichannel video app, debuting on Apple TV. Apparently, getting it just right took a little longer than Cohen expected.

“It’s a hard problem to solve. There were just a lot of little technical details in making it work,” explains Erik Schwartz, VP of media for BitTorrent.

For the past year, BitTorrent’s live video team focused on turning the protocol into a platform that broadcasters could get behind. The team focused on creating a tvOS version, as well as upcoming iOS and Android apps. The app has since launched for Fire TV as well. The team created a way to integrate the live platform with broadcast television workflows. They needed a reliable ingest solution and built-in redundancy in case one stream goes down. The reason people like live television is because they turn it on and it just works, Schwartz says. BitTorrent Live had to meet that level of expectation.

“We really wanted to … make a very robust system that traditional broadcasters would be comfortable sending their content out through,” Schwartz adds.

Lower Latency, Lower Costs

If it had launched in 2010, BitTorrent Live would have been a groundbreaking platform. In 2016, when we spend a huge chunk of our TV viewing time online and even massive live events typically work without a problem, it didn’t make much of a splash. Does the world still need a P2P live video solution?

“There are a lot of problems in live streaming. One of the big challenges is that it gets expensive pretty quickly,” Schwartz says. For every extra viewer, there’s an incremental extra cost. That doesn’t happen with television, where broadcasting a signal costs the same amount no matter how many people watch. That doesn’t happen with BitTorrent Live, either, which keeps costs reliably low (more on that later).

The other problem with live online video, Schwartz says, is that HLS relies on HTTP, which he notes is a 20-year-old text transfer protocol. Latency for live video starts at 30 seconds at a minimum, since HTTP uses progressive downloading. That’s an issue for second-screen viewers, who might view spoilers over their own social network accounts.

“In a world where people are consuming live television at the same time as they’re consuming a live event on another screen, say Twitter, you end up with the Twitter feed being substantially ahead of the TV stream,” Schwartz says. “Case in point, you’re watching the basketball game last night on a live stream and you’re watching the same basketball game on Twitter. You’re finding out that Steph Curry is ejected 45 seconds before you actually see it in the live stream. The whole point of sports on TV is the drama of not knowing what’s going to happen. If you read about what’s going to happen on Twitter a minute before it happens, that’s not a great situation.”

BitTorrent Live can beat that experience by offering 6 to 8 seconds of latency, Schwartz says. That’s about what viewers get with direct broadcast satellite, he adds.

The cost savings from BitTorrent Live come from the way P2P networks share content. With BitTorrent Live, the server only streams the live signal to 10 viewers. Everything after that is handled by peer-to-peer connections. That’s a huge reduction in how much data the host needs to push out. If an event has 100 viewers, that’s 90% offload, Schwartz says. If there are 1,000 viewers, that’s 99% offload. And if there are 10,000 viewers, that’s 99.99% offload. The live stream is split up and spread out exponentially. Even viewers in a large audience aren’t many hops from the source, he notes, and latency between peers is low.

BitTorrent’s sharing system is effective no matter where in the world viewers are. While the team thought that geography would be a limiting factor, that didn’t turn out to be the case. As long as viewers have a decent ping between them, Schwartz says, distance isn’t an issue.

The Workflow

In the BitTorrent Live workflow, the broadcaster creates a video feed from its studio, encodes it into a real-time messaging protocol (RTMP) stream, and sends it to the BitTorrent ingest server. The ingest server then distributes the stream to the first 10 peers. From the 11th viewer on, the live signal comes from other viewers, not BitTorrent. When a P2P client has multiple possible sources to draw from, it chooses the most robust one. If a stream starts to degrade, the client automatically pulls the stream from a better source.

That workflow could sound horribly insecure to broadcasters concerned about misuse of their premium video. All those P2P nodes could be piracy nightmares. But that’s not the case, Schwartz is quick to say: “This is actually probably more secure than the way they distribute video right now. First of all, all the video’s encrypted. Second of all, there’s no single point of failure because it’s broken up. There’s no one place to get it all; there’s no one peer uploading the entire video. It’s, in a lot of ways, more secure than, certainly, traditional cable.” The platform encrypts video with a pseudo random stream cipher, and only authorized users are given the decryption key.

Getting Beyond the Stigma

The broadcasters available on BitTorrent Live at launch were an interesting grab bag of smaller names, such as ONE World Sports, Heroes TV, and Clubbing TV. There are no basic cable names on the roster. This makes a viewer wonder if premium publishers are gun-shy about working with BitTorrent. Rightly or wrongly, the platform (if not the company) has become synonymous with online video piracy. Is that really the kind of company a major broadcaster wants to work with?

“The big broadcasters absolutely have an interest in it,” Schwartz insists. “We wanted to start off with some smaller ones to ease out into the real world. That said, the big broadcasters have notoriously long biz-dev cycles. Just ask any cable company, really. There’s a lot of blocking and tackling to do a deal with somebody like NBCU or Fox or ABC Disney. Those are deals that take a while to get done. We’re talking to everybody. You will see a lot more channels over the next 6 months to a year.”

So mark your calendars: This interview was conducted in mid-June. Let’s see if BitTorrent Live offers premium content (or announces premium content is in the works) by mid-December.

Premium publishers are looking for more and more distribution, Schwartz adds, and see BitTorrent Live as “just another distribution channel, like any conventional MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor].” It’s hard not to be skeptical, but the company’s file-sharing reputation is absolutely not a hindrance when attracting partners, he says: “There are clearly some people who completely conflate the open source protocol and the company. When you’re working with the level of people we’re generally working with at these companies, they understand the difference between the two. Lots of people use BitTorrent protocol to do lots of things. Some of those things are not good, but AWS [Amazon Web Services] enables BitTorrent in distributing stuff on S3 [Amazon Simple Storage Service]. Twitter and Facebook use it to distribute builds. It’s a tool, like HTTP, but more efficient. Once they understand the difference between the protocol itself, which is open source and anybody can use it for anything, and the company, which is a company that is predicated on using distributed solutions to solve hard internet problems, they don’t really have a problem with it.”

After this interview was conducted, BitTorrent added BitTorrent News to its lineup. It premiered the channel by streaming live video from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The company signed Josh Rubin, a CNN and Daily Dot news veteran, as executive producer. Each day of the convention, the channel streamed 10 to 12 hours of live coverage, with plenty of guest interviews. It’s a good addition to the lineup, but you can’t help but wonder if BitTorrent created its own news service out of necessity because it couldn’t attract a premium name to the platform.

The future of BitTorrent Live is all about connecting viewers with breaking events. Schwartz expects it to carry a lot more sports and be on many more platforms 1 year from now. Despite what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says, live linear isn’t dead, Schwartz believes. While scripted programing is better on demand, where viewers can create their own marathon sessions, there will always be a place for live, he says.

“There’s a large category of television that has to be linear and it has to be live,” Schwartz notes. “That really falls around things like news. It falls around events. It falls around sports. If you look back over the history of television, those kinds of things are A, amongst the most watched things in the history of television, and B, culturally important. They are touchstone events that bring us together: a terrorist attack, a sporting event, or other news events like awards shows. The stuff that really gets watercooler talk going are live shared events.”

[This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine.]

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