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The Interoperability Challenge: Is OTT Ready for Standards?

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OTT viewership is growing day by day. More viewers are flocking to services like Netflix, Hulu, and Sling. In fact, some recent statistics have even claimed that online video viewership is overtaking traditional broadcast. Regardless of whether you believe all the hype, it’s clear that the television industry is in a state of transition—a generational shift, driven by economics and consumer behavior—from delivering video via video-specific RF-modulated systems to delivering it via IP both over the internet and over private networks.

But that state of transition leaves a lot of consumers wanting more. Online video isn’t like traditional TV broadcast. The reliability, quality, and consistency tend to be lower. Part of that is just a byproduct of a burgeoning industry. Think of online video as a teenager, undergoing monumental physiological and emotional changes while still trying to navigate a world with expectations. The pace of innovation is happening so quickly—with new codecs, technologies, and processes being implemented by video distributors in their march to meeting their viewers’ needs—that distribution solutions sometimes requires a little bubble gum and duct tape to make them work properly.

But part of where online video and OTT services are lacking is a result of companies in the space—content owners, CDNs, technology providers—going their own way. Of course, that’s entirely reasonable. Those companies need to provide value to their subscribers, who are demanding an anytime, anywhere, any device approach to online video consumption. The providers need to do whatever they can, however they must. That exposes a critical issue—what happens when the technologies change? Will companies have to rip and replace, wasting countless dollars and employee time to rebuild architectures and integrations to meet consumer requirements?

Of course, there’s no way to predict the future, so video distributors and broadcasters build what they can with what they have. But this line of thinking leads to a question: Would it benefit everyone involved, distributors and consumers, to have standardized components, or guidelines, for building OTT services? According to StreamingMedia.com executive vice president Dan Rayburn, it would: “When things are built according to best practices, or even standards, it enhances everyone’s business potential, creating not only more opportunities for revenue but a better experience for consumers as well.”

The Perils of Going It Alone

Let’s start by looking at an historical analogy—the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. When BART was built, it was intended to be both “space-aged” and “state-of- the-art.”

The engineers had imagined a system that other cities would envy, and in doing so, they created something that was truly revolutionary, something that no one had ever seen before. But there was a critical flaw—the entire system was built using non-standard components. For example, the track was a unique gauge (5' 6", compared to 4' 8.5"), which was considered a bold and compelling feature at the time. But that fateful decision led to a cascading string of other requirements including custom-made wheels, brake assemblies, and track repair vehicles. And finally, there’s the computer system that runs the entire operation. Back in 1972, when BART first opened to public travel, it was considered cutting-edge. But, today, even relatively minor software updates can cause system-wide crashes. And when that happens, it’s literally back to manual switching along the 104-mile line.

The consensus on BART is that it’s beyond end-of-life and is on life support. There’s little that can be done to fix the underlying problems except continue to fund bond measure after bond measure for the capital required to maintain a system that was originally designed for 100,000 per week, but now sees more than 400,000 passengers per day. Just imagine if the BART engineers had built their rail system according to the standards already established by the U.S. government for the railroads? Of course, they didn’t have to and they sought to “go their own way,” to build something that was uniquely different from what consumers might find in other cities (i.e., a municipal differentiator). But imagine if they had used a standard rail gauge. What if they had used other components already in place in rail systems throughout the U.S.? The service they offer today might be more stable, less costly to maintain, and ultimately might benefit the consumer more (by not having as many outages). Now imagine a broadcaster building a TV Everywhere solution or a pure-play OTT provider standing up a new service. They want to create something that is “state of the art.” They want to offer a service that is uniquely different. And to top it off, there are no standards or guidelines. No one is sharing what they have done. There is no government agency overseeing the entire system.

The Need for Blueprints

Traditional television is different. For decades, the FCC has regulated not only how broadcasters distribute their signal, but how they operate. And a host of standards have evolved, from a variety of organizations such as the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), that govern the minutiae of delivering broadcast video content—advertising, encryption, quality-of-service measurement, even the television itself. If you wanted to start a broadcast company today, there’s an accepted method—a blueprint, if you will—to get that done.

Not so for OTT. But that’s not to say that there is, or should be, a “standard” way of building an OTT service or delivering online video. “No one has mastered how it [building an OTT service] should be done. Until that becomes more standard, there are still multiple options to get it done,” says Keith Zubchevich, chief strategy officer for Conviva. “[There’s] not a single way yet, so people are going to keep exploring. Think about a mature OTT service. That’s maybe a 6- or 7-year-old business. It’s very infantile. There’s not much of a historical perspective on how it should be done. Until someone figures out which is the best way to do it, people will do it the way they feel it should be done.”

But there are components within OTT services, similar to the components in a municipal rail or television broadcast system, that can be standardized, especially as they approach commoditization. “I don’t think there will ever be a standard way to launch an OTT service, because it doesn’t naturally lend itself to standardization,” says Jason Hofmann, VP of network architecture at Limelight Networks. “But pieces of it may—like how you pay, or how content gets delivered—those components in which innovation has slowed down enough to warrant a standardized approach that may ultimately save costs, time, and drive up revenue.”

We need to keep in mind that the OTT market, and online video in general, is very young when compared with television. As an industry, OTT has only been around for 15 years at the most, and its foundational technologies haven’t been around for much longer. Consider that the maturity arcs of some television technologies, like ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 2.0 to ATSC 3.0, took decades. Putting rigid standards for online video in place now would only hold back the innovation that is driving the industry forward.

Still, interoperability is critical for the industry to mature. If things don’t work together, if companies continue to “go their own way,” to build what they need right now without regard for the future, then online video will continue to be a mess. Perhaps, then, it’s not standards that are needed right now but guidelines, best practices, and specifications—documentation that describes optimal methods for building commoditized components or processes of the online video value chain, documentation that isn’t rigid and fixed, but can be adjusted quickly and easily as innovation deems necessary.

Only creating those blueprints for components shouldn’t happen on its own, and it’s going to require the very culture of the industry to change. According to Rayburn, “vendors in our market just don’t share. They don’t talk about what they are doing or how they are doing it because they feel that all of the information they might share could potentially be used by a competitor. That ‘cult of secrecy’ hinders the growth of the industry for everyone.”

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