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The Interoperability Challenge: Is OTT Ready for Standards?

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Without the companies sharing information for the betterment of the industry, one scenario that could happen is to have a federal regulatory body, like the FCC in the U.S., step in and force standardization. In the young and maturing OTT and online video market, that might be disastrous. “I hope that the government doesn’t get so involved in trying to legislate things in a market that is so young,” says Joe Inzerillo (below right), executive vice president and chief technology officer of BAMTech. “It needs time to breathe and that innovation to mature. Folks participating in the OTT space, by and large, are super focused on trying to deliver to their customers and fans. What regulation would possibly help?”

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

This leaves an alternative—the industry must come together and collaborate, to share ideas, to build the best practices, specifications, and standards that would create more interoperability. Of course, that only makes sense when the area of collaboration is one where everyone benefits. “I think that people have to choose to work together,” says Inzerillo. “There are times where collaboration is important and the collaboration is such that the ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’ But there are also times where people are innovating, and collaboration slows them down or strengthens their competition.”

So when does everyone in the industry benefit from collaboration? When the area of technology—for example, the IP stack or how the network scales—has become commoditized, when innovation has slowed down, and when there is little competitive differentiation gained through that component. According to Zubchevich: “Ultimately, as everybody is solving different pieces of the OTT puzzle, interoperability isn’t a priority—building pieces of the workflow, technology chain, etc. No one was really looking at it. As the business matures, as OTT services become a little bigger, interoperability will become important because you’ll have all these technologies that need to work together. Every time you can make something simpler, easier, and less complex, it’s a good thing.”

Without standards or guidelines (call them “soft standards”) available, the industry itself must come together and collaborate to create the specifications that address commoditized elements of the value chain. When that happens, there’s a significant upside. First, costs can be reduced. Rather than building and maintaining expensive customized solutions for non-differentiating components, companies can save money by building against proven standards or guidelines. Second, companies can bring services to market more quickly when they are based on standards or best practices. Finally, there’s the opportunity to create consistency of experience for consumers across providers. When things operate in relatively the same fashion—consistently, reliably, and with high quality —adoption will explode.

So how does collaboration happen? It’s mainly through industry forums and organizations such as the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers, the Consumer Technology Association, the Streaming Video Alliance, Ultra HD Forum, Alliance for Open Media, etc. By providing an open place for engineers to collaborate, such as specific working groups focused on commoditized areas, these forums engender an ethos of transparency as participants work together to create solutions to critical challenges from which they will all benefit. But if the only thing these forums provided was a place for engineers to come together, they would be nothing more than glorified meet-ups. No, these forums are also about design and development. As the collaboration moves from conversation to paper, the goal becomes not only about sharing, but also about documenting. Companies, sometimes direct competitors, work together to create the specifications, best practices, or standards. “You get the right people, who are committed to transparency and trying to advance the whole industry forward, in the room together and you can come out with some pretty powerful documents that will help shape the way things evolve,” says Inzerillo. “Hard standards and soft standards are important to what we need to do.”

And, finally, many of these forums promote the proof-of-concept process, where a group of companies puts the documentation into practice to demonstrate to the market how component operation can be accomplished based on the designed specification. This is exactly what’s happening in forums like the Streaming Video Alliance—three competitors in the watermarking space (Irdeto, Verimatrix, and NexGuard) are all collaborating on a best practices document for forensic watermarking.

But without some regulatory body forcing standards, is there impetus for adoption? Again, when the component around which the specification, best practice, or standard is designed doesn’t provide competitive differentiation, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” “Content Provider A is not going to win one more subscriber over Content Provider B based on the IP stack they are using,” says Inzerillo. “They are going to win based on the merits of their content.” Hofmann echoes that sentiment: “They [the video distributor] have to think that it is a net benefit for them. They must believe it’s in the best interest of the company. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any downsides, but the benefits outweigh the downsides. Building off a standard simplifies their workflow, reduces their cost, increases their revenue, doesn’t give away too much secret sauce, and doesn’t cost too much to implement.”

Still, adoption won’t happen overnight, and it will take significant momentum to drive everyone to adopt these specifications, best practices, or standards. Either a major industry player will adopt and influence the smaller players (we may see this as a result of Apple’s decision to support HEVC), or lots of industry players all at once will spur mass adoption. And what’s the result when providers begin to build video streaming workflows based on agreed-upon specifications, when they encapsulate interoperability into the very DNA of their service? Stability. And through stability will come the acceleration and completion of the generational shift we see in television today.

The OTT market is at a very precarious point. It’s young. It’s immature. It’s in a state of flux as rapid innovation determines the direction and shape of how video is delivered, monetized, and measured. And as video distributors work to bring the highest level of value to their subscribers, they can’t take the chance of waiting for standards to tell them how to do it. They need to build solutions that meet their needs today with the technologies available to them. With that said, though, as the BART example illustrates, building against the grain can have long-term, negative impacts.

What the industry needs isn’t necessarily standards, but more transparency, more best practices, more guidelines that can help direct the way things should be built. Why? “Companies are greedy,” says Rayburn. “They are doing what’s in the best interest for themselves and their business. Why would they adhere to standards that only bring their competition closer?” As more companies leverage available best practices, produced by collaborating engineers from within those very companies and deployed by industry giants or a mass number of smaller companies, interoperability will increase and improve, leading the industry to a point in the future where standardization will seem only natural for those components that don’t provide competitive differentiation. Still, to reach that point we must have an industry that’s ready to be transparent, and we are only just embarking on that long journey.

[This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "The Interoperability Challenge."]

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