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How Do You Spell Over-the-Top Streaming Success?

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But what really distinguishes NeuLion from other providers is the comprehensive nature of its platform. The company seems to behave more like a traditional cable operator. It isn’t providing an “out of the box” solution and leaving content owners to their own devices. Rather, its service is tightly coupled with human intervention, which provides a more hands-on approach with their customers’ viewers. In addition, NeuLion monitors quality from multiple angles. It not only looks at the player itself but also keeps tabs on the networks through which content is being delivered and makes on-the-fly adjustments as needed (e.g., switching between CDNs midstream depending on performance).

Player Analytics Platform: Youbora

Nice People at Work’s Youbora analytics platform attempts to clarify online video quality but from a different angle. Rather than offering a host of different features for content owners to deliver their video, Nice People at Work is focusing purely on the quality challenge. Its Youbora service is an agnostic engine for examining player-level data about video stream quality.

Similar to NeuLion and other competitors in the market, Youbora enables automatic CDN switching based on aggregate analysis-of-stream-performance data. The customer sets thresholds for specific metrics, and when those are exceeded, traffic is moved from one CDN to another. What makes the Youbora platform interesting is its “tracking screen”—a feature that enables customers to drill down into individual user sessions to view specific quality metrics.

The Devil Is in the Details

It’s becoming clear that online video quality is a problem that requires tackling, and a host of companies have jumped into the market. NeuLion and Youbora aren’t the only games in town—incumbent Conviva and upstarts DLVR and Cedexis (which has recently begun to offer analytics for video streaming) are demonstrating the need for deep and meaningful insight into real user experiences with video consumption. But there is a fundamental problem that can’t be solved with online video, and that’s time.

Right now, some online video quality startups (such as Youbora) can collect data about every 5 seconds. However, it takes time for that data to be sent back to a server (for collection), processed, and then analyzed. Youbora claims that it can display video-quality data every 60 seconds. But is that too long? Research has shown that users will abandon a video long before that length of time. According to a paper published by professor Ramesh K. Sitaraman of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst in 2012, viewers will start to abandon a video after 2 seconds of delay, with 6 percent leaving each second after that. Cable operators, on the contrary, don’t have that kind of delay. Because they have visibility to the set-top box in real time, they can immediately troubleshoot video problems when the user contacts them. But the user may have already abandoned the online video before the problem is even noticed.

Scale: The Ultimate Problem With Online Video Quality

Although there are a growing number of companies looking to solve the challenge of online video quality, the problem may ultimately not be one technology can solve. Consider the following example: A Youbora customer notices a particular user is having problems with a stream. The content owner matches the username with an email address and then reaches out to the customer to troubleshoot or offer a refund or credits. How many times can a content owner legitimately do that in an hour? A day? A week? Remember, there are thousands and thousands of users consuming a stream. Most content owners simply aren’t staffed to handle dealing with customer complaints 24/7/365. This challenge of scale is something that providers such as NeuLion recognize. “The ability to continue to scale to continually growing volumes (similar to broadcast) for live events that are delivered in the highest quality, in up to 4K, is one of the long-term challenges to widespread online video adoption,” says NeuLion’s Wagner.

Achieving High Quality

Ensuring “broadcast quality” isn’t easy. In the linear TV world, cable operators have tools that enable them to see down to the individual set-top box. They can diagnose problems, reboot the technology, and see signal-level details all from monitoring software installed in their network operation centers. This provides them with significant insight and capabilities to provide the highest level of quality for their broadcast signals. But what do OTT and online video providers have? Yes, they have technology that they can deploy into the player (the new set-top box) that provides them insight into stream quality, in some cases to the individual stream level. But that data isn’t available fast enough. And content owners definitely aren’t staffed to handle dealing with customer complaints the way cable operators are.

Yes, people will continue to consume online video. Cisco predicts that by 2018, 75 percent of mobile internet traffic will be video. But just because more people are consuming more online video doesn’t mean they are going to give up their traditional pay TV service, especially when there’s no way to guarantee quality.

In order for OTT to become the de facto standard of how people watch video, a lot has to change—business models (to support around-the-clock monitoring and customer care), technology (real-time aggregation and analysis of individual stream-level data), and the industry itself (agreeing on the definition of what “quality” means for online video). As Nice People at Work’s Strutner says, “The complexity that is currently involved with streaming online video content will need to decrease. And I think there is a rather simple fix for this: Vendors in our space must learn to work together and put our customers (the content owner, and their customers, the end users) first.”

Perhaps the ultimate issue with the widespread success and adoption of online video is about the way we are approaching quality— from the inside out (stream to user) rather than from the outside in (user to stream). For the industry to reach a tipping point, we need to start tackling the problem of quality from the user’s perspective, to really see the player as the new set-top box, and, perhaps most importantly, to implement industrywide standards around QoE (and QoS). Until we can get everyone working from the same playbook, users will never have a consistent, broadcast-quality experience from one OTT provider to the next. And they’ll keep turning back to the source that meets their quality expectations—the TV.

The SVA Pushes for QoE Standards

The Streaming Video Alliance (SVA), established in 2014, has set out to provide some standardization to online video quality. “We believe that there are four key metrics to measure,” says Thomas Edwards, chair of the SVA’s working group on quality of experience (QoE). “Video start time (in seconds), rebuffering ratio (in percentage), average bitrate (in bits per second), and video start failure (yes or no). Together, these metrics not only tell us when something wrong is happening with the experience of watching online video but, ultimately, the direction we need to look to fix it.” The SVA, as a relatively young industry forum, is tilling some hard ground. “It’s not easy to get everyone to agree even on the definitions of these metrics,” says Edwards. “So we have to start at the beginning. We have to take a step back and ask the hard questions before we can even attempt to take steps forward in defining the online video experience.”

This article originally ran in the June 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “How Do You Spell OTT Success? Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y.”

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