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Why Video Streaming Issues Aren’t Going Anywhere

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Video streaming is growing at an incredible rate. Over the last decade, streaming has quickly begun to replace traditional broadcast television, with services like Netflix, Hulu, Prime and more becoming household names. Not only has streaming chipped away at the amount of time consumers spend with television, it's even led to the phenomenon of cord-cutting, as more and more homes skip cable all together to watch content exclusively on internet-connected devices via streaming services.

Streaming has surged in 2020 driven by both the launch of massive new direct-to-consumer offerings such as Disney+, and the global pandemic that forced many around the world to stay home. According to Nielsen, in Q2 streaming video accounted for 25% of total television viewing minutes in the U.S., up from 19% in Q4 2019. At the same time, streaming video now accounts for 75% of all internet traffic and this growth is expected to accelerate in the coming years.

Despite this incredible growth, 75% of video viewing is still on legacy infrastructure like cable or satellite. Streaming still has a ton of room to grow. At the same time, video technology is becoming more advanced with 4K today, and 8K on the way, as well as virtual reality becoming more common. These formats mean much more bandwidth usage, which contributes significantly to network strain. In fact, a typical streaming 4K video can use 4-5x as much bandwidth as an HD stream. Meanwhile, it's important to remember that video isn't the only growing internet phenomenon. Streaming video games, video chat, video conferencing, and IoT devices such as doorbell cameras are all bandwidth-hungry applications that are becoming more popular. As our lives become more dependent on the internet, networks are going to struggle to handle all of this, and video streaming will suffer.

Why OTT Growth Will Hurt the User Experience

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns gave us a taste of the issues that will come with increased streaming usage. As people stayed home, they turned to the internet for communication, remote work and school, shopping, entertainment, and more, leading to unprecedented internet traffic growth. This put an enormous strain on broadband companies, which led to users across the globe experiencing connection issues including more streaming frustrations like buffering, low quality, or an inability to watch at all. In Europe, Netflix even slowed down users' streams to preserve bandwidth.

Streaming video has unique issues that cable doesn't, because is inherently more personal than it's television predecessor. Cable and satellite largely depend on broadcast technology.  Broadcast video sends out one transmission over a dedicated channel on the network and customers use their set-top boxes to ‘tune' to that channel. It doesn't matter if one customer or one million are watching the channel, it uses the same amount of bandwidth on the network.  Streaming, on the other hand, creates a personalized transmission (i.e stream) for each device that watches a video or stream. If three devices in the same household are watching the same program, three bandwidth-consuming streams are created, all competing with each other for bandwidth. 

This new way of distributing video presents a whole host of things that can go wrong. There can be issues in OTT streaming providers' video infrastructure, such as during the encoding and transmission of the video. More likely though, issues arise when the video has left an OTT's content delivery network and travels over the internet to the customer's device. Unlike the cable or satellite video with their dedicated bandwidth, internet traffic competes for bandwidth with everything else on the network (Youtube, Google Stadia, Zoom calls, etc). This includes home WiFi networks, which can be impacted by distance, neighboring networks, or high levels of activity from other devices in the home. Because streaming technology is more individualized, the more people that stream, the bigger the load on the infrastructure and the more likely these issues will occur. 

How the Industry is Accounting for Growth

Service providers are working to handle this increased traffic (and to prepare for its continued growth) in a few key ways. Firstly, they are working to improve broadband capacity by investing in upgraded fiber optic cables, better WiFi equipment and, most famously, the new generation of cellular technology, 5G. Making networks faster and boosting infrastructure will help networks handle more traffic and could improve users' overall experience.

New video codecs are also being used, such as HEVC, that improves streaming by making high quality video available at lower bitrates, so that they require less bandwidth usage. This helps people with slower internet speeds watch HD video without a great sacrifice in quality.

At the same time, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are expanding their coverage. CDNs are an essential part of the video streaming ecosystem. Storing content across the globe, closer to users, they make it so that when you stream, the file doesn't have to travel all the way from, say, Netflix's headquarters to your device. Instead the file can travel from Netflix's nearest CDN node, a shorter journey, so your video plays faster and more consistently. It's helpful to think of a CDN as something like an Amazon warehouse in your area that keeps popular items so that when you order toothpaste, it can arrive in two days or less, instead of taking a week to ship from Amazon's main supercenter further away. With more files stored closer to end users, streaming infrastructure is better equipped to handle a higher volume of viewership.

Why These Solutions Aren't Enough

Now it's time for the bad news. Despite these improvements and advancements, streaming problems aren't going anywhere. The bandwidth wave caused by streaming's growing share of video hours, new bandwidth intensive video formats and emerging applications like streaming video games will continue to overwhelm investments in network capacity. The streaming challenges of today will be the streaming challenges of tomorrow. 

OTT companies can't afford to simply rely on fiber, 5G and CDNs to solve all their problems. Fiber won't be built to every home and 5G's promises are overblown—while it will certainly help, 5G won't come close to erasing viewership issues. Not to mention that its rollout of superfast speeds will be slow and much of the world won't have 5G accessible for years to come. And while CDNs are growing to help the increasing demand for video, they'll also need to innovate with things like machine learning/predictive technology to handle the increasing load and complexity (Deloitte). 

The OTT industry needs to keep innovating to discover new ways to ensure that their video is delivered as quickly and reliably as possible in order to mitigate common frustrating user experiences that we all experience today. Because most users don't understand what causes streaming issues, they'll continue to blame OTT providers—and customer loyalty will be an impossible task.

[Editor's note: This is a contributed article from Penthera. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]

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