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Operators Are Perfectly Positioned to Win the Streaming Wars

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The growing ubiquity of OTT streaming services has redefined user expectations for modern media offerings and accelerated a wholesale shift in the traditional Pay TV landscape. The key word is access; consumers want access to a wide availability of content across an array of devices, and they want to access the highest quality of experience when they receive their entertainment services. However, this fragmented approach to media consumption doesn't come without its own challenges. Those looking to launch such services must ensure their strategies align with new market realities. 

Operators have been making their Pay TV offerings and content line-ups available across a broader set of devices and users by taking advantage of streaming technology, including launching new streaming-only services. Delivering a user experience that enables consumers to access relevant and personalized content means that discovery and aggregation is fundamental.

The strong relationships that operators have with both content owners and their subscribers put them in the perfect position to offer a complete range of content. They can become true "super-aggregators" for all media services, removing the need for consumers to hunt between apps to find relevant content. For operator TV platforms, the opportunity to provide a super-aggregated platform could also enable a single, convenient location for content and billing, leveraging the trust and relationship with both the operator and the consumer. However, there are several technical hurdles operators must first overcome before they can legitimately assume the role of super-aggregators. Most importantly, they must ensure optimization of the entire audio-visual pipeline.   

Addressing the Streaming AV Chain

Today's expectations for live content have been set by traditional experiences of watching content over dedicated broadcast chains that leverage high-quality dedicated infrastructure, such as broadcast, cable, and satellite. For non-live content, user expectations are set by the flexibility they have from SVOD platforms, combined with the ability to shift seamlessly between live and non-live.

In the case of both live and on-demand content, these expectations are continuing to shift further. Consumers want access through various types, each carrying hugely varying capabilities, screen sizes, and connectivity. This shift means the streaming experience must deliver on all of these expectations and provide a great end-user service to paying subscribers. 

To realize this level of streaming service, the entire media processing and delivery chain must have reliability, scalability, low latency, and quality. The streaming AV chain must also provide the operator with the agility to enable fast service and feature rollout, cost efficiency, content security & rights enforcement, and live, on-demand, pause, and catch-up capabilities.

Reliable Low Latency

Smart TVs and connected devices now account for more than half of all streaming hours viewed. Streaming has moved from being purely a delivery mechanism for small devices to become more about the main screen for both on-demand and live content. The expectation from both TV service operators and consumers is now for the service to 'just work.' The reliability of the entire streaming media workflow is now a high priority, from preparation to processing, through to distribution, and even in ensuring in-home issues are considered. Automated monitoring of service reliability and client experience shorten the feedback loop to resolving issues. At the same time, cloud-native technologies can help prevent these issues from occurring in the first place through automation and component self-healing characteristics. 

For socially active live content, particularly live sports, end-to-end video latency is one of the key differentiators between streaming and traditionally delivered services. The first generation of OTT live technologies could have up to 60 seconds of latency. With social media and new push messaging from the likes of sporting apps, this could mean finding out about a goal a minute before you saw it. For streaming to become a viable alternative to traditional broadcast delivery, the end-to-end latency needs to be in the same ballpark. Technologies to reduce live latency are available, either using standards-based approaches (such as CMAF LLC and HLS-LL) or through proprietary approaches.

Delivering Quality Content at Scale  

By 2023, 66% of connected flat-panel TVs will be capable of 4K. Along with the increasing use of TVs for streaming, this is driving the demand for higher resolution content, but in turn, is driving up the bandwidth required for each viewer. 

When it comes to encoding and compression, live content requires significantly more optimization than file-based non-linear services simply due to its real-time nature. Compression research for current codecs can improve quality for a given bitrate (or conversely reduce bitrate for the same quality). MediaKind research shows a 10% year-over-year decrease in bitrate requirements, and therefore associated cost.

New codecs have the scope to improve the achievable quality/bitrate further. Versatile Video Codec (VVC) and Essential Video Coding (EVC) have the potential to reduce the bitrates available today with HEVC, with VVC currently expecting to see around a 40% bitrate saving over current codecs. The implementation of new codecs is made simpler in a streaming environment through the flexibility of clients and the ability to introduce them to subsets of the audience depending on device availability.

One of the biggest challenges experienced when transitioning to a streaming service is dealing with the unpredictability of scaling a solution for the potential peaks in traffic caused by live events. This is especially true in operator use cases, where their networks' capacity at every stage needs to be considered and the costs for scaling of unicast traffic via operator CDNs.

As more live content moves from broadcast to streaming, inevitably, the peaks in demand for traffic also increase. Today, the level of streaming in large multi-network events is still small compared to the total viewership. However, this is changing rapidly. The 2021 Super Bowl saw 96.4 million total viewers on CBS in the US, with 5.7 million viewers per minute streaming—an increase of 65% from last year's 3.4 million. With this growth rate, the Super Bowl peak in streaming traffic could increase by around 10x in under five years. 

The adoption of high-performance in-network caching, in addition to augmentation through external cloud-based delivery capacity, means these peaks can be supported in a more cost-efficient way. Additional technologies such as leveraging multicast capabilities within the operator's networks may also provide additional methods to deal with these delivery peaks for live content.

Full Stream Ahead for Operators  

The shift to streaming is driving a considerable transformation in the operator landscape, and this change can bring a closer alignment with web technologies. This has vast potential to enable faster innovation and the introduction of new offers to the end consumer. This change also goes hand-in-hand with the use of cloud-native technologies, enabling the decoupling from legacy dedicated infrastructure approaches, which increases product evolution while providing flexibility for hybrid deployments.

The migration to streaming opens up a whole range of new experiences for the consumer and exciting business models for operators. The next chapter is to shift to cloud-native media components and media workflows. Operators are primed and ready to lead this change.

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

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