It wasn’t all that long ago when Zork, a text-based game where players would read a scenario and type in such thrilling commands as “open mailbox” and “turn on lamp,” was the king of online entertainment. The Internet has certainly come a long way. Now, not only is it home to millions of graphically rich applications and games, but it is poised to replace the traditional television experience.
By the end of this decade, the number of TV sets connected to the Internet is expected to reach 965 million, a nine-fold increase over 2010. Furthermore, TVs connected through streaming dongles and devices are predicted to reach 183 million by 2020. What’s more, almost 50 percent of household televisions across the globe will be watch online video or TV in some form by the year 2020, with subscriptions to a video on demand (VOD) package from roughly 200 million homes.
Consumers are Streaming More Video Content Than Ever
This means today’s audiences are consuming more streamed video content than ever, and are already feeling the pains of network congestion. Internet service providers (ISPs) are not able to maintain the bandwidth required to enable high-quality video streaming consistently. Now, ISPs and consumers are only beginning to see the complications the Internet bottleneck will bring, and 2020 is still six years away.
According to Cisco, by 2018, a whopping 84 percent of consumer Internet traffic worldwide will come from video, which is known to be the biggest offender for clogging the Internet. The numbers are clear. In the next five years, demand on the Internet as a result of the massive consumption increase of video will strain ISPs beyond their design.
Knowing this problem is coming, large network providers like Verizon and Comcast have entered into special agreements with their heaviest traffic producing customers, where for an additional cost, traffic from the service may be handled on the network with a higher or different priority. Although the exact nature of the agreements are confidential, and both sides claim the other is treating them unfairly, one thing is for sure: this is a complicated set of technical and business issues where simply increasing bandwidth capacity is unlikely to solve the problem.
Bandwidth isn’t Increasing at the Same Rate it Was
Tim Miller, Yahoo! Flickr’s director of back-end engineering, recently said that bandwidth isn’t increasing at the same rate it once was. Five to ten years ago, companies could count on a steady pace of bandwidth growth in their strategies, so it was easier to look to the future and see where they’d be in two years. Miller noted that this isn’t the case anymore, so companies like Yahoo! are turning to other solutions to solve the gap between available bandwidth and the bandwidth requirements for rich media and applications.
One of the major issues content delivery networks face is that consumers don’t understand why their video quality is poor. The development of capture (camera) and display (TV) technologies to showcase stunning video quality such as the new UHD 4K format, is far outpacing the back-end ability to provide it seamlessly in the home via streaming or download services.
So the problem facing Internet service providers is how to meet the high expectations from consumers without taking on a substantial increase in capex to add bandwidth. But all is not lost. There are solutions that just may prove to be salvation for the industry.
Reducing Video Bitrates May Ease Congestion
Reducing video bitrates is an obvious place to start. After all, if a service delivers less data, congestion is reduced. However, with a retina or 4K capable display in the palm of everyone’s hand, lowering the bitrates blindly will yield lower engagement and a poorer viewing experience altogether.
Another potential solution for improving user experience is to cache popular video files at the edges of the network. This process will ensure that a user chooses to stream a popular video, the file will come from the closest possible physical location instead of being retransmitted over the Internet backbone. For premium content, this is a cost-effective method, even when considering the cost of file storage vs. file delivery, as most of the video traffic will be generated by a relatively small number of popular files.
For several years, content delivery networks and digital distributors have been using adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR) to unburden the Internet, which works by detecting a user’s bandwidth and device capabilities in real time, then selects the appropriately sized video. When executed correctly, consumers are generally unaware of adaptive bitrate streaming.
Some common standards for adaptive bitrate streaming include MPEG-DASH, Apple HLS, and Adobe Dynamic Streaming for Flash. Because each video commonly requires up to 12 or more separate transcodes, there are additional costs for encoding and storage, but the benefits of streaming consistency over both low- and high-end connections often justifies the added expense.
Media Optimization: Best Quality Video at Smallest Size
The newest way to tackle controlling user experience over constrained networks is with media optimization. This approach takes a video file post-compression, analyzes its visual redundancies, then encodes the video at a reduced bitrate while maintaining the same perceptual qualities visible to the naked eye. The process is like squeezing a ball of clay to make it smaller; the clay itself takes up less space (like the lower bitrate), but hasn’t lost any of its mass (maintained visual quality).
Though techniques for squeezing the file vary, provided the process measures perceptual quality in a closed loop, media optimization can reduce a file size through lowered bitrate by as much as 20 to 50 percent without sacrificing the original quality. Media optimization is already on the mind of major motion picture studios in the industry, including Sony Pictures. Glen Marzan, VP, Information Technology Production Services & Studio Operations at Sony Pictures Entertainment, has stated that:
Optimization for us is about getting the best quality file at the smallest possible size. The optimization for us is critical.
While most players in the digital distribution and delivery ecosystem tackle the issue of congestion by utilizing one of the following solutions like media optimization, adaptive bitrate streaming and caching, the opportunity to expand across multiple approaches should be considered. As the consumer is now exposed to increasingly higher quality video, it is incumbent on the industry to pursue every possible option for delivering smaller files but with the highest video quality possible.