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Stream wars: The rise of the impatient user

(Image credit: Image Credit: Massive)

A long time ago, in a galaxy not too far from this one…

It is a period of civil war. Families gather together in evenings to bicker over who controls the evening’s entertainment. Rebellious youth, striking from hidden corners of the living room, have won their first victory against evil parental rule. During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal the household copy of the TV guide, unearthing secret plans to turn the channel to history documentaries. Pursued by the parental overlords, the brave rebels huddle together, custodians of the remote control that can save their evening and restore harmony to the family…

It’s fair to say there has been a disturbance in the force, and things have moved on from the entertainment consumption habits of old. “The Streaming Wars” are well and truly underway as a plethora of monthly subscription services jostle for each and every entertainment eyeball. Netflix surged into 130 countries en masse in January 2016, and partly due to the prominence of Netflix and other platforms like BBC’s iPlayer and Now TV, streaming overtook pay-TV services in the UK for the first time in 2018.

Netflix set the early benchmark for the OTT industry. First it bought, and then later self-produced a huge content library before going on to define the user experience with a slick interface and easily digestible features. The result is a standardised streaming on-demand binge model which has spawned multiple copies and become the norm for entertainment content.

If most of the past decade has been STREAM WARS: Attack of the (OTT) Clones, 2019 has been STREAM WARS: The (Content) Empires Strike Back. Disney+ launched in November and signed up more than 10 million people on its first day. That followed the launch of BBC and ITV’s joint BritBox venture, and moves from the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Apple and others, who all launched direct-to-consumer streaming platforms. NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max will also take-off next year. It won’t be long before everyone from established broadcasters, content owners, sports organisations, service providers and telcos join the imperial fleet’s worth of streaming services that are available, all boasting impressive back catalogues of content.

Lightspeed low-latency

As consumers, we have so much choice that we’re unlikely to stay loyal to a service that cannot satisfy our insatiable appetite for instant gratification. The buffering wheel has consequently become somewhat of a phantom menace for consumers - quite literally turning them off. Eighty-five per cent of viewers will give up streaming if their content is taking too long to load, and three-quarters will abandon a service altogether if they experience buffering issues several times. One study which involved biometrically tracking viewers’ responses when streaming content, found negative emotions to increase by 16 per cent and engagement to drop nearly 20 per cent when faced with buffering and poor streaming experiences.

Value for viewers is now less about how many hit shows they get for their monthly subscription, and instead, equates to an instant, buffering-free experience. That means that delivering content with low-latency and high reliability is now a crucial consideration for streaming providers.

Consumption habits are also changing. Not only do we expect low-latency content when streaming an on-demand series to our smart TVs, we now expect it all the time, even when streaming a live event from the other side of the world. One thing to come out of September’s International Broadcast Convention in Amsterdam, was the need for a solution that will perform in a range of different scenarios, is easy to configure, able to cope with sharp peaks in demand, scale effortlessly, and capable of performing at optimum levels at all times. This crucially includes during those high traffic volume, high pressure environments.

Those high traffic scenarios will only become further exacerbated by next-generation networks which will provide us with near-constant connectivity no matter where in the galaxy we are, and this means constant access to our favourite streaming platforms. A report from IHS forecast video streaming as the killer app for 5G. The deployment of next-generation networks will mean higher bandwidth and lower latency, which will support the growth in streaming over mobile. As a result, video streaming will account for 70 per cent of mobile network traffic by 2022.

The speed and performance of 5G will increase streaming popularity particularly in developing markets, which are often mobile-first. There are countless brands eyeing 5G video streaming as an opportunity to expand their global footprint into these new markets, by targeting mobile consumers. But this massive jump in streaming content on mobile devices further complicates the reliability challenge for rights holders and OTT providers, particularly when streaming live content.

Caching delivery network

Large numbers of global viewers live streaming on a range of devices can cause serious latency issues if the content delivery network (CDN) has not been built to handle this challenge. The number of requests can easily overload the origin server and cause it to fail. So how do you achieve low-latency when streaming? You build a CDN with an integrated caching policy.

Video distribution to a large number of devices, in different geographical locations and using different networks, typically requires a lot of bandwidth. However, by caching the content, it’s possible to deliver reliable streams to more viewers without increasing the load on the back-end. A well-known component of web domains, caching has evolved beyond simple website acceleration into the video streaming space, as a means of delivering content fast, on-demand and at scale.

Live streaming can be tackled simply and efficiently using caching. Using a technique called ‘request coalescing’, similar streaming requests can be handled together, meaning the origin server only sees one request – allowing it to run smoother when hit with a surge in demand. By successfully building out a CDN with an integrated caching policy, content providers can reduce latency and minimise or eliminate instances of the menacing spinning wheel. Scaling to new regions simply entails moving content as close to the end-user as possible via strategically placed points-of-presence, putting streaming servers exactly where they need to be to provide the best user experience and lowest possible latency.

A tailored content delivery system with a simple set-up also needs another feature to distinguish it from legacy solutions: flexibility. Avoiding vendor lock-in with a tech-agnostic, open source platform reduces the costs traditionally associated with upgrades and changes. It gives service providers the flexibility to adapt to shifts in viewer behaviour and demand, or scale to new regions and devices. Importantly, it ensures video can be delivered with low latency and high reliability.

To viewers, instant gratification means that content ‘just works’. They understand about the back-end systems and how content is delivered about as much as anyone understand midichlorians. For too long, the broadcast industry has equipped itself with rigid content delivery tools with which to manage vast volumes of data, leaving many service providers unable to effectively scale for peak traffic periods. What the broadcast industry needs is the same thing their audiences expect: a content delivery solution that just works. As the competition for direct-to-consumer success grows even more fierce in 2020, the only certainty in the streaming wars is that the rise of the impatient viewer shows no signs of slowing. Content is no longer king. Instead, reliable low-latency will dominate the galaxy.

Lars Larsson, CEO, Varnish Software