Industry Perspectives: Fast-Forwarding to the Video Web of the Future

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Ever since it was first mooted, video-on-demand has been lauded as a bountiful source of income for content owners, broadcasters, distributors, and retailers. Consumers eagerly lapped up the possibility of vast archives of free, high-quality TV and film favourites for them to choose between at any time—the ultimate remote control, as it were.

Today, video services are driving exponential growth in internet traffic volumes. It’s easy to see why, as a single DVD movie is roughly equivalent to 1,000 MP3 file downloads or 100,000 webpage views. Having initially accepted low-quality small screen videos, the public now expects TV-quality content without delay. With HD further raising their expectations, the big question is, “Will the internet be able to cope?”

The simple and worrying answer to this question is that, in its current state, the internet is a long way from being able to emulate the performance and economics of traditional broadcast television. Ten years ago, the internet was predominantly text-based with a few low-resolution images, and video was nowhere in sight. Fast-forward to today and our internet experience is vastly different. Now we are treated to a rich media experience, and increasingly video is thrown into the mix.

Continuing to use bandwidth in traditional terms is not going to work in the longer term. Dropped streams, poor performance, and constant buffering will all become an inherent (and unwelcome) part of the online viewing experience—fairly annoying if you’re watching the climax of a car chase in 24—and consumers will, most likely, simply switch off.

To get where we need to be, there are two significant problems to solve. Firstly, fault lines run through the internet economy today with financial flows not appropriately compensating all who have a crucial role to play in delivering video online. Secondly, with today’s internet traffic growth rates, we are racing headlong towards the inherent limitations of existing internet infrastructure.

The value chain for video delivery starts with the video content producers themselves. Typically, they will pay a content delivery network (CDN) provider to ensure that their content is accelerated and reliably distributed over the internet. CDN providers have deployed global private caching networks to accelerate delivery of content from its source to the north edge of regional internet service provider (ISP) networks. It is this final link, the access networks operated by telcos and ISPs around the world, where the economics break down.

The internet was designed to provide short-duration connections for delivery of webpages in seconds. If a page fails to load properly, it’s an inconvenience, but clicking the refresh button usually fixes the problem. For video, however, long-duration connections with the internet, lasting anything from a few minutes to several hours, are required. Thirty minutes into a video, clicking refresh to restart a video again is more than an inconvenience—it is unacceptable. The need to maintain a consistently high-quality connection for the duration of a movie or TV programme, together with growing internet traffic congestion, makes the technical challenge of delivering video over the internet, uninterrupted, an uphill battle.

Addressing these performance and economic challenges will require collaboration between CDN providers, ISPs, and major broadcasters. Only by working together will they be able to define new economic models and flows that ensure that all in the value chain are compensated for the role that they play.

From a technological standpoint, the quality of service disconnect that occurs when CDN providers hand off content to ISPs, to continue the delivery across their access networks to the consumer, needs to be bridged. For this, the distribution and caching capabilities of CDNs need to be extended across ISP access networks to provide end-to-end control over delivery performance.

This will allow ISPs to store local copies of popular content and service broadband subscriber requests directly rather than having to traverse multiple hops over congested and costly internet traffic lanes. The result is significant performance improvement and reduced costs.

Investment is required, but all parties have significant motivation to get this right. Broadcasters are fully aware that the success of their online services makes them primary drivers of traffic growth. They also appreciate that delivery quality of their services has a direct impact on consumer adoption. CDN providers realise that ISP access networks present a quality of service disconnect over which they have no control. And finally, ISPs are keen to extend the life of their infrastructure investments and are looking for ways to be included in the value chain so that they benefit economically for the vital role that they play.

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