Comment: Taking control of OTT delivery
Over-the-top (OTT) and TV Everywhere services using adaptive bitrate streaming technologies have created the biggest buzz in the telco and cable TV space since the introduction of IPTV.
It is not hard to understand why – the promise of services that adapt to the network environment of the customers, the possibility to deliver TV over unmanaged networks, and ease of deployment on tablets, smartphones and PCs.
From the infrastructure point of view it is also an attractive proposition. Delivery can be outsourced to Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), and, by using what are basically web technologies, great economies of scale are achieved.
Opportunity for growth
For a telco or cable TV operator, adaptive bitrate streaming technologies are the obvious way to create multiscreen or multiplatform services. Adding tablet or PC playback of channels for existing subscribers provides a competitive advantage. Of course, OTT services to new categories of customers are an additional possible positive outcome, as evidenced by the availability of pay ‘Play services’ across the globe. According to Digital TV Research, OTT revenue is expected to grow to US$22 billion (€17 billion) in 2016, up from US$3.5 billion in 2010. Of that sum, more than half is expected to be from pay services rather than advertising driven.
However, there are challenges to overcome for this multiscreen nirvana to materialise. It is important to understand that while OTT delivery is a straightforward concept, it is, in practice, in many ways more complex than traditional cable TV or IPTV. An example is the so-called “content explosion” of different profiles and player formats that must be generated at the headend. Given that a channel should be available in say five different bitrates, or profiles, and in three different formats such as HLS, Smooth Streaming and HDS, this means that a single stream has now become 15 separate streams.
These streams must be generated in the headend and then transported over the CDN to a diverse range of end devices through potentially thousands of edge cache servers. Outsourcing delivery to a CDN is the natural choice for many operators. Running a CDN and managing tens of thousands of servers requires a very specialised skill set. But as an operator, how can you take control of the delivered quality to each and every customer? Agreeing on terms for a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with the CDN is the first step. More important, the agreed metrics in the SLA must be verifiable by the operator. Simple statistics from the cache servers will only go so far, as they cannot reveal the actual playback experience in the customer-viewing device or player.
Sometimes we hear people equating high Quality of Experience (QoE) with adaptive bitrate streaming; the idea being that by having the player changing the bitrate up and down depending on network conditions, the customer will automatically receive a high QoE. This is an idea we believe is incorrect. Adaptive bitrate streaming certainly helps to make a service more robust, but service disruptions, such as jittery playback or inconsistent video and audio quality, can easily occur and, if left unchecked, will lead to dissatisfied customers.
Industry research has shown that service quality certainly is a key factor when selecting a video service provider. When an operator adds multiscreen to its offering, any quality issues on the second screen will reflect negatively on the total offering. A poor multiscreen service can thus increase churn instead of being a competitive advantage.
For that reason, we believe that operators should take the same strategic and proactive approach to service assurance on OTT as is now becoming standard operating procedure for traditional IPTV and cable TV services.
Having service quality assurance in place, which can monitor delivered quality to all devices in real-time directly and concurrently, enables an efficient, proactive and systematic approach to maximising customer satisfaction, thus lowering operational expense and securing revenue.
An investment in service quality assurance is simply good business sense.
Agama Technologies’ Johan Görsjö will be available to discuss quality assurance for OTT services on the company’s stand (H37) at ANGA Cable.