Opinion

The battle for eyeballs

Kyle Goodwin, Vice President of Product and Innovation, Concurrent.

As the battle for viewers intensifies, so does the need for OTT service providers to deliver the very best streaming experience to viewers across a whole host of devices. Today’s viewers want to sit down, turn the TV on and watch their favourite content – whenever and wherever they like.

This ties nicely into the offerings of OTT service providers and is driving traditional broadcasters to launch their own OTT offerings. However, delivering content to an ever-growing number of devices while maintaining a smooth video experience without latency, buffering or image freezing isn’t easy. Delivering a quality of experience (QoE) on a par with linear TV broadcast is the goal that OTT operators have long been striving towards.

One reason OTT offerings haven’t been as successful as they could be is the consumer experience in the home. In the early days, IP video was tailored around a second screen experience but didn’t offer a good linear experience. For IP to be viable as a main delivery point, viewers needed a set-top box, which the industry thought would eventually be replaced by smart TVs. But that hasn’t happened. Smart TVs are fragmented, with different brands supporting different apps and giving viewers different experiences.

STBs are here to stay. Their presence in the home makes it more difficult for consumers to switch to an alternative IP service, giving incumbent providers an advantage and a means to keep OTT providers out of the market for primary screen devices. The success of YouTube TV, for example, has been limited by its app-based functionality. Consumers don’t want to have to set up apps to work on their TVs or worry about which apps their TV supports to watch their favourite shows.

To increase market share, OTT providers need to fix the customer experience in the home by replicating the STB’s ease of use. If they’re serious about targeting the primary screen market, that means shipping STBs. They don’t need traditional custom-made STBs, because they don’t need special RF connections. It could be an off-the-shelf Android TV box with the app pre-installed and everything set up – so that the consumer simply plugs it into the TV, turns it on, and it works.

The other major challenge for IP is latency. Viewers expect a consistent low-latency experience and when they change channels, they don’t expect to have to wait for a stream to buffer. This is particularly important for live content like sports – one of the primary reasons viewers subscribe to traditional TV packages.

A range of technology advancements can reduce latency, including lower latency encoding techniques, lower latency player techniques, more aggressive buffering and using smaller GOP sizes and segment sizes. There’s currently a lot of noise around using WebRTC as a protocol – rather than joint segmented HTTP delivery – which would give OTT providers much more control over content delivery. Traditional STBs operate on streaming rather than segmentation, which means they don’t have to worry about segmenting video or using multiple bitrates. With HTTP/3 support for WebRTC, this could be made available to OTT providers, which would be a game changer for both latency and reliability.

Most OTT providers use public CDNs, but if they build their own CDN – either by rolling out their own network or introducing their caches into network providers they partner with – they can achieve much more granular control over how it operates and performs. If they’re using a public CDN, they have no control over how close their cache is to the customers that are important to them, how they’re configured, or other variables that affect latency.

Another benefit to a private or hybrid CDN approach is the ability to monitor and analyse CDN performance and content data. Monitoring the entire system from ingest to multi-bitrate encoding, all the way to delivery, can help OTT providers design and configure their CDN in a way that lowers latency and makes it more reliable.

To differentiate themselves and compete on a more equal footing with the incumbents, OTT providers must fix the home experience and take advantage of technological advancements to achieve lower latency delivery. Whoever figures out how to achieve this in the most economic and efficient way is most likely to be the winner.