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Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

Video service providers have become enamored of adaptive bit rate streaming as a way to deliver video to tablets and smartphones, but not everyone believes the technology will become the primary way video is delivered to the home.

HTTP Adaptive Streaming (HAS) "is not ready for primetime TV," declared Pieter Liefooghe, chief solution architect and solution line manager at the video solutions and integration organization of Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), during a panel on the topic at last week's Managing & Monetizing OTT Video event in Boston. HAS is "okay for a single-stream, OTT-style of service, but as a basis of a primetime TV service, it's a challenging proposition," he added.

Adaptive streaming, which chops video files into small chunks, is used to keep a stream flowing even as bandwidth levels fluctuate. That adaptive nature, in turn, means that the requirements of the network can be relaxed (a bit) and still deliver a high-quality video, compared to more traditional IPTV systems that rely on Real-Time Transport Protocol (RTP) and require more stringent architectures that guarantee QoS all the way to the set-top box. (See Cable Adapting to Video's Streaming Future.)

Liefooghe said HAS can become unstable as multiple streams are delivered to the same customer, noting that the technology tends to be "too fair" in its use of bandwidth to the point that an iPad could end up getting a higher-quality video stream than the home's primary TV.

And HAS can suffer delay issues. While a traditional IPTV stream might see a 10-second delay, a HAS stream could experience delays of up to 50 seconds. That might be okay for some linear TV shows, but for live sports "that's a painful delay," he said.

Also, HAS isn't terribly bandwidth efficient. In tests conducted on a 6Mbit/s DSL line, for example, he said AlcaLu found that the highest-quality video that could be achieved with "default" technology was 1.6 Mbit/s to 1.8 Mbit/s.

But this doesn't mean HAS will never be suitable for primetime TV, as the shortcomings identified by Liefooghe relate to "out-of-the-box" HAS technology. He said, for example, that AlcaLu has identified some technologies and techniques that can be done on the routing platform and the content delivery network (CDN) to boost HAS performance enough to address some of its technical shortcomings. And he insisted there are ways to pare delays down to six seconds while still guaranteeing continuous playback.

"There's a future for HAS as the new RTP," Liefooghe concluded.

EchoStar Corp. LLC (Nasdaq: SATS), for one, would agree. Adaptive bit rate streaming serves as the bedrock of a bring-your-own-rights, multi-screen OTT video platform that it's pitching to ISPs. (See EchoStar Readies Over-the-Top Video Play.)

Adapting to the new streaming world
But adaptive streaming represents a sizable management exercise. For a deployment in Asia/Pacific for VoD and live, linear content, SeaChange International Inc. (Nasdaq: SEAC)'s workflow system puts those streams into 24 different formats before storing them on a CDN for delivery, said SeaChange CTO Steve Davi.

And if the video itself is being broken down to chunks of two to 10 seconds each -- depending on whether it's processed using the Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) or Adobe Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ADBE) adaptive streaming platforms -- service providers will be confronted with "millions and millions of fragments" that must be catalogued and managed, said Robert Scheffler, distinguished member of the technical staff at Motorola Mobility LLC .

"But as bleak as the numbers might look, it is being done," Davi said.

Still, some service providers may want to hold off on HAS and simplify how they deliver video to IP-connected screens in the customer's home, at least initially.

Rather than slicing and dicing the video further up the network for all manner of devices, screen sizes and resolutions, Suddenlink Communications is considering the use of home gateways from Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and other suppliers to transcode the primary video feed into formats that can run on iPads and other IP-connected devices. "We don't think that you can get away without having something at the edge of [the] network," said Eric Eby, director of video engineering at Suddenlink. [Ed. note: Eby didn't say if Suddenlink had made a commitment to buy or deploy video gateways from any particular vendor.]

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:29:12 PM
re: Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge

Here's a blog post from Moto's Gerry White that states the case for the technology, or at least some reasons why he thinks adaptive bit rate is better than multicast for IP video delivery.  I see another big vote in there for its use for second-screen apps.  Pretty clear that the technology is here to stay, despite some of its shortcomings (which apparently can be overcome)  as a service provider's primary way of delivering video to the home. JB


User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:29:11 PM
re: Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge


Like all things...tradeoffs.


Any form of Unicast traffic (which ABR is) has advantages over multicast in control simplicity and also complexity (since there are only 2 endpoints you can vary the controls more easily).  Multicast is better for places where traffic is oft sent over the same set of wires.

The former might be better on DSL (especially 6 Mb/s where chances of multiple copies of the same stream are low).  Whereas, you can't imagine individual streams of say the top 20 channels on a cable system.

No need to get religious - just use the right tools for the right jobs.




User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:29:09 PM
re: Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge

It's dangerous to see any technology as a panacea. Adaptive bit rate streaming won't solve everything, so the AlcaLu alerts were welcome, even if directed to some extent toward their CDN-based fixes. That said, Gerry "Dave" White pens a persuasive list of benefits. 

Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:29:07 PM
re: Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge

Despite the tradeoffs, ABR seems to be a good technology for some of these secondary screens. But the good news is that nothing is static here and improvements are already being made.  While some service providers are using ABR as part of their TV Everywhere strategies, I wonder if it will improve enough that cable operators might consider out-of-market OTT plays, if they can get the rights to do so , of course, and feel comfortable with dealing with the consequences of competing with their cable brethren. But that scenario still seems to be years down the road. JB  

User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2012 | 5:29:07 PM
re: Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge


<div style="color: #000000; font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 10px; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: #ffffff; margin: 8px;">

Yes, ABR gets talked about like it's a foregone conclusion and a panacea, so it's good to get these reality checks to recognize how it can or cannot be applied successfully. Still, the benefits do seem large and probably can be realized in the fine tuning. &nbsp;

The question I have is whether the whole IP video delivery ecosystem is going to get more fragmented and difficult or if it will coalesce into something that's more manageable. &nbsp;&nbsp;



User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:29:06 PM
re: Adaptive Streaming's Primetime Challenge

oww that was so cool

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