Battling Startup Video Buffering

Buffering can have many causes: a bad CDN, a poorly engineered app or a subpar device, to name a few. But even the best content on the most sophisticated streaming app can be bamboozled by poor connectivity. Which means that almost all users will sometimes experience buffering when watching video, especially on mobile devices.

A poor WiFi or cellular connection can cause a video to buffer for a few seconds or longer, frustrating potential viewers. This is bad news for content providers, as it often results in users giving up and closing the app. Worse yet, it can make users think negatively about the OTT service that hosted the buffering video.

If you're an OTT provider, users' connectivity problems are out of your control, and improving your app or CDN won't do anything to help. Compressing videos may help in some cases, but a weak or overloaded connection won't be able to handle any video file, no matter how small. Or you can wait for 5G to fix all the problems (if you believe that it will), but do you really want to wait that long to engage your customers?

Users often don't understand what is truly the cause of buffering; they may think that the app or video is to blame, not the weak connection they are using to stream. In fact, research that we conducted earlier this year showed that buffering will cause 53% of users to just give up on a streaming session, 26% to stop using the unsatisfactory service and 11% to go so far as to cancel their subscriptions. With hundreds of OTT providers to choose from, a seamless experience is what will drive loyalty.

There are a few ways to solve the buffering problem caused by erratic connectivity. One is simple: viewers can go somewhere with a better connection. When you're on the move, though, that's not always possible.

OTT providers can't change the fact that weak connectivity is inevitable, but they can add features to their app to help mitigate these issues. While download subscriptions may be the next big thing in mobile video, these features can provide solutions to the pressing problems of streaming, which companies should already be working to fix. Given that 92% of users have been frustrated by buffering, these problems need to be a priority. (See Get Ready for Streaming Video Downloads.)

Typically, when a viewer hits play, the network fetches the first several seconds of the video before starting. It's sent from the cloud to a local hub, or point of presence (POP), then to a user's device. When connectivity is weak, this fetching can take several seconds, resulting in buffering. CDNs sometimes try to resolve this delay by offering pre-caching, storing popular videos on local hubs, so that the video is not being sent from the cloud but the local POP. This reduces the distance and time that a video needs to reach a user's device. However, the video still has to travel from that POP to the device, so a weak connection will still yield buffering.

One recommended solution is to pre-cache the first few seconds of a video not at the POP but even closer: on a user's device. This kind of downloaded pre-caching on a device could:

1. Eliminate start-up latency that exists from the moment the person hits play.

2. Dramatically improve user experience and retention (since fewer people would leave due to streaming frustration).

3. Produce fewer bad reviews and more converted users.

Incorporating this kind of functionality into a streaming app can provide palpable benefits, and users won't even know why buffering is no longer a problem. They'll only see that the videos they want to watch are ready to go the moment they hit play.

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Eliminating buffering this way is crucial. We're nowhere near a perfectly connected world: WiFi is still limited, and though big promises have been made about 5G, the reality is that it will take years to get going. Even then, as mobile video consumption increases and videos get more hi-def, 5G still won't be able to deliver a perfect streaming experience for all viewers.

Although basic video download is becoming increasingly popular as a way to improve the mobile video experience, streaming itself is still riddled with problems. Streaming services must find ways to address connectivity-related problems; otherwise they'll lose views and customers as a result of a poor user experience.

— Dan Taitz, President and COO, Penthera

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