Opportunities and Challenges to TV Anytime, Anywhere
Gary Learner, CTO
Long gone the days where the consumer is confined to watch TV in their living room on a television set, viewing one the programs packaged by the content aggregator.
In April 2012 the New York Times reported that prime-time live and same day viewing rates for the 18 to 49 year-old audience reached all-time dramatic lows. The decrease in viewership was observed on both broadcast and cable networks as well as on English and Spanish channels. While much of this change may be explained by DVR and online usage, the advances in technology and availability of online video content that let us watch our television programs anytime and almost anywhere is also a major contributor.
According to the survey, conducted by Accenture, approximately half of consumers in U.S. now view over-the-top (OTT) video through broadband connections on their TVs, in addition to the content they traditionally watch via cable or satellite. Consumers are also viewing content on mobile devices, creating video playlists, posting videos on social media, and learning about new TV programs and video offerings through social networks.
The survey found that younger viewers are leading the way in using these new technologies to view video content. Domestically, 82% of consumers between the ages of 18 and 24 watch some OTT video, with 60% watching at least a quarter of their video over-the-top compared to 32% of U.S. consumers overall.
Today, 49% of consumers between the United States and the United Kingdom subscribe to a range of video delivery services, indicating that OTT video consumption has grown at a remarkable rate since last measured by Accenture in March 2011 at 8%.
TV Anytime Anywhere
The continuing evolution of telecommunications networks and IP-based connectivity has lead us to a dramatic increase in freedom for the consumer to gain access to material, irrespective of the physical or geographical location of either the user or the material. This evolution opens up many more exciting possibilities for viewing and/or retrieving broadcast services and program content, unconstrained by the locations from which they are broadcasted or viewed.
The process of selection and fulfillment would be initiated either by direct user selection or by use of a search agent. Content may be selected through a link on a web page, bookmarked favorite location or through mobile App.
Home Broadcast from Hotel
A viewer on business trip wishes to watch a home TV channel for an important event. To do so, the user selects a service, for example through a link on a web page or via a bookmarked favorite and an IP connection is made from the either a PC or mobile device to the home service provider. It may well be necessary to select among a number of possible services and to establish identity and/or location, in some way to gain access to the selected service. The establishment of user identity may require user authentication as well as protection of user privacy.
Foreign Broadcast from Home
A viewer at home may wish to watch TV services originating from far-distant networks. Motives may include the scheduling of special events at the user’s place of birth, special events connected to the user’s interests, etc. Accessing foreign broadcasts also enables people to venture out of their normal TV environment, participating in programs that are not available in their demographic local area, or to visit new regions through native TV programs.
Consumers may view the content in real time, or capture content on local storage. The viewing equipment can be a digital TV receiver, a PC or mobile device.
The access, QoS and content format issues are challenges associated with this viewing scenario.
Material intended for this type of access may be designed with auxiliary languages to encourage viewers who do not speak the language of the content.
With the advent of wireless communication systems and capabilities of mobile devices it is now conceivable that video content (broadcast and non-broadcast) be accessible from any location. In other words, content can be retrieved and viewed as the receiving unit moves dynamically from location to location. A user of a may wish to view their favored broadcast program while travelling to and from work or while on vacation. This would mean the broadcast content should be accessible via independent wireless networks. If the traveler ventures beyond the reaches of one wireless network the content should be seamlessly accessible from another wireless network. An example of this would be similar to cellular telephone networks.
While broadcast TV still generates much more ad revenue per program than Internet TV, access to content on three screens (TV set, PC and mobile phone) will likely increase viewing time, providing more opportunities for augmenting programs with related content and advertisements.
As the new screens (PC and mobile) become more popular as TV viewing venues, the content programmers have new ways to take advantage of the additional TV real estate. At the core of reinventing the TV experience would have to be interacting with what we are watching in new ways. Not all consumers and not all TV shows lend themselves to a passive watching experience. Sports and reality TV shows are two genres that can be extremely interactive. People who watch these shows want to react to what is happening in real time. Because of that there are new opportunities for content programmers and creators to deliver experiences where the consumer can use the viewing devices in conjunction with what they’re watching. Consumers would have the ability to customize the apps and/or data services that showed up alongside whatever they’re watching. Watching TV is becoming personal, yet social. New technologies that combine these elements in creative ways will lead to tremendous opportunities for broadcasters and advertisers.
Broadcasters can extend consumer engagement with TV show by offering background information about plots, characters and production. Additional video clips may include out-takes, short features, and alternate endings. This is analogous to the extras found on most DVDs.
While viewers perceive the program information and additional details as a benefit, the challenge for the content creators and producers is to avoid overwhelming and distracting the viewer, making “enhanced TV” into “cluttered TV”. Too much of augmentation will push viewers searching for alternate venues to view the desired content without distraction.
Ability to augment the primary viewing content enables many potential applications for personalization of content. Such customization could include adaptations based on specific attributes of the viewer, whether personal, geographic or viewing device specific.
A consumer device has its IP address or another locality attribute (GPS location), person watching. Content with embedded alternative elements can be broadcasted in multiple versions on one or more program stream and the local consumer device is instructed to select those elements marked for the local attribute of the consumer device. At the proper time, the locally customized element substitutes for the generally available element in the broadcast stream. The capability could customize advertisements (e.g., to provide the local phone number of the nearest vendor of the product) or permit local or regional news highlight inserts (e.g., high school news coverage). Program inserts might provide altered program ratings or ads customized to the gender, age or other preferences of person’s watching.
Over the Top Video
Despite the reported increase in “cable cutters”, the majority of consumers still receive TV and broadband Internet services from an MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor), such as cable, fiber optics, or satellite TV operator. Each operator negotiates deals with content providers and assembles packages of channels into digital streams. Each digital stream contains multiple TV channels and the set-top box selects a channel to decode from hundreds or thousands of TV channels available using a remote control unit.
Video streams carried in public Internet traffic are called Over the Top video (OTT video). This term originated from the higher frequency allocation on cable for internet communication, on top or lower frequency reserved for TV programs. This term may no longer reflect the present technology that includes digital encoding of the TV channels.
The term OTT video now means video delivered outside the package of channel lineups offered by the MVPD. This has serious implications for the business model of these operators. Customers can find some of their favorite shows free on the Internet by paying the operator only for Internet access and not for TV service.
Among the changes that should concern MVPDs is the introduction of internet-ready TVs that offer direct access to digital streams. Access to Internet video streams will have to be limited to a pre-defined set of programs, based on consumer’s personal, geographic and copyright constraints:
- Personal: Many countries restrict distribution of material by person’s age. OTT Video requires means of authenticating the viewer, the provider, and maybe also the geographic location of end points or communication routes to enforce applicable regulations.
- Geographic: In some countries, viewers pay for the right to receive content and the content owners then restrict distribution to within country and to the licensed users. If such users are now in a different geographic territory, one can ask whether their original right to receive the content supersedes or is subordinate to the geographic distribution limitations of the content owner. An example is content that contains geographically distinct advertisements, possibly providing a commercial offer that is valid only in a limited territory. If such material is not permitted to be distributed outside this territory then either content must be customized for distribution or some access authorization mechanism is required.
- Copyright: Film distribution worldwide is conventionally timed differently at different locations. If such material were now available via Internet TV, one must ask if the home (native) location of the person applies, or the viewing location, or the location of the distributor. Whatever the answer, means for determining the relevant location would be required or some current contractual distribution obligations would require revision.
In the past few years over-the-top OTT-TV has advanced from a mere concept to an established venue that video content is delivered and viewed. There are several technological enablers that contributed to the success in adopting the OTT for video delivery.
In home networking, broadband constitutes any form of high-speed Internet access using this transmission technique. Both DSL and cable modem are common broadband Internet technologies. So-called broadband routers and broadband modems are network devices that support both DSL and cable. Other forms of home broadband include fiber (FTTH) and fixed wireless.
In 2000, 3% of the US adult population had access to a broadband connection at home. This increased to 66% in 2010.
Even though information signals generally travel nearly the speed of light in the medium no matter what the bit rate, higher rate services are often marketed as “faster” or “higher speeds”. Consumers are targeted by advertisements for peak transmission rates, while actual end-to-end rates observed in practice can be lower due to other factors.
Broadband in analog video distribution is traditionally used to refer to systems such as cable television, where the individual channels are modulated on carriers at fixed frequencies. In this context, baseband is the term’s antonym, referring to a single channel of analog video, typically in composite form with separate baseband audio. The act of demodulating converts broadband video to baseband video.
However, broadband video in the context of streaming Internet video has come to mean video files that have bitrates high enough to require broadband Internet access for viewing. Broadband video is also sometimes used to describe IPTV Video on demand.
H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10 or AVC (Advanced Video Coding) is a standard for video compression, and is currently one of the most commonly used formats for the recording, compression, and distribution of high definition video.
H.264 is perhaps best known as being one of the codec standards for Blu-ray Discs; all Blu-ray Disc players must be able to decode H.264. It is also widely used by streaming internet sources and also various HDTV broadcasts over terrestrial (ATSC, ISDB-T, DVB-T or DVB-T2), cable (DVB-C) and satellite (DVB-S and DVB-S2).
The intent of the H.264/AVC project was to create a standard capable of providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards, without increasing the complexity of design. An additional goal was to provide enough flexibility to allow the standard to be applied to a wide variety of applications on a wide variety of networks and systems.
Adaptive Bitrate Streaming
Adaptive Streaming on a PCs and mobile devices provides a guaranteed level of service, both in standard and high-definition, in an open Internet environment, even if the broadband line is congested or unstable. Adaptive bitrate streaming is a technique used in streaming multimedia over computer networks. While in the past most video streaming technologies utilized streaming protocols such RTP with RTSP, today’s adaptive streaming technologies are almost exclusively based on HTTP and designed to work efficiently over large distributed HTTP networks such as the Internet.
Adaptive streaming works by detecting consumer’s bandwidth and CPU capacity in real time and adjusting the quality of a video stream accordingly. It requires the use of an encoder which can encode a single source video at multiple bit rates. The player client switches between streaming the different encodings depending on available resources. “The result: very little buffering, fast start time and a good experience for both high-end and low-end connections.” The streaming client is made aware of the available streams at differing bit rates, and segments of the streams by a manifest file. When starting the client requests the segments from the lowest bit rate stream. If the client finds the download speed is greater than the bit rate of the segment downloaded, then it will request the next higher bit rate segments. Later, if the client finds the download speed for a segment is lower than the bit rate for the segment, and therefore the network throughput has deteriorated, then it will request a lower bit rate segment.
MPEG-DASH is the only adaptive bit-rate HTTP-based streaming solution that is an international standard. Standardizing an adaptive streaming solution is meant to provide confidence to the market that the solution can be adopted for universal deployment, compared to similar but more vendor-centric solutions such as HLS by Apple, Smooth Streaming by Microsoft, or HDS by Adobe.
A content delivery network (CDN) is a large distributed system of servers deployed in multiple data centers in the Internet. The goal of a CDN is to serve content to end-users with high availability and high performance. CDNs serve a large fraction of the Internet content today, including live and on-demand streaming media.
A CDN operator gets paid by content providers for delivering their content to their audience of end-users. In turn, a CDN pays ISPs, carriers, and network operators for hosting its servers in their data centers. Besides better performance and availability, CDNs also offload the traffic served directly from the content provider’s origin infrastructure, resulting in cost savings for the content provider. While most early CDNs served content using dedicated servers owned and operated by the CDN, there is a recent trend to use a hybrid model that uses P2P technology. In the hybrid model, content is served using both dedicated servers and other peer-user-owned computers as applicable. Requests for content are typically algorithmically directed to nodes that are optimal in some way. Web caches store popular content on servers that have the greatest demand for the content requested. These shared network appliances reduce bandwidth requirements, reduce server load, and improve the client response times for content stored in the cache.
As TV Anytime Anywhere continues to gain popularity, content creators and producers will continue to balance the opportunities against the challenges. Facilitating delivery of personalized user’s experience alongside with video content poses a significant QoS/QoE (Quality of Service / Quality of Experience) challenge. The push to deliver the best QoS/QoE for each viewer lays out highly competitive landscape not just for content creators, but delivery networks as well. The points of failure in the traditional broadcast chain are well known and covered by the current monitoring solutions. However, OTT monitoring solutions are still formulating. Monitoring vendors are tasked with developing more capable, scalable and adaptable monitoring solutions to answer the challenge of assuring delivery of highly valuable personalized content monitoring. These monitoring solutions are used by both content owners as well as content delivery providers to both evaluate the service as well as demonstrate the value of their service.
 Wikipedia, “Broadband Networks”
 Wikipedia, “H.264”
 Wikipedia, “Adaptive Bitrate Streaming”
 Wikipedia, “CDN”
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 James Robinson, The Observer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/may/13/digitalmedia.broadcasting
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