OTT Must Scale Up to Go Live

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Live-TV streaming over broadband is a small-but-growing phenomenon, and the Internet is ill-prepared for the giant wave of data about to sweep over it in the years ahead. At least that’s the view of Akamai, a top content delivery network (CDN) provider that works with a wide range of programmers and distributors.

Despite the emergence of services such as Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and CBS All Access, live linear television “hasn’t moved online yet in a big way” and remains largely the domain of on-demand and episodic TV fare, Bill Wheaton, vice president and general manager of media at Akamai, said.

But digital content rights continue to loosen, paving the way for more OTT services. While the content end of the spectrum appears to be turning the OTT corner, the question remains whether consumers will show up.

“We think they will, and that’s what we’re betting on,” Wheaton said.

Here’s how it looks today: Akamai says a typical consumer watching OTT video via its platform accounts for 10 Megabits per second or more of traffic. When extended to 5 million users — the equivalent of about four Nielsen ratings points — that represents about 50 Terabits per second of sustained demand. That’s more than Akamai delivers today for all of its customers combined.

And it’s not just about linear TV. Apps such as HBO Go and HBO Now (HBO’s new standalone OTT service) tend to see spikes on Sunday nights when the network debuts new episodes of its most popular originals.

“Even though it’s a VOD file, it behaves like a live show because people go in and watch it at the same time,” Wheaton said. “It’s not inconceivable that in four to five years, the majority of television is actually watched over an IP-delivered network.”

In Akamai’s view, the Internet must shift to a different protocol for OTT video in order to carry the load. While most OTT video today uses Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), Akamai is proposing a move to User Datagram Protocol (UDP), an alternative system that’s known for low latency.

“We’re starting to rethink and reinvent how video is delivered, fundamentally,” Wheaton said. Most “walled-garden” IPTV services already lean on UDP. “We think [UDP] is the right way to deliver video in the long run.”

While TCP has been used in tandem with adaptive bit rate apps that ratchet the resolution and bit rate up and down based on available bandwidth, it’s not as handy when trying to deliver HD video.

UDP, by comparison, is equipped to use multicast, a more-efficient system that, unlike unicast, can deliver a stream to a group of subscribers. It also provides quicker startup times and cuts down on buffering delays.

Wheaton estimated UDP, on average, is 30% to 40% more efficient than TCP, and makes OTT streams behave “more like television.”

Akamai has been developing UDP capabilities in house, but boosted its expertise in the area in April when it acquired Octoshape, a cloud-based OTT IP video-service provider.

Wheaton said Akamai is bullish on UDP but acknowledges it will need significant buy-in. While Google has deployed its QUIC (Quick UDP Internet Connection) protocol on Chrome browsers, that still leaves out other browsers, mobile devices, streaming players and smart TVs. So in addition to supporting UDP on servers, Akamai is faced with having to push it to to billions of consumer devices.

Akamai has rolled out a UDP software development kit that supports Linux, iOS, Android and Windows, and the company is working to get the technology integrated at the chip and connected-device level.

“We’re moving the edge further out to the edge,” Wheaton said, hopeful that Akamai can use a mixed-mode methodology during the anticipated transition.