We live in the most dynamic and exciting time, as it relates to entertainment distribution.  The press is abuzz with talk of cord cutting, cord nevers, and other nebulous catch phrases, read click-bait fodder.  But with greater than 80% of US households still paying a subscription fee for their TV service (the number according to Leichtman Research Group is actually 83% http://www.marketingcharts.com/television/pay-tv-penetration-rates-2010-2015-58837/) companies exploring OTT delivery, will be facing high customer expectations for quality of service.

The catch

The opportunity identified by the incumbents and new entrants alike (think Sony Vue) is for entertainment packages aimed at broadband-only customers.  But here’s the rub.  You see the reason that you never get a circular buffering icon on your cable or satellite box, is because these systems are what is known as “managed networks”.  

A managed network is a content distribution system, where at every critical point that the signal is transmitted, there are techniques and technologies to insure with a high degree of confidence that the signal is going to make it to the customer’s set-top box fully intact.  Of course, if your cable is cut, you will lose your TV picture.  Or on an exceptionally cloudy day, or during atmospheric events, no doubt your satellite signal will suffer.  

But by and large, you pay for your TV and you do not have to worry that one too many people in your neighborhood may be watching today’s game.  It just works.

Just what is the catch then?  Well, unlike a pay TV network that is closely monitored and built around highly specific standards to ensure the highest degree of reliability with a minimum quality threshold, Internet delivery is “best practices”.

Hypertext for video?

Video delivery on the Internet uses HTTP or Hypertext Transfer Protocol as the set of rules for sending a video file from point A to point B.  Where best practices comes into play, is that HTTP is an application protocol that runs on the foundational protocol suite of TCP/IP.  Since one of the main functions of TCP/IP is to keep careful track of all the packets (data) that have been sent and then received, and given that artifacts and glitches in audio and video can be clearly seen by the viewer in cases where not all the data was sent (or received) reliably, TCP/IP is a wonder method for sending critical data.  If a packet was lost traversing the network, the player simply requests it again, and assuming it makes the second delivery in time, the viewer will be none-the-wiser.  

With even this most basic understanding of how a video file moves across the Internet, it’s probably not hard to see that if we have wide roads (e.g. high bandwidth) and only a small number of cars traveling (video files) – that the odds are good that everyone will make it to their destination safe and on-time.  But what happens if we jam the road with cars, such that there are only inches between bumpers?  It’s not hard to imagine that many people are going to be delayed getting to their destination, and some won’t make it all.

TCP/IP and HTTP have amazing capability to recover lost data.  But there are limits and even TCP/IP can only function using “best efforts”.

How this relates to companies trying to address cord cutters and the younger generations is that most, if not all of these consumers, have grown up with the Pay TV experience in their home.  Remember, even today, 83% of US households pay for their TV.  Which means odds are pretty good, that when a younger consumer goes home or to their friends house, they will be consuming entertainment via a subscription TV service.  Thus the expectation for what constitutes a good TV experience is being set by the MSO, not the OTT service provider.  

So what are a few ways that companies can bring together the quality of on-net (or managed) with OTT, to deliver the most reliable entertainment experience possible?

Cable is addressing the constraints of transmitting IP based content with the new DOCSIS 3.1 standard.  Using DOCSIS 3.1 bandwidth on the existing HFC plant can be reclaimed by replacing the home gateway (DOCSIS cable modem).  Deployment of Converged Cable Access Platforms (CCAP) from Arris, Casa, and the new Cisco platform all support DOCSIS 3.1.  However, migrating to DOCSIS, is not something that can be done quickly due to cost and legacy constraints.  

Regardless of increasing bandwidth to the home, WiFi networks will continue to be challenged and may well become the next bottleneck.  4k is on the horizon and it will create a steep jump in bandwidth demand.  Furthermore, multiscreen and OTT service quality should equal Netflix, which just recently introduced the strategy of using content adaptive encoding to reduce their bit-rates while retaining or even upgrading their video quality.

Operators must use similar techniques, not only to address the last mile but also constraints of home WiFi.  Netflix has set the bar for OTT unmanaged video quality.

As if these challenges were not enough, moving to IP video for linear TV will increase unicast sessions, as opposed to the single broadcast stream that is sent today over the managed network.  This means individual subscribers will receive their video over the DOCSIS network via a unicast connection.  If one million people are watching the Super Bowl, that could mean up to one million individual streams.

Multicast ABR to the rescue!

Multicast ABR (MABR) has a lot of promise, and some of the largest cable operators are already beginning deployment of the solution to aid in reducing unicast connections.  Regretfully, only the most popular channels can benefit from MABR while long tail and less popular channels must be delivered as unicast streams due to the expensive and challenging deployment cycles of MABR.

In summary, discovering innovative ways to lower bandwidth on the network backbone for IP video, multiscreen and OTT must get high attention. The consumer will demand it, or simply defect to a rival service.  Integrating video optimization into the multiscreen, OTT,  and IP video workflows is the right approach, and may be combined with other techniques and methods, for bandwidth reclamation and reduction.