Thirty-six million UK internet users watched video online this February, according to comScore’s April 2013 report. A rapidly growing library of online video offered by the BBC iPlayer and other broadcasters along with companies like Netflix, LOVEFiLM, blinkbox and the newly launched Wuaki.tv, is helping drive adoption.
While nowhere near TV revenue, internet video revenue is growing. According to the IAB, UK video advertising revenue grew 46% to £160m in 2012.
However, network connections are a shared resource, and more users simply add more congestion. This leads to slower page loads, delayed video starts, stream interruptions and video degradation, creating a poor quality of experience (QoE) for the end-user. In a consumer survey we conducted, nearly one-fourth of respondents rated initial buffering delays as the most frustrating aspect of internet video viewing, and another one-third selected interruptions (for re-buffering). Pixelisation (video degradation) accounted for another 13%. Essentially content delivery issues alone accounted for nearly 70% of viewers’ frustration with online video.
Conviva, a pre-emptive video stream optimisation company, has found that an initial buffering delay between two-three seconds is a key threshold. At this point the number of viewers clicking away from the video sharply increases. This translates into significant losses for online video distributors (OVD), since mid-roll advertising never gets viewed. And obviously, consistently poor experiences will also affect subscription businesses.
In fact, less than one in four live video streams in the UK is delivered with optimal QoE, and this could result in losses of over £1bn for UK OVDs over the next few years.
How then can OVDs avoid QoE deterioration and maximise revenue? Whilst internet video delivery is a best effort exercise, here are a few issues to consider while managing QoE.
Use multiple content delivery networks (CDNs): CDNs like Akamai, Limelight, Edgecast and BT’s Content Connect all cache copies of content closer to the consumer, avoiding upstream congestion on the internet. They also offer intelligent routing and various other delivery improvement options. It’s best an OVD uses multiple CDNs to mitigate the risk of congestion or failure at critical nodes.
Create a detailed device registry: Adobe found that mobile video views grew 300% in 2012, accounting for 10.4% of video starts – compared with 3% in 2011. Tablets, in particular, drove this growth. Any competitive service must therefore be able to support multiple devices including tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles and Smart TVs. Each device has its own display resolution, processing power, screen size etc. OVDs must also navigate a complex set of operating systems, client applications/players and other device capabilities to optimise their services.
Optimise the stream for the device: Video should be delivered at the lowest bit-rate without compromising quality, but in addition device processing power, screen size, display resolutions etc. also need to be considered when selecting the right bit-rate. OVDs should also look out for HEVC, an emerging video compression format that offers 50% more efficiency but also requires more processing power.
Use Adaptive Bit Rate (ABR) streaming: ABR protocols dynamically adapt video bit rates to network congestion, improving end-user QoE. Apple, Microsoft and Adobe all offer ABR options, and variants of a new industry standard (MPEG-DASH) will most likely gain support in coming years. This area also requires careful navigation as different devices/OS platforms are more easily compatible with different ABR protocols.
Monitor QoE: QoE monitoring solutions provide a detailed view into the quality of the service, allowing OVDs to calibrate their service delivery before they start losing users.
While not specific solutions for QoE, Online Video Publishing Platforms (OVPP) such as thePlatform and Brightcove have content management systems and toolkits that can help an OVD navigate the variety of video transcoding formats and device requirements described above. Most major CDNs will also offer video preparation, content protection support and other video management tools for customers.
The key to revenue for an OVD is audience engagement, and that in turn is dependent on high QoE. While internet delivery will always be a best-effort exercise, OVDs can mitigate their risk by making good choices regarding key elements of the online video delivery ecosystem. Understanding the various pros and cons of bewildering array of technology options available for each function will not be easy, but it is essential.