While Spain was in the process of capturing the World Cup, perhaps the biggest winners of the tournament were the content providers and networks that scored big by delivering video highlights to consumers throughout the globe.
Throngs of fans subscribed to the likes of ESPN and SkySports in order to receive video highlights, while networks such as AT&T, Telefonica and Vodafone watched as data usage throughout the World Cup escalated. The commercial success experienced by operators and service providers demonstrates the growing potential that exists for video services and video-on-demand.
It seems a lot of people are taking notice. The market research firm ABI recently projected mobile video to generate over $2 billion in revenue by the time 2012 rolls around, giving operators worldwide a reason to pay close attention. Certainly, major sporting events, breaking news, concerts, YouTube clips and home generated video are helping drive subscriber behavior. In addition, the accessibility of video is playing a significant part. Mobile devices ranging from most standard models to smartphones like the iPhone, Droid and BlackBerry are all capable of supporting video. Broadband penetration to the home continues to escalate, and services like Hulu and Slingbox are gaining a foothold for their ability to deliver content to remote users.
Clearly, there is a growing demand for video services and service providers can hardly suppress their giddiness. Video content translates into higher revenue for the operators, which for years have watched margins decline in voice-centric competitive environments.
But all is not rosy for the operator. Satisfying this hunger is a serious matter. The challenge for service providers is to deliver video as ubiquitously and uniformly as possible, across a multitude of networks and infrastructures.
While network providers are delighted to see the popularity for video content increase, network engineers and technology professionals are becoming increasingly burdened with the physical demands of video. As a medium, video places enormous strain on network infrastructures. Streaming video eats up chunks of bandwidth and, as a consequence, network capacity issues can result in sub-standard quality replete with frequent buffering delays and fragmented audio.
Although these flaws may be overlooked by users of free services like YouTube, subscribers who pay for video services will no doubt be less forgiving. Service providers – already hard-pressed to keep up with demand – will require new methodologies in order to deliver a reliable and seamless video experience.
THE STRESS ON THE NETWORK
One of the biggest obstacles to consistently delivering a superior video product is the wide range of infrastructures the signal must traverse in reaching end users. Virtually all types of networks come into play, including IP, digital and both 3G and 4G mobile infrastructures. Each of these infrastructures presents its own issues in supporting video, including capacities, download speeds, firewalls and the devices used.
In addition, providers have learned that in reality there’s no such thing as a homogenous network. A video signal must usually cross several different networks in its journey from origination point to the user. Maintaining a compatible quality level across all networks is critical, especially since customers expect a seamless and reliable service, regardless of what devices are used or where they’re located. As operators continue to walk the high wire in terms of finding the right balance between subscribers and bandwidth, there are several strategies they can employ in order to maximize network efficiency and manage growth.
IMPROVING NETWORK EFFICIENCY
While “throwing more bandwidth” at the problem might address the demands video places on some networks, it is not a practical short-term solution. However, there are a number of readily deployable options that service providers can implement to improve network efficiency. On the mobile device front, providers can anticipate demand for higher bandwidth, and then assign the right resources to handle a peak demand period – such as the World Cup Finals or other premium event. Support for the H.264 compression standard for video, paired with the most efficient adaptive multi rate (AMR) audio codecs, is one solution that provides the best quality consumer experience with the least network impact.
Another solution worth investigating is modern gateway technology. Perhaps the safest and surest method to mediate infrastructures, gateways will translate video content from the original protocol and encoding to the correct one for delivery to the user’s device. Robust are uniquely suited for environments where protocol conversion and transcoding are essential to delivering robust communications services in legacy, IP and mobile environments.
Additionally, gateways are viewed by operators as a cost-effective option for managing disparate networks. The best solutions are easy to configure, require little maintenance and will operate completely transparently within the infrastructure.
From all indicators, video content continues to make significant inroads into the marketplace. Sports highlights, news, entertainment and other content are readily available to consumers, inside and outside their homes and offices. As demand continues to escalate, and networks continue to get bogged down by increased data traffic, operators need to carefully assess the viability of their networks in order to keep customers satisfied.
The stakes for operators have become substantial. They need the high margins and profits associated with video, but they must also ensure that the integrity of their networks remain intact in order to satisfy customer needs.
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to help operators improve network efficiency and reliability. Codecs that allow efficient bandwidth utilization and gateways that perform necessary protocol conversions and transcoding, are two cost-effective options that operators can deploy to deliver high-quality content to end users without bogging down the entire data experience.
Andrew Nicholson is product manager at Aculab.