Streaming media is opening up the world of broadcast, by allowing users access to content that could previously only be viewed on television screens.
With the rapid progression of content delivery technology, coupled with the proliferation of multiple screens through tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs, it could well be that web streaming is set to make a sizable difference to the broadcast industry
Streaming media enables users to include audio, video and other multimedia components into a file that can be viewed directly through a website. The material is available for viewing immediately. Generally, streaming media goes through a Content Delivery Network (CDN) that then assigns a server to stream the content that the user has requested.
Fabio DEmilio, GM, technology development at Intigral says: “Content delivery methods have greatly evolved from the analogue delivery mechanism, such as traditional TV, utilising frequency and amplitude modulation techniques to provide a dedicated channel.
Today video is digitalised, using formats like MPEG and AVI then stored in the origin server, where the full catalogue of content is available. When a user requests to view the content, small digital packets containing several frames of the video are created and then sent to the user device through standard TCP/IP and internet protocols.”
The flow of audio and video broadly takes place in three different ways, progressive download, traditional streaming and adaptive streaming, according to Safia Rana, head of sales and marketing at ViewSat.
“Progressive download is when the provider uploads the file to a server and the user downloads the file in order to view it. As time progresses, the viewer will be able to access or skip to the portions of the video that have already been downloaded.
Two problems that arise out of this method are that it often leads to download of excessive content and causes inability in changing the video quality. This means that viewers watching HD content will have to wait for the download to progress if the bandwidth drops,” says Rana.
The second form of web streaming requires the content provider to use a special media server that utilises special media protocols such as Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) and Real Data protocol (RDP). In this technique, the video file is broken up into smaller ‘packets’, the size of which depends on a preset buffer.
This controls bandwidth wastage as the packets are only transferred up to a preset limit and additional packets will not get downloaded when a video is paused. However, the media server is specialised and therefore expensive and here too, the video quality is fixed through the process.
“Adaptive streaming, another way of streaming content, reduces the chance of buffering as the video file is delivered according to the network capabilities. The bit-rate is not fixed and will vary according to bandwidth conditions. This also leverages the fact that there typically exist a number of proxies or gateways between clients and the server in order to enable caching for faster delivery. This is why this method works well with CDNs,” adds Rana.
DEmilio says that there are also emerging solutions based on peer to peer technologies (P2P) where the video stream is being served to the client not only by the network servers, but also rebroadcasted from the user’s device itself.
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“This allows to take advantage of the bandwidth available at each point of consumption to redistribute the video packets to other users.
This is very similar to how bitTorrent, for instance, works and requires the users to have downloaded on their devices an application that manages the seeding of the stream to other users. This technology in principle reduces cost of distribution and avoids the need of CDNs.”
Fahad Al Hassawi, CCO commercial at Du, adds that there are three types of platforms that enable web viewing. “The first is a head-end system, in which the system receives transmission from sources like live TV channels or VoD (Video on Demand) assets in the form of media files and converts them.
The second platform is known as the middleware system which through an analytical format enables the business logic of the service through the customers’ database; where it assigns services to users based on their identification. Lastly, there is the CDN platform which enables video streaming.”
John Illingworth, sales director, ME, Irdeto, says that for an operator to support web streaming, it would need VoD and live transcoders pushing content to origin servers that hold content. “A CDN would typically pick up the content and deliver many times. In the case of managed networks/ISP’s they will often operate their own in-house CDN using dedicated appliances or software solutions.
“CDN’s typically accelerate delivery at scale, caching content in edge servers to radically improve performance for end users. Many CDN vendors are also expanding their service offering into transcoding, packaging and origin storage. These are value added services which simplify deployment at the cost of locking the content producer into the CDN,” says Illingworth.
Hence the backbone of web streaming relies on different types of equipment, for ingest and transcoding, followed by storage and distribution.
Hassawi explains that integrated receiver/decoder (IRD) or transcoding equipment is required for Live TV assets, followed by storage equipment that has the capacity to store the video assets received from live TV or buffer live TV channels, and finally CDN streaming servers to distribute the media to viewers.
Adaptive streaming plays a large part in delivering watchable streams of media to viewers, foregoing the limitations of broadband speeds.
Carlos Tibi, CEO of Icflix describes adaptive streaming technology as crucial for web viewing. “The technology ensures that Icflix viewers never have to wait for content to buffer while streaming.
Instead, the system detects internet speed and adjusts the quality of the video to the internet capability, decreasing quality if necessary to ensure a seamless streaming experience.
Our servers create multiple profiles of the content at different levels of quality so that players on the various web browsers can display the one that is best suited to the internet speed,” says Tibi.
This adaptation is performed in real time while the user is watching the video. Hence adaptive streaming overcomes the possible changes in network quality between the device and the server, and adapts the video quality to device capabilities DEmilio explains.
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“In recent times several technologies based on HTTP protocol have emerged that overcome some of the drawbacks of Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP).
The content is chopped in chunks, each one being a standalone data package containing several frames of the video; and each one of these gets assigned a unique progressive URL; these content chunks (or HTTP chunks) are published on the web and are retrievable by standard browser techniques.
This is then easily pushed over CDN without any special configuration or server specialisation. A text manifesto is also published on the root URL of the video with the list of chunks and their relative URL.
This manifesto is used by the player to lookup the URLs to retrieve the streaming content chunks and performs a standard get on that URL, just like it was retrieving a standard web page,” DEmilio says.
For instance, video can be published in three streams, one at 1,200kb/s, one at 750kb/s and one at 320kb/s (highest quality to lowest quality). Under optimal network conditions the player will be getting chunks one after the other that are marked as 1,200kb/s, but as soon as the network quality decreases, the player can decide to take the next chunk from a list of URLs that is marked at 320kb/s and keep on getting the chunks from this list until the quality of the network is restored.
“All of this happens without communication between the player and the server. The only preparation that must be done is the publishing of three streams for one video. This will give the player the possibility to choose from three streaming qualities, high, medium and low,” says DEmilio.
So what is the most popular content being streamed on the web? Tibi says: “For Icflix it is Jazwood (Arabic) films that we provide to our subscribers globally. Both within MENA and the rest of the world, there is a demand for Jazwood cinema online as it is not readily available and the Icflix library is the biggest online library of Arabic content. Within the MENA region there is also a large demand for Hollywood content, especially TV shows that are updated weekly on the platform as they are released in the US.”
Hassawi is of the opinion that sports content, and live streaming of sporting events is something the region enjoys streaming online.
Illingworth agrees with Hassawi and says: “Live events such as sports are the most popular content for online streaming, with Irdeto research at CABSAT finding that 29% of respondents in GCC countries thought that live sports were the most important element of a multi-screen service.
Movies and TV series from OTT or multi-screen services are also often streamed online, whether as content included in a subscription package or catchup TV service, or movies purchased from a VoD store.”
What is clear from Irdeto’s research is that increasing numbers of people in the GCC countries want to consumer content online. “23% of consumers surveyed would prefer to watch TV, movies or sports content through Internet TV services as these would allow them to watch content on a wider variety of devices, 40% in total would prefer to use Internet TV services in the future,”