Shane Keats moved to Akamai 3 years ago after working in software companies for several years. Before that, Keats spent seven years as a television news producer for NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and CNN Moneyline with Lou Dobbs. He opens the interview by explaining how OTT video service providers can ensure that the quality of the experience is as good as, or better than TV?
“I’ll start by looking backwards at my TV experience,” says Keats reflecting on this first experience in broadcast. “The first time I was producing packages in the field and the control room for the weekend nightly news. The executive producer who was giving me this opportunity said to me - don’t screw this up and if you go dark you’re fired!”
“The reason I bring it up this anecdote is because it tells you something about the expectations for television. This is a 75 year old industry that’s very mature and it knows how to deliver an amazing experience to the viewer. When I change the channel there is no lag time. The quality in my HD delivery is always exceptional. The breaks between editorial content and advertising are always seamless.”
“I can’t think of the last time when there was an issue while I was watching traditional TV. That’s not the case with OTT yet. Every time you re-buffer you are essentially going dark and if you were a TV producer you would be fired.”
However, he points out that OTT services use the public internet to deliver media and entertainment: “We must take note of the fact that as viewers, we want our OTT service to give us something that uses the public internet. This is not something provisioned – it’s not like I have leased a transponder on a satellite.”
“We are all using the highway that everyone is using and if there is a massive car crash on the highway, then I’m in trouble. We have this expectation as the viewer that we want the same experience as traditional TV, but we have this problem – that we’re doing it over something that wasn’t designed for that, or not as mature as TV infrastructure.”
“So a company like Akamai was built to solve this problem.”
Keats elaborates on Akamai’s approach to improving the streaming viewer experience: “At its core, Akamai had a couple of insight that now seem very simple but were groundbreaking at that time. The first is: how can we put the content closer to you so we don’t have to transit this public internet quite so far? And the second insight is when we are transiting the public internet, can we use math to figure out the best way to get it to you.”
“Akamai is now delivering experiences to the viewer that are as good as broadcast TV and in some cases better in the sense that we can do things that TV can’t. For example we can allow you in a 4K live sporting event to self-select different camera angles. We can allow you within that main screen to scroll over and call metadata that tells you about the sporting player and his stats even who he’s married to, which is amazing. You cannot do that on television.”
Keats talks about how he demonstrated the power of OTT consumption during his Dubai presentation by showing a photograph of his teenage daughter watching a show called Nashville on her iPhone.
“Literally 2 meters away there’s a 4K 50 inch television on which she can watch the same show, and she’s not watching it. Why is she not watching traditional pay-tv? The reason she’s doing that is she can Snapchat with her friends and maintain her Instagram and its portable - you can’t do that on TV.”
Quality of Experience
“From a quality perspective we still need to get to the ‘five 9s’ that TV delivers but there are ways we are already superior to TV. And we are getting there!”
Elaborating further on the missing pieces in getting to broadcast quality levels, Keats says we can essentially break down quality into 3 different pieces: “Let’s look at resolutions (bitrate can be a shorthand for resolution). Then look at latency or buffering / re-buffering, and then a larger question that I call consistency.”
On resolution: “From a bit rate perspective, we are now regularly delivering HD and better resolution so we are matching TV quality. Not all viewers are going to get 5mb per sec or better. For things like major sporting events, 60-70% are regularly viewing at 5 mb/s or better.”
On latency: “Broadcast latency, says Keats, “from camera to glass or from ingest to the last mile - let’s say in broadcast it is generally about 7 seconds. In OTT is often around 50 or 60 seconds - so it’s about 50 seconds greater than broadcast. Akamai is now regularly delivering 10-second latency so we are basically matching the latency of TV.”
“Let’s talk about buffering. What does getting 'five 9s' mean in terms of downtime? At some of the best events we are delivering buffering rates well under 1% but that’s still not as good as broadcast.”
Consistency: Finally we can look at the idea of consistency. Keats thinks the reason why there are still so many corded households is that when people turn on the TV at home, they want the viewing experience to just work seamlessly. “Which is the experience you get with pay-tv at this point. Consistency of experience is a good way of thinking about this. Akamai’s customers are getting close to that because the resolution, latency and buffering rates are so good. So we are getting close to that consistency of experience.”
Adaptive bit rate is one of the ways OTT solution providers like Akamai are able to improve the viewing experience. Keats says Akamai does it by encoding at multiple bit rates and shifting to a lower resolution when you see there is congestion ahead in the network.
“But this goes to the question of consistency – viewers don’t like a lot of up and down shifts in their stream.”
“This is the core math that makes Akamai unique is that we are able to see where congestion is happening and then because of our scale we can adapt. We are the biggest streaming provider in the world. We are in so many networks that if we see congestion with this route of server we can go in a different direction. And we have the right to do that because of our scale.”
“The Bank of OTT” – why the bad guys have discovered OTT is the new best place to try to rob, pillage and steal.
Keats agrees that the broadcast industry is in a hybrid moment of transitioning from a linear TV world to the OTT viewing experience, but it’s going to take many years. “The broadcaster has a tough job right now. He has to figure out how to service the viewers in traditional linear. But they also have viewers who have no interest in linear TV viewing – they want on demand, anywhere, streaming and all the other things that teenagers and millennial viewers want.”
“Akamai sees part of its job to be a pathfinder – to help broadcasters chart a path through this uncharted territory. Where they need to serve the OTT viewer while they continue to serve the linear viewer.”
The need for streaming service providers to address security concerns is proof of the industry’s growth he thinks: “Anytime criminals are attacking you, you know you are doing a good job. It’s a contradiction almost – the fact that the pirates are trying to steal from you it means you’re getting rich. Because bad guys are not stupid – they go where the money is. If the bad guys are going into OTT that means there is money in OTT. So it is proof that you are successful.”
Although Keats points out that knowing this fact doesn’t really help broadcasters and content owners trying to protect themselves from the bad guys. Still he says, “broadcasters should be proud that pirates and hackers are attacking them.”
Explaining the ‘Bank of OTT’ concept he explains: “Roughly speaking there are three pots of gold that the bad guys are trying to get.”
“First is subscriber data – when you have a subscription service you capture personal information on your customers and that’s real value to a cyber-criminal. To a criminal, subscriber based OTT data looks a lot like e-commerce data. Two is the content itself – whether it’s the video file of the season finale or it’s the live stream of the pay per view sporting event. The third thing is executive communications. It’s a very political world we live in and communications between the owners and a govt. is something that would be really cool to steal and give it to say a WikiLeaks.”
“There is an arms race that’s going on – every time we figure out a way to protect against the next new attack. Akamai is one the biggest cloud security companies in the world – people think of us as a video streaming platform but we also have a huge cloud security business.”
That’s why I think this bank of OTT concept is important. Broadcasters need to know that they are being attacked more than they know.
Rethinking OTT Business Models for Monetisation
Keats feels while there two main ways to monetize OTT services - SVOD and AVOD, both business model are challenged by the economic concept of winner take most.
“In SVOD it looks like a handful of companies will dominate a particular market – maybe 3 or 4 but yet there are hundreds of subscription services. So 3 or 4 will win big and then the niche services will service smaller groups,” Keats predicts.
In advertising based VOD, Keats says it looks like there are two companies dominating the market. “All of the growth in advertising is happening is digital but the vast majority is going to Facebook and Google. If you are going to monetize you have to think about how you can successfully compete against those two. Broadcasters need to think about how they can collaborate with competitors.”
Keats feel at the moment “really interesting experiments are going on in Europe where broadcasters are joining forces to offer a single audience to better compete in a world where advertisers are looking for big scale.” The underlying concept being: “If I partner with other broadcasters my audience reach is larger and more interesting to the advertiser.”