Content distribution: the final word has not been said yet

It seems that, since the mass emergence of streaming services -whether OTT or IPTV- and the gradual replacement, although not complete or far from it, of unilateral distribution systems -either by satellite or terrestrial- there have been no major innovations to face them. However, quite new methods and improvements are beginning to appear in the way we receive content that will change, and a lot, the way we consume it. Let’s dig a little deeper into that.

By Yeray Alfageme,  Business Development Manager at Optiva Media an EPAM company

As I mentioned in the introduction, the big impact of increased bandwidth and its democratization cannot be ignored. Since the mass spreading of fiber networks, which allowed us to have sufficient bandwidth in our homes so that enjoying digital video would not be an issue, as well as the development of high-capacity mobile networks, mostly 4G, consumption of digital content is no longer a technical problem.

Video was the last of the services -or perhaps one of mong the last- to “go digital” since related bandwidth requirements made it necessary to have more advanced infrastructures than those used to handle emails or simply audio. This seems obvious but was not so evident a few years ago. Especially for consumption of these services on mobile devices, which have boomed since 4G.

And after these technologies matured -and especially their use- the time has come for everything to take steps forward. And not only because of the arrival of 5G, but also because of new ways of providing these services by using it not only technically but in a more innovative way so that it really is something different and not just replacing an antenna by a mobile phone.

 

Ultra-low latency

One of the things that “worsened” with the adoption of online solutions for distribution is the time “the signal” takes to make it from the production center to our devices. Going back to the times of analog terrestrial television, “latency” was even negligible. The implementation of DTT saw this time increasing to a few seconds, but in OTT services we are typically dealing with a range of 20 to 40 seconds, which is not negligible at all.

This latency is mainly caused by Content Distribution Networks, or CDNs. We already discussed them in a previous TM Broadcast article, so we are not going to go into great detail, but basically, due to the architecture of CDNs -on which the content is replicated over and over between servers located throughout the world, this time delay is inevitable. Or it used to be.

In addition to the latency accumulated on the CDN, there are two other points where it can be improved timewise: coding and packaging. These two processes take place -let me allow myself the luxury of greatly simplifying the concept- at the source of the CDN, the single point from which the content is replicated for the entire network, and that is why any improvement here will have a marked impact.

Encoding and packaging at the source are no longer dealt with in isolation from content distribution and caching throughout the network but are designed together instead. That is why, from the typical -say for instance, 20 seconds, although this can be reduced to 10-15 seconds in many cases- the delay can now be broght down to less than a second, which it is at par with terrestrial distribution services.

And this is not only a technical advantage but it also allows to provide new services around digital content that until now were not viable. For example, interactivity is no longer an issue. I am not referring onbly to two-way video -that too- but to massive interactivity that can provide real-time access, for millions of simultaneous viewers, to a live event, enabling them for example, to participate in it in the same way as it was done in the past through a phone call.

Another application -although a more controversial one- is betting, especially at sporting events or online casinos. In certain markets this sounds somewhat foreign, but it undoubtedly represents a very large percentage of content and, above all, of business. This environment also needs all viewers to receive -not only as soon as possible, but simultaneously- the content. And this is already possible by means of low-latency, synchronized streaming techniques.

 

Hyper-customization

Another concept that has had a very strong impact on content distribution in recent years is FAST channels, which are linear channels created from on-demand content catalogues offered for free and monetized through advertising. We are not discussing here this business model again since we also covered it at length at TM Broadcast, but we will delve into the concept of hyper-customization that it can bring us.

Offering a thematic channel with content to the taste of viewers together with relevant ads is nothing new, they are niche channels and there are countless regular TV channels of this kind. However, each viewer receiving their 100% customized FAST channels, with their relevant ads that interest them in a dynamic way and updated according to their tastes, preferences and content consumption is really going the extra mile.

One of the main advantages of digital distribution is that we have, in real time, individualized consumption data of what, when, where and how each viewer is watching. And we can make use of this huge amount of data, no doubt, but how? Well, one of the uses that can be given to the data is to automate the creation of these linear FAST channels so that each user receives what is of interest to them, including the ads that may attract their interest, this offering being different from that of others, that is, hyper-customization.

Due to the huge amount of metrics on content consumption that are available, the large amounts of metadata that the VOD catalogs have and the variability of the existing advertisers, the use of AI mechanisms that allow managing all this in a viable way is almost essential. Machine learning and deep learning are currently being applied to automate and customize the individualized offer of content to viewers to an incredible extent.

And far from seeing this as an intrusion into decisions about what I want to see and when and how, we perceive it with an aid with which to discover and consume new content and receive customized offers on products and services that may be of interest to us and we may want to purchase. It’s almost perfect.

 

5G Broadcast

If 4G democratized video consumption on mobile devices, -WiFi aside, but in the end a WiFi network is linked to a land line, not a mobile network, 5G comes to take the next step. More bandwidth, no doubt that will help improve both the quality and quantity of services we can consume; lower latency, more opportunities for better interactivity; less response time and even other businesses such as betting; but the change is going to be 5G Broadcast.

What is that 5G Broadcast thing? Isn’t it digital distribution anyway? Actually, not really. Currently, thanks to CDNs, each user has a copy for themselves of the content they want to view. There is no single point from which everyone consumes content without replicating it, hence the need for the existence of CDNs, but thanks to 5G networks, a new way of distributing digital content emerges.

Beyond a one-to-one distribution, what is currently an OTT service -although everyone consumes the same- opens the door to what is offered by DTT or satellite networks, one-to-many distribution. With 5G Broadcast there is the possibility of making a stream available on the network at a specific URL which is viewed by all the devices being connected to that specific network without this stream being replicated throughout the network. Imagine the bandwidth savings this means and the amount of simultaneous services we can offer in this way.

By comparison, it would be like offering an IPTV service for which the network is controlled and private and in which there is a single stream that all users consume under a controlled environment, but in a public network, Internet over 5G. If you do not know this concept and your head has not burst yet, read again 😉. It’s squaring the circle.

It is as if we had the advantages of low latency, low bandwidth consumption, high availability and quality offered by terrestrial or satellite content distribution networks, but with all the benifits of digital distribution in regard to metrics, hyper-customization possibilities and added services. It sounds really good.

Through 5G Broadcast we will be able to efficiently distribute a lot of content to all users with less latency and in a more reliable way than a conventional OTT network over CDNs. It will no longer depend on where or on which device the content is consumed, everyone will view the same thing, at the same time and with the same quality. In addition, thanks to the bandwidth savings achieved by the use of this technique, we wll be able to offer other types of services or increase the range of offerings available.

One of the additional services we can offer will be immersive or augmented reality experiences, in which -without the need for specific hardware such as 3D goggles or similar- viewers will have the opportunity to experiment with their mobile device in their environment and not only on their screen. Not only the content but the ads and promotions can make use of this immersiveness to have more impact and be more personal. There’s a new world out there.

 

Conclusions

Thanks to the maturity of digital content distribution networks -OTT and IPTV- new forms of content distribution are beginning to be explored and exploited. These distribution methods are already strong enough as to allow a new twist.

From ultra-low latency mechanisms that allow content to be distributed simultaneously to all devices at the same time and “almost” in real time, as we were used to with traditional networks, up to hyper-cutomization services through FAST channels or similar, are just some examples that we have explored.

However, 5G Broadcast will enable going a step further. It represents a technology by which all devices on a network can consume the same content at the same time without the increase in bandwidth nneds that this currently entails in OTT services.

This will allow us to combine the best of both worlds. Low latency, synchronism and high availability of terrestrial and satellite content distribution networks with the availability of real-time metrics, bidirectionality and the broad offering available in digital networks over the Internet. And this will lead to the next step in content consumption: hyper-customization.

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