Is 2014 the Year that We Break the Internet?

by | Feb. 1, 2014

Perhaps that headline is a bit dramatic, and I should tone it down. Let's put it another way: will the massive audiences for live online video prevent network service providers from providing high-quality experiences to their viewers without creating overwhelming traffic congestion?

To paint an even more stark picture, will online viewing of Super Bowl XVIII (Sunday, February 2), the Winter Olympics (beginning February 6), and the 2014 FIFA World Cup (kicking off on June 12) make the Internet look and operate like Atlanta traffic after a 2" snowfall?

Online streaming's growth has been significant among these three huge live events. Consider the following statistics:

  • CBS reported that Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 attracted three million unique viewers, up 43% from Super Bowl XLVI in 2012.  In 2013, viewers generated nearly ten million live video streams, up more than 100% from the previous year, resulting in a record 114.4 million minutes streamed, an increase of 46%.
  • NBC will stream more than 1,000 hours of live content from the XXII Olympic Winter Games from Sochi, Russia (Feb. 6 to 23) — double the hours streamed from the Vancouver Games in 2010.
  • For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Akamai reported that global interest was more than two times higher than the 2006 event, as demonstrated by Akamai's Net Usage Index for News. The Index registered a peak of more than 20 million visitors per minute on June 24, 2010, compared to a peak of eight million visitors per minute during the 2006 World Cup. On ESPN3.com, matches were viewed by 7.4 million unique viewers.

Consumers are expected to watch significantly more live video in coming years. Cisco Systems Inc.'s Visual Networking Index, for example, predicts that the quantity of live video consumed between now and 2017 will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29% (in terms of petabytes streamed). Athough this increase in live events is an opportunity to generate large audience numbers, build advertising revenue, and generate significant buzz., it can also be a huge headache for network service providers. Not only does it cost more for them to deliver millions of unicast streams of video to viewers, the massive amount of traffic can degrage the quality-of-experience (QoE) for the viewer. Users who grow frustrated with long buffering times, pixelation, or other quality compromises are likely not to complete the viewing, leading to a lost revenue opportunity. In fact, some of these problems have plagued high-profile live events such as the 2012 Summer Olympics and last year's Super Bowl.

Solving network congestion and quality issues for live streams has been a challenge that network service providers have had struggles addressing. However, a January 30 announcement from Qwilt - a provider of what's known as "transparent caching" - is expected to significantly improve the quality of live video delivery. To understand what Qwilt is doing with live video, it's important to understand the basics of transparent caching as it has been used to date.

This graphic from Akamai presents the basic structure of how online video gets delivered from an origin server to edge servers and then onto the viewer. The purpose of the edge servers is to host content much closer to the consumer so it can be delivered more quickly and in higher quality. A second key reason for this hosting mechanism is so that requests for content do not necessarily have to be routed all the way back to an origin server deep inside an operator's network. With a multitude of content requests flowing back to the origin, the network operator is going to experience congestion, poor quality, and pay higher prices (for both transit and in QoE degration).

What transparent caching does is to place intelligence inside the network so that the content that is being requested the most (that is, the most popular content) can already be in place at the edge when more people are requesting it. This caching amounts to storage of the most popular Internet content and deliver it from the operator’s network, rather than always retrieving it from the remote source. The operator benefits through reduced bandwidth consumption, and the content owner and subscriber benefit through better quality of delivery. If

Qwilt asserts that the bandwidth challenges for on-demand video are prevalent for live video as well. For example, it notes that Twitch.tv - a live streaming gaming site - ranked in the top 10 of all video sites ranked by volume, alongside VOD content sites that have amassed large audiences of subscribers over the years. To solve the network congestion caused by massive consumption of live video, Qwilt uses its transparent caching analytics to determine which live video streams need to be be made available from a point of presence closer to the viewers. Instead of transmitting millions of individual unicast streams of live video to viewers from an origin, Qwilt's solution etablishes a local live video transmission point in each neighborhood that can serve a very large population of nearby subscribers using a single seed stream, offloading significant strain on operator network infrastructures.

Parks Associates' latest report - New Trends in Digital Delivery and CDNs - examines how solutions such as transparent caching, dynamic packaging/transmuxing, load balancing, and analytics are helping content providers, operators, and content delivery networks (CDNs) to maximize the efficiency of delivering high-quality video to consumers. This report examines the current landscape of the CDN business, providing detail on the rise of demand for online video and the technology and business evolution taking place in content delivery. The report predicts that annual CDN revenues for online video transit will grow to $4.0 billion by 2018.



Next: Parks Associates Partners with Disruptive Media Conference, Part of the 2014 NAB Show
Previous: The Impact of OTT Services on the Pay-TV Industry

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