SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:
Written by Stuart Newton, VP Strategy within the Corporate Development Group at Telestream
Video is now going everywhere – to anyone, wherever they are, on whatever access network they are using. This “global accessibility” is still a relatively new development in the evolution of video delivery, for both media companies originating content and for the networks that transport it. As with most innovations, the service itself generally precedes high-quality versions of the service, as companies rush to be the first to market with due service monitoring. Any issues with the service result in emergency triage to find out what is going wrong, and usually a fair amount of finger-pointing and blame, usually achieving nothing other than increasing stress levels and delaying the resolution of the issue.
Monitoring, although not glamorous, is a fascinating challenge. In general, it can be there for safety reasons, diagnostics, revenue, cost efficiencies (time-to-resolution, reducing incorrect personnel resource allocation) and brand protection (which, incidentally, is a major reason for monitoring after the live streaming failures of the last several years). Most people don’t even realise it’s there. The speedometer or temperature gauge on a car, the brake warning light, a house alarm, an alert on a smart phone – monitoring surrounds us all and we generally take it for granted.
In industrial production, monitoring is there for safety, performance monitoring and diagnostics – it costs a lot for a production line to go down, especially with the just-in-time production methods of today. Within the on-demand world, monitoring is essential to make sure the pieces or data are where they need to be, or working properly, at all times. Even if there is a backup system, it needs to be monitored to make sure it really is available as a backup system.
Industrialisation of video – monitoring plays critical role, even in unmanaged networks
Video is no different to any of these applications. Today, video information is compressed and put into IP packets and sent all over the world, either live, or on-demand per the streaming catalogues available today.
Those packets need to be created and stored (for on-demand) or sent out immediately (for live streaming) and have to find their way across a multitude of networks to eventually be decoded back into the pictures we see on our TVs or smart phones. There are a multitude of resolutions to create for large-screen TVs to smart phones, and different bit rates (with varying quality of the same video content), so that the players can choose to step down in bit rate (to a lower quality version of the same video) if the supplying network is getting congested.
This highlights another challenge – the supplying network. Not many people realise that when they are watching sports content on their home TV, and then switch to their phone temporarily, that the video they are now watching may be delivered over a completely different supply network than the video they were watching on their TV. If they walk out of the house and switch to a cellular network, it will most likely be a completely different path again, and will almost certainly be a different quality feed, with the packets probably constructed by different servers in a different geographical location.
In understanding this, it may be unsurprising that the streams are rarely in synch, with different time-lags behind the live stream. Even the viewing device will add different levels of delay compared to the person watching next door, due to buffering calculations relevant to that device and how good the network is that feeds it.
All of this barely scratches the surface of the number of things that can go wrong, or affect, the quality or streaming performance of live video. Even in the past, when video delivery networks were controlled end-to-end by a video service provider (encoding, multicast delivery, access network, residential gateway and the set-top box) as in satellite, cable, or early IPTV deployments, monitoring was essential for most providers. Without it, it could take days, weeks or even months to isolate an issue (especially when the issue occurred at random times), and in many case would often result in the video processing team, the core network team, the access network team and the retail team (residential gateway and STB) all pointing the finger of blame at one another.
The importance of demarcation monitoring in a multi-network environment
The move to adaptive streaming has further compounded all of these issues. Multiple bit rates, multiple adaptive protocols (HLS, DASH and legacy) and multiple delivery networks that are no longer owned by the video service provider (content delivery networks, multiple access networks), have all made video monitoring essential. It also means that for the video service provider, it is essential to know what the video transport quality looks like going into, and coming out of, the third-party networks. Demarcation monitoring is absolutely critical to understanding where the root cause of the video delivery issues start, so that the right teams (and company) can be deployed to fix them.
Complexities around latency have also crept in, and have, in many cases, taken video delivery backwards in terms of time-behind-live issues for live events. A great example of this is the challenge that video service providers have in synchronising multiple camera angles to the viewer on their home TV. The main TV feed may be coming across the core telecommunication network, while the different camera angles may be delivered using adaptive streaming across different national or global networks, introducing a significant lag from the main feed.
Video streaming “whenever” and “wherever” is now emerging out of its infancy, and people expect a good quality service – especially if they are paying for it. Real-time monitoring is absolutely critical to video streaming services, and due to the reasons above, involves an intimate understanding of the entire end-to-end process for video delivery. Real-time feedback is also essential for the future of zero-touch video services, where the data can be used instantly to correct or compensate for issues with the video service. Without real-time feedback from multiple points along the end-to-end delivery chain, closed loop capabilities are simply not possible.