Starz Play Arabia recently launched its 4K UHD direct-to-consumer service becoming the first SVOD service provider to do so in the MENA region. BroadcastPro ME brings you details of the technology behind the service
When Starz Play Arabia launched in April last year, it marked the first Starz-branded service outside of the US. One year later in May, the service achieved a technological milestone by launching its first 4K UDH service in the region.
“Making 4K a reality is just one of many initiatives coming from Starz Play in recent months,” says Maaz Sheikh, CEO of Starz Play Arabia.
“Technical upgrades have been a key focus area of Starz Play and offering 4K is a way to differentiate our service. Starz Play features movies and series from all the major studios and has signed deals all over the world to bring the best content possible to its subscriber base,” Sheikh comments.
However, in a region with limited broadband penetration, launching a 4K stream came with numerous challenges.
Saleem Bhatti, Chief Technology Officer of Starz Play Arabia, says “the particular challenge is when VOD services deliver 4K quality to an off-net CDN’s network POP”.
“The overall network infrastructure is still growing throughout MENA, so delivery of an end-to-end 4K service will become easier as more service providers begin 4K services. The ISP or telco owns the last mile delivery and unless they deliver a constant and robust 15Mbps bitrate that is dedicated to the 4K stream, the quality of experience will be affected.”
4K content is delivered at a 2160p resolution over IP networks, and most of the streaming service providers focus on encoding standards and bitrate optimisations to maintain quality across devices. To achieve a certain standard of delivery, therefore, required preparation on the part of the Starz Play team. According to Bhatti, encoding is just one aspect of delivery.
“Like most streaming service providers, we started by optimising the encoding bitrates and worked on the best possible renderings for a seamless delivery,” says Bhatti.
The company opted for several different solutions to achieve 4K delivery within the existing broadband infrastructure of the region. One of the ways was to analyse the realistic average throughput to end users.
With the help of Global Traffic Manager, a solution from its partner Cedexis, Starz Play Arabia has combined real-time internet performance monitoring with real-time global traffic management using crowd-sourced Real User Monitoring from the Cedexis Radar Community.
“By using real user metrics, we retrieve the realistic average internet throughput available to end users residing in different regions, countries, cities and even ISPs. This valuable data has allowed us to create algorithms that have helped to automate the detection of devices capable of handling 4K video streams,” says Bhatti.
The service uses multiple CDNs – Level 3 and Akamai – to provide an unhindered viewing experience.
To switch between different CDNs in real-time, it uses a combination of Radar and Cedexis Openmix technology. Cedexis Openmix improves application availability by load balancing across multiple cloud regions or cloud and private data centres. It automatically responds to detected server, data centre and ISP peering congestion and outages. This has helped Starz Play to avoid any CDN throughput bottlenecks, and select the best CDN to deliver 4K streams.
By utilising this intelligence layer deployment over the platform, Starz Play has improved re-buffering issues, and avoided streaming start failures, resulting in significantly improved video start times.
“Our next challenge was to maintain business KPIs alongside growing technical requirements. By selecting the best traffic-shaping decisions, the company managed to maintain performance, reduce costs and make availability improvements regardless of tier-2 challenges,” adds Bhatti.
Providing 4K to partners
Starz Play syndicates 4K content to a number of telcos throughout the region, with this offering being available to partner service providers in the UAE, KSA and Qatar.
“We had earlier announced a partnership with Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. MENA to bring the latest 4K content to its customers in the region as well as a partnership with Ooredoo Qatar to provide premium 4K English and Arabic content through Ooredoo tv and Mozaic TV services to viewers in Qatar,” confirms Sheikh.
The entire service from the ground up was designed using cloud-based services, he adds.
This gave flexibility across a number of key areas in the production process. Importantly for 4K, working within the cloud takes the strain out of 4K logistics with the transfer and storage of over 100TB of content – often with 4K files sizes approaching 1TB.
“We could not have accomplished the speed of delivery if we had committed to our own transcode farms, say, two years ago – they would have buckled under the strain. Redundancy and ROI are not an issue for us with our cloud infrastructure,” notes Bhatti.
Starz Play’s transcoding partner is deep linked to the company’s cloud and offers prioritised services specifically for 4K. The operator produces adaptive bitrate formats for OTT and IPTV formats for telco partnerships – all accomplished through fast, automated and secure workflows.
Along the way, the service monitors quality control and embeds subtitles in Arabic and French.
A 4K technology primer
4K UHD has four times the clarity of full-HD content, thus four times more bandwidth is required to process and stream the content. 4K is very bandwidth-hungry, so it is always a challenging task to squeeze it into less bandwidth and provide the service over-the-top – where the speed of delivery to a consumer’s home is over the internet and not through a dedicated broadband link as with IPTV. The broadband throughput of the last-mile to consumers remains crucial for a successful experience viewing 4K UHD at home.
Source files are large (700 GB in size) and Starz Play has tested different compression codecs (H.264, HEVC) to ensure quality at different bitrates, app responses and delivery, the CTO claims.
“Based on multiple tests at different locations and end-points, we decided to use HEVC transcoding for PRORes files in multiple renditions,” informs Bhatti.
Adaptive-bitrate streaming with different renditions for the 4K service helps Starz Play to deliver life-like experiences on big-screens. The company has optimised its backend and streaming platform in a way that accelerates app start times. Video playback reaches the highest bitrate in 10-15 seconds. Starz Play provides three 4K streams – 3840 x 2160 @ 10 Mbps, 3840 x 2160 @ 12 Mbps and 3840 x 2160 @15 Mbps.
The 4K streams are now available to a growing subscriber base throughout the region as Starz Play continues to build its 4K library.