OTT operators must make fundamental infrastructure choices in order to strike the best balance between investment, flexibility and scalability as well as the quality of experience delivered to the customer, says Stephane Cloirec of Thomson Video Networks TV Everywhere is an enticing prospect for consumers, content owners and service providers. For existing broadcasters, OTT is […]
OTT operators must make fundamental infrastructure choices in order to strike the best balance between investment, flexibility and scalability as well as the quality of experience delivered to the customer, says Stephane Cloirec of Thomson Video Networks
TV Everywhere is an enticing prospect for consumers, content owners and service providers. For existing broadcasters, OTT is a means of defending brand equity against the potential threat posed by streaming media and delivery direct to new generations of viewing devices by dedicated providers. Well-designed OTT services can enhance viewing and give a richer experience that media organisations can use to create an ecosystem that builds customer loyalty.
Thats the promise. But implementing OTT services is by no means a simple undertaking. There is no single proven template for success, and there are many technical challenges media organisations have to meet. What is certain is that a half-hearted bolt-on OTT offering will alienate customers and detract from the operators brand, as will poor service quality. To deliver services that will be an asset to the operator, careful planning is needed for the investment in an OTT platform.
For would-be OTT operators in the Middle East, the issues are broadly the same as for those in any other part of the world, and in fact OTT services is a sector in which local media operators can compete on a relatively level playing field with the bigger media brands.
But fundamental infrastructure choices have to be made in order to strike the best balance between investment, flexibility and scalability, and the quality of experience delivered to the customer. The need to transcode content for multiple platforms and keep pace with rapidly evolving consumer tastes in viewing devices means that the correct choice of transcoding strategy is vitally important.
Essentially, operators face a decision between building and maintaining a transcoding facility in-house, outsourcing the operation to a dedicated OTT service provider, or even using a cloud-based transcoding facility. Each has its advantages: an in-house facility is instantly available and completely under the control of the operator; while a cloud-based service allows operators to contain investment costs, and minimise the expense of keeping up with new formats.
Using a dedicated OTT service provider is usually a simpler approach, but it can be more expensive in the long run, and does not provide any experience capitalisation to the operator. A cloud-based service is usually also a better solution for coping with peaks and troughs in throughput; on the other hand, the costs of transporting media files to and from the cloud-based service can be significant, and the quality of service/quality of experience is more difficult to guarantee.
In practice, many operators find that to build flexibility into their system, while also being able to handle both live and file-based workflows, a combination of some in-house capacity with a cloud-based top-up is a good compromise. OTT operators want to offer the best possible video quality across a wide range of platforms, and be able to anticipate changes in standards. A combined approach covers these bases well. Cloud-based services should provide best-in-class compression and optimisation while also keeping abreast of any new codecs as the industry adopts them: this saves the operator much of the expense of regularly uprating an in-house facility.
This is particularly true for file-based workflows. But for live streaming, content owners and service providers need a convenient in-house solution. This is where recent industry developments are helping operators, as purpose-designed devices become available, offering a much more convenient and manageable platform for OTT services. Instead of constructing unwieldy parallel transcoding solutions for each target device, operators can launch OTT services with a purpose-designed device such as the Thomson Video Networks VS7000. This integrates multiple transcoding capability for devices from large-screen TVs to tablets and mobile phones, with class-leading compression performance and streamlined operation.
For OTT services to be accepted and gain popularity with audiences, they must offer quality that stands up to comparison with broadcast video. This means that not only must the video encoding provide optimal results for each viewing platform, but audio quality also must match the high standards of the video. The transcoding platform should deal efficiently with the processing of elements such as subtitles, banners, and teletext, providing output that works well on each target device.
Other criteria the OTT operator should look for in an in-house solution include a high degree of availability, ideally matching the 99.99% that broadcast services aim to provide: good fail-over and redundancy should be built-in. An in-house facility also needs to be readily scalable even if the operator is taking a combined in-house/cloud approach. While the option of cloud-based capacity to meet spikes in demand offers the operator a useful and instantly available resource, its important to maintain a balance between the in-house facility and the cloud-based service as the range of OTT activity expands, otherwise the operator risks becoming over-reliant on cloud transcoding. A purpose-designed device such as the VS7000 offers an architecture that makes scaling up far simpler, with extra blades and licenses easy to add.
Support for the widest range of standards is essential too. H.264 is the dominant video encoding format for live streaming at the moment HTML5 launch did not change the video format landscape in this respect but standards are in a continual state of flux. Alternatives such as Ogg Theora and WebM have gained less traction than H.264, but HEVC is a possible future solution that may be confirmed for OTT applications.
For adaptive streaming, Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH) is very promising, with a draft standard expected to be finalised early this year. Apple, Microsoft and the other key stakeholders in the industry have been collaborating on the standards process, and this holds out the promise of simpler deployment for OTT services in the future. Nevertheless, wise operators will always seek solutions that offer support for a range of alternative standards.
To make their OTT services as profitable as possible, operators are also looking for the greatest possible degree of workflow automation, to complement the platforms support for a large number of input formats and high-volume transcoding capacity. Automation of catch-up TV and targeted ad insertion are two areas where operators should expect to see gains as the technology develops.
There is continual development also in video compression technology vital for operators serving a growing base of users on a given bandwidth.
An important consideration for operators is to integrate metadata in their OTT operations, something that has not been a priority until now for the multiscreen environment. Metadata such as aspect ratio description, subtitle, closed captions and others are critical on traditional TV delivery systems. In the multiscreen environment support for subtitles, captions and other metadata varies between devices, but we can expect to see more widespread and standardised support developing as the OTT sector grows and services become available on television sets where the use of metadata has been the norm for many years.
Current research indicates that content providers expect to be making 75% of their content available via new distribution platforms within a few years.
Those who are now pioneering OTT services with perhaps 20 or 30 channels are planning to roll out OTT delivery of their entire line-up as the sector matures and demand increases. The availability of new integrated platforms for OTT is accelerating the process, and there are VS7000 deployments in Europe in the US and in Asia as providers move quickly to find and develop new multiscreen audiences.
Stephane Cloirec is director of product management, Thomson Video Networks.