Akamai, Microsoft lead Olympics streaming support for NBC Sports

Courtesy of NBC Sports

For pay-TV customers, the 2016 Summer Olympics represents one of the best opportunities ever to see every single competitive event in the Games -- and see them in ways that weren’t possible before.

For example, AT&T-owned DirecTV, Dish Network and Comcast Xfinity subscribers will get to watch some of the Games in 4K Ultra HD format, including the opening and closing ceremonies on Aug. 5 and Aug. 21, respectively, and select events, albeit with a one-day delay. That content -- which is actually being down-converted from 8K -- is being provided by Olympic Broadcasting Services itself and Japan’s NHK to U.S. distributors to disseminate as they please.

More interesting, viewers will often be able to focus on a single event from beginning to end, and in the case of events that have multiple competitive divisions on one floor, such as gymnastics, viewers may be able to stick with a single division depending on what device they’re viewing the Games on.

That alone would make the NBC Sports app worth the pay-TV price of admission.

A viewing primer

How will the Games get to mobile devices, tablets and desktops? NBC holds the U.S. broadcast rights, which means online viewers must watch through NBC Sports’ website or its authenticated TV Everywhere app, rather than through a pure-play OTT service.

Cord cutters are pretty much out of luck when it comes to watching the Games in its entirety. NBC is allowing non-authenticated users to watch 30 minutes of the Olympics on their first visit via the website or an app; after that, users can only watch five minutes before being cut off.

Sling TV is one option available to those who don’t want to subscribe to cable for just three weeks. Signing up for the linear OTT service’s “Blue” option (its $25 mid-tier package) will allow viewers to watch the Games on Bravo, NBC (if it’s available in their area), NBC Sports Network, and USA. MSNBC and CNBC will be available to Blue subscribers during the Games as well, and will have more than 120 additional hours of coverage.

Add the “Sports Extra” package for $5 more and all of the Olympics’ golf events can be watched via the Golf Channel. And Spanish-speaking viewers can access “extensive” coverage of the Games via the “Best of Spanish TV” package.

Owned by Dish Network, Sling TV is distributing its linear signal in much the same way a pay-TV operator would -- except over the internet.

But NBC Sports’ authenticated experience is a separate, dedicated stream that for the first time could outdo anything its traditional distributors have been able to make available to viewers.

From Rio to Anytown, U.S.A.

The technical aspects of bringing IP video from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to U.S. living rooms are pretty much the same as that required to get streaming video from Netflix or YouTube to viewers.

Chris Knowlton, vice president and streaming evangelist at encoding provider Wowza told FierceOnlineVideo that all of the OTT streams for the Olympics originate through Wowza Streaming Engine servers. "I haven’t seen the workflow, but I'm guessing OBS is using Engine primarily for the video processing and normalization out of the encoders, and then broadcasters do late binding of their own audio," he said.

NBC Sports will send its digital video from Brazil to its broadcast center in Stamford, Connecticut. From there, the online version of its Olympic broadcast will stream to viewers across the United States thanks to a number of integrated services.

NBC is relying on a trifecta of providers to make sure its digital signal gets through reliably, with good quality, and a little latency as possible. Akamai, Microsoft and Adobe each bring important components to the streaming delivery.

Microsoft Azure makes up the cloud platform on which NBC Sports’ video delivery structure resides. NBCU’s recently announced end-to-end streaming platform, Playmaker Media, was built on Azure and utilizes Azure Media Services.

Through that platform and Azure’s cloud support -- which will include a huge number of compute cores and storage within Microsoft’s data centers, according to General Manager Sudheer Sirivara -- NBC’s Olympics video will stream from Stanford via Microsoft Azure’s East and West data centers. “This allows the highest amount of redundancy” to ensure its 1080p HD stream reaches multiple types of streaming devices at the best possible quality, said Sirivara in an interview with FierceOnlineVideo.

Akamai will be providing its content delivery network service and adding a dimension of QoE monitoring through its new Broadcast Operations Control Center, which it says will help pinpoint streaming issues and choke points during the hundreds of live broadcasts scheduled to take place throughout the Summer Games. (NBC Sports estimates an average of 356 hours of live broadcasting per day during the nearly three-week event.)

Adobe Primetime will reprise its role in providing playback, ad insertion and authentication services to NBC’s Olympics app, as it did in 2012 and 2014. (The company is also playing significant roles in other areas, but was unable to publicly comment on these at press time. We’ll update this report as soon as that information becomes available.)

Managing QoE

Of course, despite all the glowing references to the technology powering online delivery of the Olympics to U.S. viewers, quality of experience (QoE) is a continuing, nagging issue for streaming providers across the board.

Wowza’s Knowlton, who preaches the gospel of livestreaming efficiency regularly at OTT industry events, discussed the reason for redundancy in an interview with FierceOnlineVideo.

“I think back to our first live stream with Microsoft from the French Open … we had a problem because a network router in some closet on the Level 3 network went offline,” he said. “It’s those little things. Which is why you want a second CDN.” Detecting issues like that can take time, and in the meantime a video stream is buffering or disappearing entirely -- but falling back to a second CDN can prevent significant outages or lag time.

“At Microsoft when we were helping with the 2008 Olympics we had two CDNs. The idea is you don’t want one hot CDN and one cold CDN. If you want all edge caches for the secondary network warmed up and available for instant failover… you want that secondary CDN delivering some content all of the time,” Knowlton said. “… and you might even have a cold set of edges on a third CDN.”

And don’t forget alternate methods of resolving QoE problems, he noted, pointing out vendors like Cedexis, which monitors delivery of streams in real time on the last-mile network, and dynamically re-routes traffic based on “crowdsourced” data received from end devices.

Akamai and Microsoft Azure have a number of contingency solutions in place to reduce outages, buffering and low quality video. For example, Akamai will be monitoring NBC’s live streams in its newly built BOCC (Broadcast Operations Control Center) in Cambridge, Mass., using a team of up to 12 engineers to detect streaming issues within its CDN and resolve them as quickly as possible.

Microsoft Azure, in the meantime, already has an operations team that supports NBC Sports properties, and will deploy a special team for the Games. “We’ll monitor the signal from NBC in Rio all the way through the cloud,” Sirivara said. Dashboards on the Azure platform and on NBC’s Playmaker platform will monitor the health of the streams, and Microsoft will be coordinating with Akamai and its CDN partners as well, he said. Additionally, through partnering with Adobe, “we have instruments in the (video) players as well to detect problems” at the device level.

A use case for future viewing spikes

All three providers have supported NBC Sports’ Olympics streaming before -- Microsoft has worked with the network since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while Akamai joined up to provide CDN services and Adobe its authentication technology beginning with the 2012 London Games. But what makes this year’s event so significant is the level of streaming being done, and what it signifies for the future of OTT sports streaming in general.

“Historically, marquee sports have driven TV Everywhere usage. After (a big) event, overall usage tends to be higher than before,” said Campbell Foster, director of product marketing at Adobe. For example, during March Madness, about 40 percent of U.S. households capable of authenticating into a TVE app did so. After the basketball tournament, authentication levels fell to around 20 percent, but were significantly higher than before the tourney. “We're hoping that 30 to 40 percent (of U.S. households) will authenticate for the Olympics, either via home-based authentication or by logging in,” Foster said.

Akamai has seen similar user behavior following major sporting events. The most recent example was the Euro Cup futbol tournament, which topped the overall data traffic record set during the 2014 World Cup. For Euro’s final match, the CDN provider saw peak traffic rates during overtime of 7.2 Tbps.

“Whatever peak we hit in August will probably become the run rate norm in a few months,” said Akamai CTO John Bishop. “7 Tbps could be the new normal Tuesday run rate in a few months.”

Whatever the results for the actual Olympic athletes competing in Brazil, the race toward maintaining a high-quality digital video stream amid increasing data traffic could be just as interesting to the online video industry.

“Last year was the year of pay-TV displacement due to OTT proving its viability,” said Bishop. “For 15 years internet video chased traditional television, which implemented technologies like HD years ago … now, the internet is the passport for things like 4K.”

Four years from now, the 4K UHD and virtual reality content samples that are being doled out by pay-T providers could be standard features for Olympics viewers online.

Updated Aug. 5 with additional information on Wowza encoding.