World Cup: Last-mile broadband drives online streaming numbers

World Cup streaming

(Image source: iStockPhoto)

by Samantha Bookman

What's behind the huge spike in bandwidth around live sporting events like the World Cup? A rabid fan base certainly helps, but another key indicator is the ability of those fans to access live events online.

"Typically what we see is (in) the countries competing (in the World Cup) that have the best last mile bandwidth, you see higher bandwidth (use)," said Kurt Michel, director of product marketing at Akamai, which is delivering streaming content of the event to over 50 countries worldwide.

For example, last Tuesday's match between Mexico and Brazil peaked at 4.59 Tbps, the biggest spike ever for a live-streamed sporting event.

Akamai World Cup streaming traffic

By comparison, Akamai measured the highest global traffic peak during the Sochi Winter Olympics at 3.5 Tbps, a record setter for live sports at the time. But in the live streaming world, February was a long time ago.

Other top World Cup streaming matches included Spain vs. Chile (4.39 Tbps), Germany vs. Portugal (4.3 Tbps), and Uruguay vs. England (4.11 Tbps).

Akamai World Cup live traffic trend

Live global streaming traffic trends, June 12-24. (Source: Akamai)

Akamai's World Cup live traffic trend showed peaks on Monday and Tuesday that could be as high as those during the Brazil-Mexico match. The CDN provider confirms and finalizes its traffic numbers before posting them.

While higher bandwidth in better-connected countries makes sense, some smaller countries are also reporting big traffic jumps within their borders. In Colombia, for example, one ISP recorded a traffic spike greater than 100 percent even though only a few thousand of its customers actually streamed World Cup matches, according to a DiViNetworks report.

DiVinetworks Colombian ISP traffic World Cup

Traffic spikes on Colombian ISP during World Cup matches, June 14-18. (Source: DiViNetworks)

Why are we seeing such huge jumps in bandwidth, even in countries that don't have the same level of last-mile infrastructure as others? One part of the puzzle is the way online video is currently delivered.

While TV broadcasts send one signal to a large audience, "Internet serves individual demand--users select what they want to see and when," wrote Yair Shapira, EVP of products for DiViNetworks in a corporate blog post. "The Internet therefore utilizes a unicast method. The servers, such as web sites, handle each user separately, transmitting the data this user requested."

Akamai's Michel agreed that last-mile networks can affect traffic rates by country or region. "We look and measure against total traffic," he explained. "In countries with lower last mile bandwidth … only three people may be watching." The demand generated by those few users can tax a smaller ISP and drive up traffic rates.

During the match between Uruguay and Costa Rica, for example, traffic at the Colombian ISP jumped from 3 Gbps to 7 Gbps.

World Cup Uruguay DiViNetworks

Country-specific traffic during Uruguay-Costa Rica World Cup match. (Source: DiViNetworks)

"One may think that double bandwidth means double users. Nevertheless, analyzing the number of sessions tells a different story--merely few thousands of users generate this huge jump in traffic," Shapira wrote.

The quality of video being delivered to edge networks with lower capacity may be much less as well. As users load an ISP's channel with streaming requests, the bandwidth requirement rises correspondingly.

"Note that serving 4,000 users with HD quality requires more data capacity than some countries own altogether," Shapira wrote.

In Colombia, most viewers apparently turned to broadcast TV to watch the "must-see" Colombia-Greece match, Shapira noted, because streaming traffic recorded during that game was negligible, according to DiViNetworks data.

The result suggests that fans didn't want to miss a second of the match due to streaming issues. A survey by Conviva earlier this year found that viewing time for live streaming plummeted from over 40 minutes in HD to just one minute if the viewer experienced buffering.

What will the final result be for World Cup streaming rates? With the final matches looming in the next few days, Akamai's Michel expects global traffic to continue its climb.

"What we saw over the Olympics is the spikes got bigger over time. Part of that is people were learning that they can get the content (online). Then they word of mouth it to others. You see traffic increase. …That's something you don't get with a one-time event like a Super Bowl," he said, adding that a good-quality stream is also essential to getting and keeping online viewers.

In the United States, World Cup viewing is increasing, although that may largely depend on how well the U.S. soccer team performs. Sunday's tie game against Portugal set records for both television and WatchESPN viewing. If Michel's word-of-mouth prediction holds true, the U.S.--while still middle-of-the-chart in terms of global streaming traffic--could see continued records set as its team faces their next challenge against Germany on June 26.

World Cup: Last-mile broadband drives online streaming numbers