The evolving battle to stream live content over the internet

From left to right, Clint Meeks, Jacques Le Mancq and Michael Dale discuss streaming technology. (Mike Dano/FierceCable)

DENVER—Over the past dozen or so years, providers ranging from RealNetworks to Netflix have helped push the streaming video market forward significantly, such that today SVOD providers can stream on-demand HD content to millions of users over the public internet without breaking much of a technological sweat.

The same, however, is not true about live content.

“Live TV over the internet has a lot of complicated issues, and we just haven’t gotten there yet,” explained Clint Meeks, manager of the content services product team at Dish Network’s Sling TV service.

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That comment, made here at the Pay TV Show, is noteworthy considering Dish’s Sling TV was the first major provider to stream live, linear TV content over the internet, having launched commercial services in the early part of 2015.

Added Meeks: “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get to real-time” streaming of zero-latency video content over the internet.

“There’s so many dimensions to this problem,” agreed Kerry Travilla, VP of technology at streaming technology vendor MobiTV.

But that’s not stopping providers like Sling TV and vendors like MobiTV from trying to improve the quality of live video streaming, as well as to increase the number of subscribers to those services. And they’re trying to do that through a number of different mechanisms.

A toolbox of solutions

First, vendors and providers are looking to new and more efficient video codecs in order to deliver more video to more users using fewer network resources. And while there’s a veritable alphabet soup of codecs—from HEVC to AV1—they’re all essentially computer codes that break down videos into packages of bits and bytes, though some are smaller and faster than others.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no consensus about which one to use.

“We’re deeply interested in AV1,” said Michael Dale, VP of engineering at Ellation. At Ellation, Dale heads development on the Crunchyroll streaming video service, which is available on more than a dozen device platforms. Dale added that Ellation is also taking a hard look at the VP9 codec.

Meanwhile, Sling TV’s Meeks said the company is primarily using the older H.264 codec. And Jacques Le Mancq, CEO of Broadpeak, said his company is mainly focusing on HEVC.

But, as providers and vendors explained, codecs are only a small part of the wider streaming industry’s efforts to more quickly deliver live video over the internet. “Getting the CDN right is one of the key pieces,” explained MobiTV’s Travilla.

Indeed, Sling’s Meeks said the company uses several CDN-specific techniques to speed the delivery of its live video streams, including using client and network software to monitor the performance of specific CDNs so that it can switch from sluggish, overloaded CDNs and onto faster CDNs. He said the company also works to balance its video loads across various CDN providers.

Meanwhile, Ellation’s Dale said his company specifically built a system to monitor CDN performance so that the company can move more quickly to CDNs that perform better. And Broadpeak’s Le Mancq said that the company pulls content from a variety of CDNs so that it can monitor the performance of those CDNs and shift its demand to those that are delivering content the fastest.

Beyond the CDN though, cloud service providers are also looking at ways to speed up the delivery of live video content, thereby reducing service latency. This, noted Scott Labrozzi, is critical for sports video—a noteworthy comment considering Labrozzi is the senior principal engineer at Bamtech Media, a company that made a name streaming live sports content before Disney acquired the company.

In its cloud service offerings, Amazon’s Evan Statton said the company is working on a variety of methods to speed up content delivery, including breaking videos up into smaller packages, as well as technologies that can start transferring videos before they’re completely encoded. Statton is the solutions architect at Amazon’s AWS Elemental cloud business.

A growing problem

Interestingly, Ellation’s Dale said his company is running tests to determine how best to improve the delivery of its video content. For example, he said the company is testing whether and how to stream video in the background of its user interface, and how that stream might affect user experiences in different network connection situations.

And Broadpeak, for its part, is working on technology to cache some video content in users’ homes, thus dramatically speeding up the delivery of that video content.

Finally, Sling TV’s Meeks said the company is investing in more advanced analytics technologies like big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence that he said could allow the company to obtain a better and more cohesive view of the performance of its service. He said those technologies are important because Sling TV creates hundreds of different types of analytics data every second.

As the video industry increasingly looks at ways to speed up the delivery of live video content over the internet, the issue may become even more pressing in the future. Much of today’s video streaming relies on SD and HD content, but live video content in the future may become much more difficult to deliver as higher-quality content technologies like 4K rise to the fore. Already, Ellation and MobiTV are each testing the delivery of 4K content over the internet.