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January 29, 2014
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Akamai gives new clues to the future of Internet video delivery

Akamai has been providing a number of clues about how the company intends to dramatically increase the performance of the Internet for video streaming to support Ultra HD and ultimately match the scale and quality of broadcast TV. One big clue could be found on the Qualcomm stand at International CES 2014 when that company’s subsidiary, Qualcomm Atheros, was demonstrating its IPQ home gateway. Among other things this included a proof-of-concept client software from Akamai that is designed to optimize the delivery and pre-positioning of content like video and software.

The client software is not a product yet but Akamai is certainly talking as if it will be. Kris Alexander, Chief Strategist, Connected Devices & Gaming at Akamai, says, “The demo offers a glimpse into the future of the Akamai platform as we explore ways to move beyond the edge and onto devices of many types – not only gateways but game consoles, set-top-boxes, Blu-ray players, connected TVs and more.”

With Akamai’s Intelligent Software onboard, you can make more efficient use of resources between the network provider and the Qualcomm Atheros IPQ smart gateway, and between the gateway and in-home connected devices, Alexander reports. Akamai is talking about “markedly faster and more reliable consumer experiences” for broadband delivered services. Alexander says this kind of evolution will help to meet existing bandwidth demands. “It will also pave the way for delivering the massive amounts of video and other content at scale, including 4K.”

Last autumn, Ahmet Ozalp, VP Products and Strategy for International Markets at Akamai, alluded to this development during a presentation at the DigiWorld Summit 2013, organized by French research/analyst firm IDATE. He outlined several requirements of a next generation CDN platform including multicast, prepositioning of content and client-assisted delivery, including peer assisted delivery. He also predicted that OTT video quality will meet and then exceed broadcast levels.

The client-side innovations are part of a bigger picture in the quest to improve the Internet (and Dr Tom Leighton, CEO and Co-Founder of Akamai has outlined three ‘grand challenges’ for his company: Instant web performance for any device, anywhere; The ultimate in video quality over IP at scale; and Ensuring the web is secure). Last year Akamai introduced an important optimization on the network side, which does not rely on any client software and which is contained within the edge servers. This is FastTCP, an algorithm designed to improve on the Internet’s standard TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) performance for high packet loss or high latency network connections.

FastTCP (which came to Akamai as part of its 2012 acquisition of FastSoft) is deployed across the Akamai Intelligent Platform. It was a major focus for the company at IBC last September, not surprising given that HTTP-based on-demand and live streaming, and large file downloads like music files, apps and Ultra HD video content are among the main beneficiaries.

To gauge the impact of FastTCP the company measured performance for various customers before and after the network upgrade and this indicated significant improvements in select customer and end user instances. In Europe and North America there were 15+% performance improvements.

“These increases not only improved download speeds for music, games and videos but also enhanced the quality of streaming video content, helping Akamai customers to enjoy higher end-user satisfaction and engagement times,” the company said at the time. “In addition, re-buffering improvements in excess of 40% were observed in sampled networks in the U.S., India, and Europe. These improvements dramatically reduced the number of times a video stream delivered by Akamai paused or stalled, which has been shown to increase viewer retention rates.”

With standard TCP a server sends information over the Internet and uses acknowledgements to determine whether packets got there and the state of the network, and therefore whether it needs to send packets again and/or lower the bit rate. Bit rates can keep increasing until lost packets or lost acknowledgements highlight a problem and the speeds are reduced. FastTCP changes how much data can be sent to begin with, partly by predicting queuing in the network, and how long the server waits for acknowledgements before assuming it needs to take some remedial action. This stops the bit stream accelerating and then backing off in bursts and so smooths out the transmission rate, resulting in a better overall throughput.

FastTCP can improve delivery performance but it also means you can extend the reach of various broadband delivered services. The implications for OTT video, whether from online video providers, channels going direct to consumer or Pay TV providers with TV Everywhere or standalone bouquets, is obvious.

Nobody is getting carried away. Akamai acknowledges the huge task ahead if we want the Internet to stream live events to 100 million viewers, but this is what the company is clearly working towards. FastTCP and the Akamai clients in connected devices are viewed as part of a group of technologies that will, eventually, lead us there.