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January 21, 2016
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What it means for TV when you can deliver live OTT streams in perfect time with broadcast signals

Live events broadcasting could be significantly enriched when OTT live streams are in perfect sync with broadcast signals (Pic: Net Insight)

Content owners and service providers are being offered the chance to deliver live OTT streams to multiscreen devices without any delays compared to the live satellite, cable, DTT or multicast IPTV signals of the same content. It means that viewers using a tablet or smart TV will not be 30 seconds or even two minutes behind the live broadcast signal when watching streaming video and that has some far-reaching implications for television.

To start with, you can improve social TV, since tweets from broadcast viewers or lesser-delayed OTT viewers do not warn you that the penalty (in a football match) was missed before you see it taken. Companion screen applications and experiences can also be enhanced. It becomes possible to stream an OTT feed from a racing driver’s helmet camera to a tablet and know the stream will be in perfect synchronization with the live broadcast signal (and therefore the main camera angle chosen by the show producer) on a television set. In a live talent show you could watch the action from the judge’s point of view on a tablet and that would sync exactly with the traditional ‘audience view’ of the stage that is on the living room television.

Perhaps most importantly, the live CDN technology that eliminates ‘behind-true-live’ delays for streaming video takes us a step closer to the vision that television is one service that just happens to be available on different screens. It makes it easier to integrate the online streams and the broadcast signals within the same overall user experience. The best example is the concept of ‘swipe to TV’ where you are watching on a tablet and you swipe your hand towards the television to switch the viewing session from the handheld device onto the big screen. If the broadcast signal and online stream are perfectly synchronized, a service provider can move you to the satellite signal or the IPTV multicast on the television set without jumping you forward 90 seconds (from the delayed Internet stream on your tablet to the real-live broadcast). 

The live CDN technology is currently being implemented by Tata Communications and will be commercially deployed with a customer towards the end of Q1. The video contribution, preparation, playout and distribution service provider has made it an option within its Media Ecosystem service for media companies. The new capability relies on a virtualized live-CDN software developed by Net Insight, the Swedish video transport specialist best known for its Nimbra video-over-managed-IP products. Two years ago Net Insight developed contribution products to move video over the unmanaged Internet, enabling companies to ‘uplink’ content from stadia or news events at lower cost. Since then it has been developing its ‘true live’ OTT distribution solution.  

In order to take advantage of ‘true live’ OTT, content owners, broadcasters and platform operators need to build their own live-optimized CDN using the Net Insight technology or, more likely, work with a CDN provider who is implementing the new technology (as virtualized software that will work on their origin servers and edge servers). Tata Communications is the launch partner for ‘true live OTT’ but other CDN providers will be announced over the next six months. If you are a media company, your on-demand streaming, linear streaming and even the bulk of your live streaming can remain untouched. Only the channels or events that require true live OTT delivery need to be routed through the live-optimized CDN infrastructure. This is a service that can be provided on a programme-by-programme basis by a company like Tata Communications, although in practice a whole sports channel is likely to be assigned to the live-CDN, according to Per Lindgren, Senior VP of Strategy & Business Development at Net Insight.

Using this new CDN model, live event content (news, music concerts, sports, for example) is multicast across the network to edge servers and then unicast to consumers on request. (It is possible to use an existing multicast infrastructure but Net Insight can also build its own overlay multicast structure so you only need to send one copy per content stream to each edge location.) Time-stamps are used to ensure that the streams from the edge servers are precisely synchronized with the live broadcast signals and also with each other (i.e. with all the other live OTT streams of this content that are being requested from edge servers). 

The final synchronization is enabled by software on the end devices (using an SDK from Net Insight that is integrated into multiscreen apps). This means that whatever device people are watching on, and whether they are on home Wi-Fi networks or mobile networks, if they use the same service provider for all their TV (most likely a Pay TV operator) they will see the same content at the same time as everyone else. The live-CDN provider (using Net Insight’s software) synchronizes the OTT streams and broadcast signals on a per-customer basis. Thus if Tata Communications had two Pay TV customers in a country, both offering a TV Everywhere service, its satellite customer would have the satellite signal and OTT unicasts synchronized and the cable operator would have its OTT unicasts synchronized to its cable signals. 

One of the main points of this ‘true live’ CDN technology is that it can eliminate social media spoilers, like Tweets telling you what happens (from someone watching broadcast TV) before your OTT stream has reached that scene, and also ensure that all social comments coincide with the big moment for everybody. It means friends can ‘talk’ to each other about the content as they watch it, with all of them remaining in synchronization (imagine a group of teenage lads commenting on the football in real-time).

Precise synchronization between the OTT feed and the television broadcast signal also creates new opportunities for companion screen applications. In-game betting and targeted second screen advertising both benefit from true synchronization with a broadcast signal, while games, voting and polling can also be improved.

This product achieves OTT/broadcast synchronization within the same delivery network. There are sometimes delays of a few seconds between a live broadcast signal arriving over satellite and the live broadcast signal arriving over digital terrestrial or cable. Your friend may see a goal three seconds ahead of you on their broadcast signal if they have a different Pay TV operator. But as Lindgren points out, this is not long enough to send social messages that would be spoilers. If your live OTT viewing is in sync with your live broadcast signal then you remain just 2-3 seconds behind your friend at all times even if they are watching live broadcast with another Pay TV operator and you are watching the multiscreen feed from your service provider on your tablet and you have been streaming now for two hours. You will not hear about the goal from your mate before you see it for yourself. 

The problem with live streaming video today, as Lindgren explains, is that the delay behind live broadcast tends to increase over the duration of the viewing session. There may already be a 25 second delay when you join the stream but buffering can mean that after half an hour the delay may have increased to minutes rather than seconds. The longer the delay, the more chance that you will have heard everything that happened during a sports event before you saw it for yourself.

But while improved social TV is an important benefit and an immediate gain, the bigger opportunities lay ahead with true-live OTT. Lindgren believes that television producers will be emboldened to give viewers more camera angles if they know that you can view each angle on a different screen and that they will all be in perfect harmony. It could open the door to new companion screen applications. 

Last November Tata Communications used the Singapore Grand Prix to deliver a proof-of-concept for the true-live OTT capabilities. Live track-side action was transported over traditional contribution networks to the UK, then transcoded in London and delivered OTT to the Biggin Hill, UK headquarters of Formula One Management. There, viewers watched the additional (OTT) feed on an app alongside the main broadcast signal. The test was to show how the frame-accurate synchronization of different camera views can enrich the fan experience. "It is very interesting to prove that it is possible to achieve an online delivery of additional content with no delay relative to the main live programme on the screen,” John Morrison, Chief Technical Officer at Formula One Management, confirmed. This whole exercise also highlighted the glass-to-glass capabilities of Tata Communications.

Tata Communications is the official connectivity provider to Formula 1 and the live OTT video feed used its global fibre network and its Media Ecosystem suite of video transport and management services. Mehul Kapadia, Managing Director of F1 Business at Tata Communications, declared that, “delivering a successful low latency feed to an app is a landmark step.”

Per Lindgren says the true-live OTT technology is a game-changer when it comes to engaging audiences. “Broadcasters know that younger people need to feel engaged and active and this technology enables that.”

Although hailed as a solution for live content, the Net Insight technology can also be applied to non-live linear viewing like a scripted drama series. The effect is the same: synchronization of social messaging to the broadcast signal and the OTT feed. 

This new technology also has a beneficial side-effect: ‘channel change’ times when moving between different live/linear OTT feeds are dramatically reduced. In this environment, this really means the start-up time for your new OTT session is low. But if each OTT session start-up is extremely fast and if the user experience lets you swipe-left or swipe-right to change sessions (like the tablet app demonstration Net Insight gave when announcing their new product) this ‘session-start’ begins to quickly look like a channel change. 

This is another example of how the live-optimised CDN model helps consumers see beyond ‘television plus multiscreen TV’ towards ‘one television service on all screens’. The lines between traditional TV and streamed video will blur a little more thanks to this new technology. Net Insight will not say how they improve the ‘channel-change’ times for OTT but says the benefits apply to all content using the new distribution ‘platform’, including linear as well as live streams.

Another ‘side-effect’ of using the live-optimised CDN infrastructure is that picture quality is improved, Net Insight claims. Lindgren explains: “Normal CDNs are 100% HTTP-based so they use the packet recovery used in traditional file and web transfer, using the standard TCP protocol. We add better packet recovery mechanisms to ensure that we recover more packets. So even with very high packet drop ratios, like above 10%, we can ensure a perfect stream. With adaptive bit rate streaming, you go down in ABR rates [switch to a lower bit rate option] when your normal packet recovery mechanisms cannot successfully recover your packets. ABR is your second level of resiliency. We do not have to use that second level as quickly and as often as normal CDN solutions.”

In very simple terms, the better packet recovery means you can stay at the higher ABR bit rates for longer, and that means viewers get a better picture more of the time. 

Fredrik Tumegård, CEO of Net Insight, believes that when you put all these benefits together you have a ground-breaking innovation. “This will change the way we consume TV today. This is one of the most important evolutions of the media industry in many years and it opens up many new business opportunities for the entire media and entertainment ecosystem,” he says. Lindgren adds that true-live OTT will enable content owners and service providers to fully monetise the value of live content and ‘restate the broken promise of the social and interactive TV experience.”

For Net Insight, this was a natural move after the success of its unmanaged Internet video contribution products. The company decided that the traditional Internet and CDN infrastructure is too focused on on-demand distribution, whereas the serious money in television still emanates from live events like sports. Besides providing the software for the live-optimised CDN, Net Insight provides an SDK for app developers to integrate ‘true live OTT’ into their multiscreen services. The end-device (like a tablet) must be able to request a stream from the live-optimised CDN and then a different stream from the original CDN in order for the system to work. An app update from the content owner or platform operator (like for a TV Everywhere app) takes care of this.

Lindgren admits that if you use ‘true live’ OTT and your multiscreen viewing is synchronized with broadcast, there is less opportunity to get out of trouble if you have a network glitch. With less buffering, a network outage would impact the service faster. But testing has shown that such network problems are very rare and you can take the decision, during the streaming, to retreat from live OTT to a delayed OTT stream if the network conditions are causing problems.  Lindgren says that during testing there were seldom any problems that defeated the new live experience. Almost always, when an OTT stream begins its life synchronized to live broadcast, it ends its life still synchronized with the live broadcast feed.

According to Brian Morris, Vice President & General Manager for Global Media and Entertainment Services at Tata Communications, his company’s Media Ecosystem is helping customers to redevelop their media distribution strategies. “One of the drivers when looking at those strategies is how they handle OTT. We are seeing a significant growth in OTT distribution and with the Net Insight technology we can not only provision OTT for them but offer them an enhanced OTT environment.” There will be a premium to pay above a normal CDN solution to reflect the added value – “not a large premium but definitely a premium,” Morris notes. 

Morris reports that in the proof-of-concept for Formula One Management last November, a secondary test distributed ten OTT feeds in synchronization with the broadcast satellite signal, each one giving the viewpoint from a different car. “This gives people the chance to customise their OTT viewing.” Morris highlights the impact that true synchronization can have if you provide personally chosen multi-camera angles, social networking and gambling alongside sports. He adds: “We are looking at any kind of content where many people are watching on different screens and where there will be social engagement. News would be another example.”

For Morris, this is all about enhancing the end-user experience and providing differentiation for his clients. The Net Insight solution therefore increases the overall value proposition from Tata Communications. 

Net Insight talks about ‘true live’ OTT as a game-changer. The ability to synchronize properly with social TV commentary is smart but what really stands out about this solution is its potential to converge broadcast and OTT programming experiences and therefore enrich them. In a multiscreen world, a live television show can become a more holistic experience if different feeds over different networks can all arrive in perfect harmony on different screens in a room. ‘True live’ becomes one of the technologies leading us to more immersive, 360 degree television. 

This technology also makes it possible (especially for Pay TV operators who do not use broadcast-to-IP gateways to serve live television to their TV Everywhere apps in consumer homes, but who rely on Internet delivery direct to the apps – see note directly below) to make the multiscreen viewing a more natural complement to the main television. It will allow viewers to switch more easily between screens for some of the most important programming of all, like live sports, and so hastens the day when we drop the term ‘multiscreen TV’ altogether and revert to just ‘TV’.

 

Note about broadcast-to-IP gateway distribution

Per Lindgren reckons that if you assume content streamed from a broadcast-to-IP gateway to multiscreen devices in a Pay TV home uses HLS or MPEG-DASH standards, an operator might stipulate a minimum of three ABR segments to be buffered at the client device (e.g. the tablet or laptop) and a minimum segment size of two seconds. This means a minimum delay of six seconds. He thinks we should factor in some additional store-and-forward delay at the set-top box (the gateway). “This will build up over time but to a lesser degree than [normal] OTT over CDNs,” he argues. 

The broadcast-to-IP gateway whole-home streaming solution does not enable perfect synchronization if you switch your viewing session from the tablet to the set-top box, he contends. The tablet unicast IP stream (coming from the STB) would be at least six seconds behind the television connected to the set-top box (showing the live broadcast signal). You would have to lose those six seconds unless the STB buffers the broadcast signal for six seconds so the STB live broadcast signal is itself delayed to the same point as the tablet. “This would require some protocol to send over timing information but that is possible,” he reports.

Lindgren does not believe this is a practical option, not least because you are then delaying the main broadcast signal to the home. This means that the broadcast-to-IP gateway, though better than pure Internet streaming if trying to unify broadcast and OTT experiences, cannot provide what Net Insight and Tata Communications now offer with the ‘true live’ OTT solution.

 

Interested in immersive and ‘360 degree’ television?

Then check out Connected TV World Summit 2016 (London, March 16-17) where two innovation workshops focus on technologies that could change video story-telling and production.

Innovation Workshop: VR, AR and AI

Innovation Showcase: Immersive Television

See the full conference agenda here.