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How to Navigate Today’s Bandwidth-Constrained, Multi-Codec World

Thu 10, 12 2020

Bart Van Daele 

Product Marketing Manager, Video Network

In many ways, 2020 has forced us to rethink norms we’d previously known to be true. But when it comes to video delivery, the primary concerns and demands from 2019 remain the same, if not elevated by the pandemic: bandwidth is still limited and consumer demand is still growing. And with people continuing to consume increased levels of content at home, the bandwidth challenge remains. As we look ahead to 2021, content distributors and video service providers must ask themselves: How do we deliver high-quality video at scale efficiently, while maintaining a high-quality user experience? The answer is a bit like 2020 – it’s complicated.

According to research from Conviva, viewers around the world spent 57% more time in Q3 streaming as compared to last year. In fact, every continent saw double to triple-digit increases – including a 104% increase in South America. With consumer demand for content not slowing down, content distributors and video service providers must take a serious look at the technologies and expertise available to help them navigate today’s multi-codec world, despite bandwidth constraints. This is a must not just for short-term needs, but for longer term, sustained growth.

Thankfully, both technology and expertise are now more available than ever before to help address such hurdles, particularly related to compression requirements needed to enable efficient and effective video content delivery to existing subscribers, and to help grow a subscriber base. Particularly in terms of software, service providers can leverage unprecedented flexibility in implementing codecs that identify and compress media content and automatically adjust bitrate and target quality level. So, what needs to be done first?

Content distributors and video service providers must ask themselves:

  • Are we properly scaling to address the viewer demand?
  • How can we scale preemptively? What do we need to take into consideration?
  • How can artificial intelligence (AI) help us scale ahead of time?
  • What can we do to ease the pressure on our network due to more demanding video applications?

A common denominator to each of these answers is addressing bit rate requirements for high quality video delivery. In the winter/spring of this year, many providers quickly reduced video service bit rates in anticipation of bandwidth concerns. While this took care of the immediate network congestion problem, it was ultimately a band-aid solution to a much deeper problem of scale. Most video services are still searching for the right route to address the bandwidth crunch. Added to this challenge is that new compression standards are emerging every few years, forcing the need for greater agility within a network to support faster reaction times and superior scalability for the ultimate viewing experience.

Enter the cloud

The cloud offers the scalability and flexibility needed to master the complex compression needs that result from increased viewership. It’s a clear case of supply and demand. Consumers want more content where they want it, when they want it. Content distributors and video service providers need the capabilities to help ensure this happens, or risk losing the subscriber.

From a compression technology vendor perspective, the ability to develop and automate the testing of multiple codecs in the cloud - and at scale - is truly game changing. It makes it possible to speed up development and to measure compression efficiency across a wide variety of test cases including different codecs, coding structures, coding tools, bit rates and resolutions.

The cloud also gives both compression tech vendors and service providers a huge advantage in scalability without CAPEX investment. However, when it comes to cloud deployment, there is often a perception of unlimited scale. Cloud services are not free, so it’s critical that codecs are optimized for efficiency – both in terms of cost and capabilities. Codecs developed for the cloud and in the cloud can allow providers to enjoy the benefits of truly agile cloud deployment.

When it comes to compression, it’s pretty simple math: the more you compress, the more you can store and the more you can transmit. But while simple, it is not easy. And that’s why content distributors and video service providers should look to partner with outside experts and technology innovators for success.

Considering Codecs

There’s no doubt this multi-codec world puts ultra-high quality, low latency video within reach, at scale. However, as the codec landscape becomes wider and more developed, it also becomes more convoluted as more encoders and decoders must be supported. In terms of encoding and client support, different codecs have different ideal applications – and often, several codecs run in parallel. Advanced Video Coding (AVC) and High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), for example, can enable low-latency live streaming for large scale events. But for enhanced compression performance and support for emerging broadcast technologies, added codecs like AOMedia Video 1 (AV1) can make the software stack more robust.

Several factors come into play when it comes to considering codecs, including delivery requirements, client and device support, footprint cost, OTT or broadcast encoder complexity and more. Not to mention the increasingly complex legal landscape for licensing codecs, and current momentum around royalty-free codecs. And with new displays constantly coming to market promising better and better picture quality, keeping up with the latest and finding the right compression route is no easy feat. Fortunately, there are experts who can help navigate the tumultuous waters of video codecs to enable service providers to take advantage of compression efficiency for the best video experiences.

How to Navigate

Next-generation video specifications, which are rapidly being brought to market, certainly make video compression more efficient, but also involve significant encoder complexity.

AI and Machine learning (ML) technologies allow compression technology providers to find a balance between bandwidth-efficient video streams and encoder complexity. Using AI-based models, it’s possible to enhance compression engines and optimize bandwidth savings based on content while reducing computational complexity. Machine learning facilitates decisions both at the rate control algorithm level and encoder level, thereby saving bandwidth costs and strains, and simultaneously speeding up processing.

Another technology to consider is Content Adaptive Encoding (CAE) by scene. This approach can further lower the bandwidth requirements while also deliver quality that is nearly constant perceptually. There are many expectations today, such as globalization and low latency that can lead to an explosion in the computational requirements of encoders. Those looking to expand into new geographies can benefit from CAE and from working with a technology partner who understands the ins and outs of the various codecs, implementation approaches and scalability requirements to help ensure high quality of experience (QoE) – all of which can be done as the business expands its reach.

The digitization of media has led to a constantly growing market demand. Today, the trend continues with the evolution of technology that offers increasing screen resolutions, frame rates and dynamic ranges - not only on televisions but also on mobile devices - and various modalities such as VR, multi view, 3D and 360 TV. In fact, the Cisco Visual Networking Index found that by 2022 IP video traffic will be 82% of all video traffic. More than ever, finding the right technologies and expertise to help avoid network congestion must be a priority for video service providers. Analyzing what subscribers are looking for, tackling the bandwidth challenge without sacrificing quality and leveraging advanced technologies to improve compression efficiency must all be factored into the equation to achieve both customer retention and acquisition.

We’ve learned in 2020 that navigating the future while planning for the unexpected is never easy, but it is mandatory. Content distributors and video service providers only see success if their viewers are happy with their experiences. In order to continuously deliver, companies need to leverage the right mix of technology and expertise so that in the end, they and their subscribers reap the benefits of today’s multi-codec world.  

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