Three-Screen Data: Adaptive Streaming Controls the Trickle and Flow

Cable operators love the idea of delivering content to televisions, computers and mobile devices. More precisely, they love the revenue these services will create. What they don’t love -- or, more precisely, what their technical staffs don’t love – is the complexity involved in making it all happen.

During the first months of 2011, the industry’s effort to remake itself into a provider of three-screen services is at once becoming more complex and a bit simpler.

The simplification involves moves by vendors to use the three common adaptive streaming (AS) protocols in a manner that requires as little duplication of effort as possible. The complexity involves an issues related to AS, which is the desire on the part of some operators to create their own content delivery networks (CDNs).

Sorting Out Adaptive Streaming

A key delivery mechanism for delivery of programming to the exploding armies of PCs, smartphones, tablets and other devices is adaptive streaming. As the name implies, AS is the delivery of programming to end user devices at the optimum bit rate. That bit rate is determined by the overall capacity of the network, the congestion at a given point in time, demands of the device, the nature of the programming and other variables.

Essentially, the devices and the network monitor variables and use the most appropriate profile -- or bit rate level -- that the system can handle at a given point in time. Jeff Brooks, Arris’ VP for IP video product line management says that a better understanding is being gained of how to maintain quality to users. The idea is to introduce intelligence that can make judicious decisions as conditions change.

An example of these network smarts, Brooks explains, is agilely adjusting buffer sizes in the end points when the network is stressed instead of automatically reducing the bit rate to all devices. "We believe that some communications is necessary between the server and the client in maintaining the quality of the experience from a system level as opposed to an individual client level."

If that isn’t complicated enough, the industry is dealing with a trio of approaches: Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming -- part of Silverlight -- Adobe’s Dynamic Streaming and Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS). But, like it or not, it is something that must be handled. "TV Everywhere cannot be accomplished without adaptive streaming," says Dhaval Ajmera, Verismo Networks’ EVP of sales and marketing. "Absolutely, operators understand that."

The bottom line is that the new world in which cable operators no longer are able to tightly control end users’ technology raises some difficult issues. It is a tactical challenge -- and a broad psychological change that runs counter to the industry’s heritage and legacy of tight control.

"What we see in a lot of areas going forward is that service providers in the past controlled what technology was deployed in the network," notes Kip Compton, the general manager of Cisco’s video and content platforms business unit. "What is happening is that the model is changing and the consumer is selecting the device. If the consumer has an iPad and wants to view content that he is already paying for, the operator has to support that." Compton said that Cisco’s acquisition of Inlet Technologies, announced on Feb. 4, is an effort to confront that thorny issue.

Juniper Networks, through its Media Flow Publisher product, is among the other vendors targeting the need to simplify the delivery of programming to devices that use different AS protocols. Jeff Tyre, the company’s senior manager for the content and media business unit, says that the current approach is to carry streams encoded in H.264 in MPEG-2 bit streams to the edge of the network. At that point, a process informally referred to as "re-containerization" essentially re-encapsulates the data in the needed AS protocols.

CDNs on the Agenda

The work on AS is an example of the growing pains as traditional cable operators evolve to be service providers capable of dishing up streamed video to a heterogeneous crowd of diverse devices. In the longer term, observers say, the industry has to decide how it wants to approach CDNs, which can be seen as an emerging framework into which the AS technology will fit.

At this point, the future path of CDNs is cloudy. "There is not one approach, but [cable operators] are all talking," Nabil Kanaan, RGB Networks’ director of product marketing, explains. "It is a bit of a wild west situation."

The question is as basic as whether operators want to own their own CDNs or work with existing CDN providers, which include Akamai – said to be the top dog -- Limelight, EdgeCast, Level 3, Alcatel-Lucent’s Velocix, Cisco’s CDS and others.

It is both a technical and strategic question. "The drama today is whether to build their own CDNs or lease from CDN companies," Marty Roberts, VP of sales and marketing for thePlatform, says. He adds that an option for the future – content peering between CDNs used by various MSOs – can’t happen if the industry settles on a leasing model. Offering CDN services to enterprises, an attractive side business, also is more viable if the network is owned by the operator.

The year ahead will be an important one. Work on AS will continue, and some of the answers on the CDN questions will become apparent. RGB’s Kanaan believes that for the most part, 2011 will be a year of CDN trials and experimentations, with larger initiatives coming in 2012.

Carl Weinschenk is a reporter at BTR. Reach him at .

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