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'Still Problematic'

Livestreaming Holds Promise but Faces Multiple Challenges, Experts Say

Livestreaming is a highly desired offering in over-the-top video, but numerous complications stand in the way of providers risking the effort to successfully deliver real-time events, said presenters on a Wednesday Stream TV session on livestreaming at scale.

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Ali Begen, associate professor-multimedia and networks at Ozyegin University, noted the latency period of CBS News’ transmission of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 -- broadcast to an estimated 650 million viewers -- was three seconds, with signals traveling 250,000 miles back to Earth. Half a century later, Super Bowl LIII was broadcast to 98 million viewers at a broadcast latency of under 10 seconds, he said. “But despite all the technological developments, the streaming latency was higher than 45 seconds” from the Atlanta-area stadium to devices “only five miles away.”

Though the TV industry has had many audio and video quality improvements over the past 50 years, “livestreaming over the top is still problematic,” Begen said. There have been improvements in implementation, specifications and guidelines for livestreaming in the past three years, but challenges remain, he said: Broadcast TV is a one-to-many distribution model with a single, high-quality version of the content; fixed capacity over cable, satellite or IPTV; and transmission on a fixed schedule to a common device type, the TV.

Streaming, by contrast, is a one-to-one distribution model, with content streamed in multiple versions of varying quality, with variable capacity usage, on personalized schedules for viewers to watch any time and on any device. Capacity usage depends on the number of users and is on a “best effort basis,” Begen said. He cited eight points in the chain from the source to the screen -- including camera, encoding and content delivery network -- saying latency can be introduced at any one of them.

'Things May Go Wrong'

Challenges in delivering livestreams at scale start at content ingestion and continue through delivery and rendering, said Serhad Doken, Adeia chief technology officer: “There are a lot of points where things may go wrong.” He contrasted that with a cable provider delivering a live event over a private network where the set-top box is known, resulting in a similar viewing experience from neighbor to neighbor.

In the streaming world, “a lot of things are in motion,” and the quality of video suffers from pixelation, stuttering, ghosting, freezing, fluctuating frame rate, missing frames, long startup time and audio/video synchronization issues, Doken said. “When you blow up the numbers to millions of people,” he said, citing the upcoming World Cup, “If I miss a penalty shot,” or an impending goal, “I’m going to be a very unhappy consumer” if there are streaming artifacts, he said.

Variation in viewing devices makes it difficult for streaming operators to ensure a consistent experience across a smartphone, tablet and 65-inch TV, said Doken. Within the smart TV category alone, the manufacturer and operating system affect the experience, he said. Last-mile connections come into play, too, whether a device is hard-wired to the internet or using Wi-Fi, plus internet service provider variables including the ISP load, router version and whether it has been updated, plus the version of Wi-Fi, whether the device is on a mesh network and what type of media player the user has.

Restarts often solve streaming issues, “but we can’t expect everybody to be able to troubleshoot,” Doken said. Without analytics to diagnose issues, “there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on,” he said, about whether issues stem from the ingest, rendering or transmission side or on the device side. Other variables: “Am I watching on an iPhone 6 or an iPhone 14 Pro Max,” or is content streaming over a 4G or 5G network and which version, he said.

'Black Eye'

Upsetting a customer wanting to watch a live event risks giving a “black eye” to livestreaming, Doken said. “You can offer refunds,” he said, but offering a refund to someone who missed part of a World Cup final in real time is "not going to work," he said. For livestreaming to be accepted by consumers, "a lot of work" has to be done to match the quality of livestreamed sports to live viewing on linear TV, he said.

On how to address the problems, Doken said bigger and more pipelines will help. 5G could also help, he said, now that more MVPDs are also offering cellular service and can offload traffic to Wi-Fi. He referenced caching mechanisms within a cellular network. “As a cable operator you’re going to know exactly when they are on what network, and they can do a lot of intelligent caching.” He noted 5G’s sidelink feature that enables direct communication between two devices, allowing data offloading at high throughput in data-intensive situations.

Once latency and other issues are addressed, live immersive experiences, gambling and augmented reality can be part of streaming beyond niche cases, presenters said. Jason Thibeault, Streaming Video Technology Alliance executive director, said streaming operators are trying to enable sports wagering on TV via hybrid experiences. That includes delivering a regular live sports stream to viewers watching a sports event, plus a WebRTC stream in parallel to anyone engaging in sports wagering. The sports streaming world is “years away from sports wagering being a reality” because it requires two different simultaneous streams, said Doken, with video in one part of the screen and a different app feeding wagering information to another section.

“We’re seeing great innovation when it comes to metaverse and mixed reality,” Thibeault said, saying streaming operators are testing some features. “Probably the really cool immersive experiences are going to happen in [an] arena,” he said, saying it’s much easier to deploy 5G Ultra Wideband in a closed environment. “Imagine being able to hold your phone up and look at the field through your phone screen and your camera, and you’re getting data overlays on players as you’re zooming in on them,” he said. These types of experiences are available today, “but not at scale.”