Can Television Converge Around HTTP Video?

Few people question the idea that eventually all video delivery will migrate to IP but it is now looking increasingly likely that all video will migrate to Internet-delivered IP. The drive to deliver multi-screen TV means the television industry is increasingly working with IP streaming and progressive download technologies, while new CDN architectures look set to improve the Quality of Service (QoS) for web delivered content. Now there is a view that the emergence of HTTP for streaming to PCs, tablets and mobiles could provide the basis for a common video delivery approach that will also encompass the set-top box.

It is clear that to make multi-screen TV work as a business, and certainly as service providers scale beyond a few channels of online or mobile content, content management and video processing functions must be rationalised so TV, mobile and online do not operate in separate silos. But for now, content will still be output in the codecs, resolutions, bit rates and transport stream wrappers that best suit their target devices. Nevertheless, the use of HTTP for Adobe, Microsoft and Apple adaptive bit rate streaming solutions, and the warm welcome these technologies have received as a way to improve the Quality of Experience, provides an important common denominator for video in the mobile and fixed broadband environments.

Verimatrix, which provides content protection and revenue solutions for multi-screen TV, has already noted the significance of this change. In its White Paper, ‘Adaptive Rate Streaming: Pay-TV at an Inflection Point’, the company argues that the adaptive-HTTP approach can supplant legacy technologies, that they will alter the current framework of managed network versus Internet delivery for television, and that the two worlds are on the threshold of a rapid convergence. The company predicts that a major shift in the Pay TV business is therefore imminent.

The company points to the historical problems guaranteeing QoS using broadband video technologies combined with the need for Pay TV operators to make their content available everywhere to remain relevant. “The result is an odd situation: TV services, available in a natural IP format for in-home multi-device distribution and sharing, are essentially kept behind a firewall to preserve overall QoS.The traditional guidelines for an acceptable quality, enjoyable video experience can only be provided in the limited circumstances of fully controlled delivery pipes.Yet consumers demand that content flows freely whenever and wherever they want to consume it.”

The answer, according to Verimatrix, is adaptive rate streaming, which eliminates the concept of network managed QoS in favour of a client managed consumer experience. “The delivery technology makes use of what the Web does best – efficient and massively scalable delivery of data using the HTTP protocol.” Now consumers can enjoy the best experience possible depending on their hardware and bandwidth conditions.

“Adaptive rate streaming of video provides an optimum quality viewing experience that scales effectively on global and local networks, makes highly effective use of today’s content distribution networks, and ensures that true HD media experiences over the Internet can become a reality,” the company says.

Verimatrix notes that HTTP-based streaming is particularly suited for the Internet since CDNs already have massive deployments of HTTP acceleration servers. That means they avoid significant CAPEX that would otherwise be required to support proprietary video streaming protocols like RTSP and RTMP, and can instead focus on optimizing and scaling their HTTP infrastructure for video distribution.

The company says: “In the short term, its likely that parallel and separate service backends will emerge that seek to support the OTT demand while leaving existing Pay TV systems infrastructure in place. But this seems like a short-term strategy only, especially with the rising stakes in a rapidly evolving market. A careful analysis shows that adaptive streaming addresses the main business challenges of multiple device delivery and can also successfully supplant the use of legacy technologies.

“The basic argument is that the legacy delivery technologies offer no substantial advantage over the new approach, when considered across the full range of required delivery services and subjective quality levels, and are probably a worse fit to the anticipated trajectory of market demand. In addition, it has become apparent that the drawbacks of legacy technologies are neatly sidestepped by the properties of these new protocols, leading to their eventual obsolescence.”

Verimatrix views adaptive HTTP streaming as a key tool for use even on managed delivery networks, leading the company to conclude that it should become the common approach to video delivery for the set-top box as well as the PC, tablets and mobile, etc.

Earlier this year we spoke to Giles Wilson, Head of Technology, Solution Area TV at Ericsson and he also highlighted the potential role for over-the-top video technologies for ‘traditional’ television. He noted that service providers will be able to use adaptive bit rate streaming across the home network to compensate for the reliability (or lack of it) on home wireless networks but also suggested that if operators are using OTT type protocols for video when it is served to consumers off-net [unmanaged OTT away from home] they could use the same protocols for video served when someone is on-net [for example, at home in a cable operator footprint, connected to the HFC network]. In that second scenario the operator can substantially improve the QoS at home by having their own CDN that is optimised for traditional TV and OTT delivery.

With this approach, traditional TV becomes IP-based and uses the same protocols as over-the-top video and is delivered through a CDN as managed traffic with guaranteed QoS. For an IPTV provider, where video is already IP, the main difference would be that it is delivered with OTT protocols, eventually. This will help get the content onto different types of devices in the home as a managed service.

As we noted in the report, over the next few years the distinctions between the managed network in the home, the unmanaged video network in the home and the unmanaged network outside the home are going to become more important as service providers decide how to balance their multi-screen delivery needs. If Pay TV operators put a high emphasis on the ability to reach consumers away from home and believe in ‘cloud-based’ Internet platforms and video delivery, they may start to rationalise their video delivery infrastructure around Web technologies.

Another major driver in the trend towards managed home television services using adaptive bit rate streaming and HTTP is the likely penetration of connected TV devices. This will occur initially through the CE industry but eventually thanks to service providers offering their own connected set-top boxes and gateways as well. Connected TV is the most significant development in the multi-screen world and it is easy to see how adaptive bit rate streaming, and therefore HTTP, is going to infiltrate the television service provider market at different levels.

An example of the hybrid world we are entering comes from Netgem, which made two announcements at IBC 2010 that outline how rapidly adaptive streaming is taking root. First the company said its Netgem TV middleware will now support adaptive technologies to extend the reach of Pay TV operators, starting with support for Microsoft IIS Smooth Streaming (and Play Ready). Then it unveiled the Netgem N5000 Internet/TV adapter, which is aimed primarily at service providers as a way to help them counter the connected service offers of CE vendors and Google.

The N5000 hybrid device supports RTSP, Progressive download, Apple HTTP Streaming and Microsoft Smooth Streaming. The line between managed and unmanaged video, and between the classic private television network and the Internet, are clearly going to start blurring inside the service provider home and inside the networks.

Clearly service providers can rationalise the delivery of three-screen services with a common headend, unified content management and an umbrella content protection solution that manages all CA and DRM requirements, and still output video separately for television and for PC and mobile. This model looks perfectly viable but the likely success of adaptive bit rate streaming could open the way to even closer convergence of the video delivery environment. For years it has been obvious that the TV market is marching towards all-IP. Now it looks like that will mean Web-IP. Maybe that also means HTTP.

The rapid evolution of CDNs supports the view that Internet TV delivery technologies could start to dominate for all television.

By John Moulding, Videonet