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Live OTT streaming – Industry feedback from CDN World Summit London 2014

Last week I led a round table on the future of live OTT TV and it’s implication for CDNs during the last session of Informa’s CDN World Summit in London.

My first point to open the debate was on QoE. I pointed out that mobile telephones are a giant step backwards in term of voice QoE and service availability compared to good old fixed lines. However we’re all happy to renew dropped calls lose coverage or ask our correspondents to repeat on our mobile phones because we gained so much more than service QoE with mobility. I then suggested users might accept a similar trade-off and embrace lower QoE for OTT TV than broadcast, in exchange for lower costs, mobility, greater choice and personalisation. The reactions around the table made me think I’d just insulted the queen. There was emphatic disagreement. TV is TV and will always be TV said the TV operators and nobody dared take issue. I guess that’s what happened in the boardrooms of railway companies when airplanes arrived. One of the non-TV-operator participants did agree that maybe – except for sports – QoE might be traded-off for greater choice. At this point, the challenge of content navigation was brought up for search and recommendation.

That got us talking about “long-tail live TV” and if it might ever makes sense, i.e. being able to watch a unique live stream that you really care about. That access might make you so grateful that even if the quality wasn’t always pristine you’d still be happy. This idea is buoyed up in an OTT rather than broadcast context. Indeed all the TV markets I’ve worked in, even if they have many hundreds of channels available, invariably have 10 or fewer channels that any one community is prepared to pay for. One of the key promises of OTT is to abolish markets, typically under a satellite footprint. All those start-ups targeting Diasporas are going to find tough competition as the big guys come into their nascent markets more and more.

From a financial modelling point of view, the satellite broadcasters around the table were pretty excited about the fact that for live OTT, if you have a tail-end channel that nobody is watching, your Opex goes down to zero. This for them was the real opportunity in live OTT.

Consensus was easy to get on the fact that live OTT TV brings mobility, however nobody was clear yet about a killer use case where this is really important. Watching videos on the tube or train is still very much a download experience and rarely legal at that.

When I brought up the question of when rather than if, Netflix starts live streaming nobody felt ready to pick up the gauntlet. I’ll keep that for another day.

Our debate wound up over an interesting discussion on the blurring of boundaries between linear and on-demand content. Typically a shopping channel can be played out from an automated server with people being able to interact and turn a multicast stream into a unicast one. The final feedback from two operators round the table was that Multicast is only really a panacea for large Telcos that own a network. For the rest of us the cost benefit analysis turns out much worse in the real world than on the drawing board of business planning.

This left me with the clear impression that there are still problems out there looking for solutions, not the other way round for a change. As many network and service operators want to build their own solutions rather than relay on the global CDN operators, we’ll probably see a major player emerge from the likes of Anevia with its edge caching, Broadpeak with its Nano-CDN, Media Melon with its QoE analysis or Octoshape.

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