Will cable operators, CDNs and ISPs make or break the future of online streaming video?

For consumers staring at their screen wondering why “House of Cards” is not streaming in HD or why the live season finale of “True Detective” on HBO GO is displaying a “buffering, please standby” message, there are often more questions than answers and a slew of potential culprits. As frustrating as things can be now, there are some future scenarios where the situation could get worse.

Since launching Qwilt in 2011, I’ve seen online video grow to be one of the hardest challenges network operators face today. In my role as CEO, I’ve overseen Qwilt’s engagements with more than 150 network operator customers worldwide — some of whom are experiencing 90% growth of video year over year which translates to 60% growth of their overall internet traffic. This presents not only a tremendous opportunity, but also its own set of challenges.

It takes a village: Ecosystem cooperation is paramount

Your ability to get a high quality, reliable video to stream at an affordable price is dependent on a remarkably sophisticated level of cooperation within the industry. At every step in the video streaming ecosystem, from the content provider’s origin server, to commercial Content Delivery Network (CDN), to transit and peering exchange points, to the network operator and finally to your home, your stream must navigate a diverse group of commercial businesses, business models and gateways. Given that we want to use this model to support Live Event Streaming, this topic deserves more attention.

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Today: Streaming content across the internet to consumers strains operator networks

Network operators increasingly view their fixed and mobile broadband offerings as strategic product lines. In August of last year, James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, famously stated that given the inevitable transition of TV to the internet, “there could come a day” when Cablevision stops offering TV service, making broadband its primary offering. To this end, it’s apparent cable operators are placing an increased focus on scale, optimization and Quality of Experience (QoE).

Adding to this, content providers like Netflix and Google now regularly publish ISP rankings that expose both the best and worst performing ISPs by region — rankings that have prompted ISPs to step up investments in their broadband offering in order to remain competitive in their markets. This also provides content providers with a clear and beneficial agenda for the ecosystem — to promote competition among broadband operators and encourage those who perform poorly to improve their game. Ultimately, these rankings ensure accountability lies with the network operator instead of the content provider when the consumer’s experience is unsatisfactory and network performance is the cause.

Operators have started to respond to rising expectations about quality with more infrastructure investments and as a result, consumers have started to get better service. Forces within the ecosystem, in this scenario, are acting for the good of all members.

Why you should care about an open caching architecture

Fortunately, the long-term solution for online video is not just about building bigger networks. It’s really about building an intelligent network that leverages optimization technology, such as transparent caching which pushes content out to the neighborhood where it can be delivered more cost effectively to consumers. A number of these online video optimization initiatives are already underway to address network scale within the current ecosystem model. Specifically, a number of US cable operators, including Mediacom Communications, have deployed transparent caching technology to leverage the value of caching video deep in their networks, close to consumers.

with-cachingTomorrow: Most content is streamed from cache in the neighborhood

Transparent caching deployed inside operator networks embraces an open architecture. This infrastructure is transparent, universal, neutral, trusted and secure. This open architecture stands in contrast to the closed cache systems operated by some content providers today which appear as black boxes to network operators. These closed caches systems address only one content provider at a time and, therefore, reduce the ability of operators to optimize traffic on their networks. So, for example, content streamed from Content Provider A will not be cached by Content Provider G’s closed cache.

Operators are also deploying their own CDNs so they can offer video streaming directly to their consumers. However, given the commercial results published to date, an open caching architecture offers the most compelling overall value to network operators in terms of optimization for network costs and quality of experience. In the future, it’s a good possibility that content providers will use operator caching resources just as they use core routers and data switches today to get their content to consumers.

Network operators have a strategic choice to make, therefore, in terms of how they prepare their networks for the future of online video. Now that it is evident a network-based caching function is needed to optimize online video, operators must choose between closed, proprietary systems from individual content providers and an open architecture for caching content within their networks. The business case for caching clearly points toward an open architecture.

Optimization of the network for online video depends on ecosystem engagement

With all that said, the online video situation is dynamic and there is some cause for concern. Given recent events such as the revelations of vast NSA surveillance programs, there are some new scenarios that may emerge. One particular scenario is encryption or related actions by the content providers that would obscure the video stream running across the operator network.

Currently, most content providers use HTTP protocols to transmit video from their servers to the consumer. This open protocol allows transparent caching technology deployed in operator networks to detect, classify, store and deliver over-the-top (OTT) video, including VoD and live, from a wide range of content providers. This caching optimization tool, therefore, is available to operators who are looking for an open, universal and content-agnostic networking solution to optimize OTT traffic. HTTP, when coupled with Digital Rights Management (DRM) offer content providers and consumers the privacy and protection they need to manage cost on the one hand while providing consumers with assurance of privacy on the other.

Despite this current status quo, content providers are considering further steps to obscure their content. Indeed, last November, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman said, “Encrypting everything could end government censorship for a decade.”

A streaming video alliance could create an open forum where online video can flourish

We’ve reached the point in the evolution of online streaming where more open and transparent interaction among ecosystem members is in order. To this end, an industry forum may be a suitable vehicle to allow all members of the ecosystem, regardless of their size and role, to have a seat at the table. This forum, a video streaming alliance, would be charged with creating an open architecture for interconnection so members can know what to expect from each other in terms of operations, quality, security and privacy. Mutual goals of transparency, open architecture and quality of service will almost certainly emerge as themes to get the industry alliance off the ground.

We’re fortunate to be at this formative stage of development in the industry. Together, as members of the ecosystem, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to chart the course for the streaming industry that will allow online video to flourish.

Alon Maor is CEO and co-founder of Qwilt, a provider of online video delivery and transparent caching solutions for service providers. With more than fifteen years of experience in multi-national high-tech companies and startups, Maor leads Qwilt’s strategic direction, culture and business execution.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user designbydx.