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Why Ultra-Low Latency Matters for OTT Streaming Performance featured

Why Ultra-Low Latency Matters for OTT Streaming Performance

By Author: Brad Altfest In Business, Developer

Ultra-low latency streaming, which means a delay of less than 1 second, stands as a monumental leap forward in reshaping user experiences and the way consumers view content online—particularly in a rapidly changing television landscape.

As traditional TV viewing falls off a cliff new data from Nielsen sheds light on a significant shift in viewer behavior and preferences toward streaming. This transformation offers both opportunities and challenges, many of which can be addressed with low latency streaming and new live video delivery technology.

Sub-Second Latency

With traditional TV viewing dwindling, just replicating the broadcast linear feed has been a long-term industry-wide project that has only recently come to fruition. This replication has enabled the rapid proliferation of Free Ad-Supported Streaming Television (FAST) channels.

One feature still absent is the sub-second latency provided by virtue of the architecture of the linear broadcast feed. However, the heterogeneous nature of each cable provider’s infrastructure requires content owners to send a variety of different streams and metadata, even within the same cable provider into different regions. This makes distribution a complex mess with quality constraints beyond the control of many interested stakeholders.

While discussions on IPTV have been going on for over 20 years, today we can finally provide all the functionality of the linear feed (plus a great deal more). However, ultra-low-latency has taken a lower priority versus other aspects of the experience. This lack of priority results in several drawbacks to OTT destinations, such as “Go” and “+” apps, where each millisecond of delay before the video is served or rebuffering, translates to a portion of your audience that gives up, disconnects, and engages elsewhere.

While high quality HD+ resolution is a benchmark the industry uses to measure quality, so too are start delays and rebuffering. Older, high-latency delivery technologies are unable to address this gap. In fact, often the solution to rebuffering is to increase the local cache buffer but this comes at the expense of elongating the initial video start time. The ideal scenario is sub-second latency that removes rebuffering and reduces your video start times to milliseconds.

Synchronous Delivery

Nothing is worse than turning the game on, only to realize your neighbors are a few seconds or even a few minutes ahead of you in the playout timeline by hearing how every play is going before you get to see it for yourself. This is a bad user experience. On top of that, often family, friends, and others want to share the experience even when they are not in the same physical location. So regardless of whether Dad is on his phone at the stadium, bro is in his dorm watching it on his school’s Wi-Fi, or sis is watching at home on a smart TV, everyone is at the same point in the real-event timeline and able to interact seamlessly.

While watch parties became popular during the pandemic, people have always wanted to share and experience things together. Synchronous delivery not only recreates the experience of the broadcast feed, but it also enables companion experiences like sports betting to take place synchronously.  Otherwise without a reliable representation as close to real-time as possible, consumers will simply seek that experience elsewhere.

The Challenge of the Last Mile

The variables outside the direct control of the streaming providers have continued to plague the broadcast world online, namely the last mile network conditions. Last mile means everything from a cell phone connection, Wi-Fi router configuration, and the line conditions from the Internet Service Provider (ISP) to the home.

A Content Delivery Network (CDN) has fundamental limitations that make it impossible to support quality video delivery at even as little as 10% packet loss, and frankly the quality starts to degrade well before that point with buffering, decreased video resolution, and even falling back to just audio at times. Newer delivery technologies like software-defined networking (SDN) are not only more error resilient than CDN but are also able to provide continuous, high-quality video delivery—even in challenging network scenarios.

Network Map & Capacity

While CDNs love to share a dotted map which references their number of “Super POPs” (points of presence) worldwide, this “boast” is in fact a fundamental weakness. These caching solutions with outdated architectures were designed to primarily serve one-way content to urban markets. Quality service to more rural customers was not prioritized. Newer software-defined networks, and the ability to spin up local nodes rapidly and dynamically, both for ingress and egress, radically changes the network map landscape.

In the past, complex and at times costly peering arrangements would need to be made, now simply spinning up more edge nodes can enable better delivery not only for the end-user, but also for sports venues, live concert halls, churches, and the like, who would like to be able to broadcast as adeptly as their urban counterparts. Where capacity planning for CDN is a question of bandwidth, and then needing to estimate the average bitrate, real-time is measured by viewer minutes and concurrency. Agora is the industry leader in handling million+ concurrencies with ultra-low latency.

Real-Time 4K & HDR

While it is true that not every end user can support even 1080p before you hit device limitations at playout, for the consumers who have spent extra money for high bandwidth internet and high-end displays, support for UHD and HDR are essential. While high-quality on-demand streaming is more common, it can lead to the additional latency as discussed above. Agora is the leader in high-quality video at scale and in real time.  With HDR support, soon to be HDR 10, Agora can not only provide a better experience for your general users, but also deliver an exceptional 4K/HDR experience for your highest-end viewers.

In conclusion, newer ways of delivering live video content provide major benefits over CDN that extend far beyond sub-second latency.  Error resiliency, synchronized viewing, and true interactivity and second-screen experiences are all inherent in sub-second IP-based streaming over the internet. As consumers continue to migrate their viewing habits online, delivering live video content via software-defined networking provides many new opportunities from both a user experience and content monetization perspective.