Serving up fault-free live and on-demand sports video content to fans online

New ways of delivering video content via the internet, whether live or on demand, mean that sports personalities, teams, leagues, broadcasters and sponsors can now get closer than ever to fans. It’s also allowed smaller sports to step out of the shadow of giants to reach new audiences, building up valuable online presences and making themselves more desirable targets for sponsors and advertisers.

However, no matter how exclusive, interesting or well-produced this video content is, if the viewing experience is hampered by buffering, delays or glitches, as can be common with streaming, then people are likely to go elsewhere. And it will be very difficult to get them back, because there’s so much choice out there.

 

Content delivery methods

Live and on-demand video reaches viewers online via a content delivery network, more commonly known as a CDN. These are generally large distributed networks of servers, controlled by major service providers, that were initially built to remotely deliver software upgrades to computers. As online video consumption has grown, these networks have become increasingly used by content distributors delivering more content in larger formats like HD and 4K to more and more people.

This approach, where a content provider will rent capacity on a delivery network, is known as CDN-as-a-service. It means they only pay for the service they’re using, so there’s no real set-up or maintenance costs, but as formats and viewer numbers increase, it becomes increasingly expensive. There’s also no control from the customer over capacity. If there’s high demand for the content at the same time, as there generally is with live sports, or if there’s other activity on the network, such as Apple releasing an iOS update, then the network will slow, and this could drastically impact on the performance of the video stream.

The alternative to CDN-as-a-service, and the approach that’s helped make Netflix so popular, is for a content distributor to build its own CDN. While there’s the obvious CAPEX needed to set up the network, once built, the owner has complete control over what goes on it, meaning that they can guarantee performance. It also means they can tune the network specifically to delivering video, making it more efficient, and cutting latency, which is particularly important with live sports. This is because people watching something live on a slow stream may see spoilers on social media via a second screen, or even hear a neighbour cheer or groan through the wall if they’re watching on a regular television.

Traditionally, building a CDN has been viewed as an expensive option, and something that only the really big players have the resources to do. But with developments in technology, and potential monetisation opportunities through renting out unused bandwidth to a new customer base, there’s now evidence that suggests that a dedicated CDN is something that should be seriously considered.

To build or to buy

Leading analysts Frost & Sullivan recently released a whitepaper which explores the tipping point at which content owners should seriously consider stopping renting space on a delivery network and build their own instead. To help with the decision-making process, Frost & Sullivan created a simple six-point checklist for content companies to work through. These assessments cover scale, reach and quality, and if respondents answer yes to more than two of the six questions, then a private CDN could be the answer.

A dedicated TV CDN, which is tuned specifically to deliver TV rather than generic data over the internet, means content distributors can control the throughput to ensure quality of service. During UEFA Euro 2016 for example, huge audiences in concentrated areas were all trying to access the same online stream at the same time. For a regular CDN-as-a-service model, this is problematic, as these networks are more suited to smaller audiences, spread far and wide. However, with a TV CDN, several European content distributors were able to deliver a huge amount of high quality live content without the dreaded buffering, delays or glitches because they could control the bandwidth that they were operating within.

It isn’t just live and on-demand streams delivered to smart TVs or mobile devices. A dedicated delivery infrastructure is also the right fit for delivering the latest formats. If delivering content that requires more bandwidth like higher resolutions, virtual reality or 360-degree cameras – which are all becoming more prevalent in sports coverage – having a complete view over available bandwidth will become incredibly important and not something you’ll want to leave in someone else’s control.

Building a private content delivery network is not right for everyone, but with traffic and video formats set to increase hugely over a relatively short period of time, the costs of renting capacity within a commercial CDN will rise steadily. For a distributor of live and/or on-demand sports content, the unique architecture of a private CDN can be both operationally and cost-effectively beneficial in the right conditions.

Richard Brandon, CMO, Edgeware.

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