By: Jesse Cryderman
A headline in the news in late April read "Will the Royal Wedding Break the Internet?" By press time, we will know answer, but the underlying question is "how many simultaneous video streams can networks handle before they buckle?" This is a question that never would have been asked ten years ago, and one that highlights a dramatic shift in modern video consumption.
There is no doubt that the video landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade. Ten years ago television programming, for the most part, was available on one device—a television—and outside of theaters, the main conduit for movie viewing was either rental from a brick and mortar store, or through premium cable programming. DVD sales and rentals were high, retail outlets like Blockbuster were doing great business, and a friend who had HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax usually had lots of other friends.
As soon as networks evolved and prices dropped, enough people moved from dial-up to broadband to enable development of streaming media services (intrepid media pirates used broadband for this purpose almost from beginning). Wireless networks followed suit, driving similar advances in mobile video applications. This changed the video game entirely.
Thanks to the technology of today, video can be delivered and/or viewed on a multitude of devices, purchased from a similarly wide array of providers, and enjoyed wherever and whenever a person desires; and the impact on the video market is nothing short of amazing. Blockbuster is now bust, having sold to the Dish Network after failing to emerge from bankruptcy. NetFlix went from a small, single-disc-by-mail DVD rental service in 1999 to the largest subscription entertainment business in the US [based on 1Q2011 earnings]. Traditional cable companies are facing stiff competition from over-the-top providers, while internet businesses like Facebook, Amazon, Hulu, and Apple are constantly striking and re-striking deals with major television networks and Hollywood studios to have the latest, largest, or cheapest video catalog.
And the impact on networks is similarly dramatic.
Video-and now high-definition video—has become the largest drain on both wireless and wired networks around the world. According to recent data, video accounts for over 50% of total U.S. internet traffic, Netflix alone accounts for more than 20% of the internet traffic in North America, and globally, real-time entertainment accounts for 43% of total internet traffic (Sandvine Global Internet Report). The problem in the wireless arena is even more severe, as the pipes become quickly clogged when user demand skyrockets. As the Sandvine Global Internet Report revealed, real-time entertainment "is unquestionably the dominant driver of data consumption on fixed and mobile networks worldwide."
This all boils down to one word for those in the infrastructure support and development industry: opportunity.
Taming the bandwidth hog
One of the main strategies internet and cable providers are using to control bandwidth (even as they sell "unlimited" service), is through data caps or throttling Sometimes these policies are adequately described in user account agreements, and other times they caps are not, resulting in public relations nightmares (AT&T, Verizon) and occasionally even class action lawsuits (Clearwire). Regardless, virtually every major CSP now employs some type of data cap or throttling to limit the bandwidth usage.
So what's the workaround for consumer who wants to continue to stream high-quality video all month long, and providers who want to keep consumers happy but have limited resources?
The first solution lies in a variety of compression and optimization technologies. Sometimes these are incorporated on the delivery end, other times on the consumer end, but they all basically do the same thing: compress and optimize a video stream to maximize efficiency and latency given a particular connection speed, bandwidth, and screen-size scenario.
Not to be outdone, some OTT providers are pursuing this strategy as well. Netflix has already engineered its own workaround strategy for users in Canada. They now offer a low-bandwidth option for Canadian customers to help them dodge their bandwidth caps.