OTT: the wild frontier

By Simen K. Frostad, Chairman

Published in BroadcastPRO, February 2014

OTT offers innumerable opportunities that also come with a host of challenges. With more viewers taking to the second and third screens, broadcasters want to grab a share of the OTT pie while they still can but many of them don’t know how

Anyone who has owned a cat or studied cat behaviour has probably noticed how they like to sit on a newspaper you are reading, or on a book you have on your lap. When the cat hops up and sits there, it’s because it wants to be right where your attention is strongest. The cat is now where the OTT provider wants to be.

Several recent surveys have declared that a large number of television viewers spend a lot of their viewing time with another device on their laps – a tablet or a smartphone. Is this because the interaction with these devices is more involving than the essentially passive experience of television? Whatever the reason, broadcasters want to grab that focused attention and they do it with OTT services.

OTT is a wild frontier. Everyone wants to grab some of the territory while they still can, and nobody knows yet what is the best way to do it. Existing broadcasters may try to use OTT to reinforce their TV brand by offering live and on-demand access to their content, while non-broadcasting entrants like Netflix offer a complete alternative. The whole second-screen phenomenon (where the mobile device can be used to complement and extend the content being shown on TV) is another way that OTT offers potential. But there’s no predesigned template for success, which also means that the risk of failure is high.

That risk is increased by the technical complexity of OTT. It’s not broadcast and it’s not IT, but a strange new hybrid of the two, with strange new pathologies that are unfamiliar to a broadcast engineer’s skillset, and to an IT technician’s. The separate components of the delivery chain may be well understood – the satellite headends, the terrestrial networks, the IT servers – but the errors that start to arise when these components interact are not.

So it’s a major challenge to the would-be OTT operators, firstly to understand that they are entering into much more complex territory than they are used to, and then to avoid being overwhelmed by the complexity.

It is easy to underestimate the difficulties of constructing and operating an OTT infrastructure. Broadcast technology is a known quantity, and so is IT technology. Both have their accepted conventions and there are plenty of tools to monitor and analyse performance in each domain. But broadcast tools are only designed for broadcast signals, and IT tools are only for analysing IP traffic, and when the two domains are combined in a hybrid for OTT, the traditional tools are inadequate.

If the OTT provider attempts to build a monitoring system made up of specialised broadcast and IT tools under the umbrella of a network management system, this creates inherent inefficiencies. With one set of tools for monitoring the RF signal from satellite, another set of tools for IP, and yet another for OTT, technical staff will find it difficult to get a coherent picture of behaviour across the network as a whole. Faults that develop in one part of the network may have their root cause in another part, but if the monitoring tools cannot see the other part and collate data from it, this creates an obstacle when trying to trace and rectify the fault.

For most broadcasters, getting an OTT operation off the ground requires the recruitment of a new team of IT engineers, because very few technicians understand both broadcast and IP technologies. It’s a natural human tendency as silos of expertise tend to develop around each set of tools, at the expense of the ‘big picture’ view that the technical team should have in order to maintain the network as a whole entity.

A lot of small inefficiencies added together can have a big cumulative impact on costs and performance, and this is why the design of infrastructure and the choice of monitoring tools is not just an engineering issue – it’s a boardroom issue too. Deploying a lot of heterogeneous technologies and parallel systems actually becomes a challenge to operational efficiency and a threat to business efficiency: the complexity can be overwhelming.

A tight integration of the OTT services with the overall operation can help avoid this situation. By avoiding parallel systems, operators can keep costs down. By deploying a monitoring system explicitly designed for the hybrid of heterogeneous technologies required to deliver OTT, operators can create monitoring and maintenance environment, which seems coherent and transparent to the operator’s staff, who may be from either a broadcast or IT background.

The range of viewing devices that an OTT operator has to support is another source of complexity. If a broadcaster is encoding content for SD and HD TV, adding an OTT service means preparing the content also for a combination of HLS (Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming), Smooth Streaming from Microsoft, and Adobe’s HDS formats. These adaptive streaming technologies share some common features but they are not identical, and as usual, when there are competing formats, there is uncertainty about which horse to back.

Having to cater to multiple formats increases the cost and complexity of establishing and operating services in what is still an immature market sector. The adoption of a universal standard would do much to raise confidence and speed the development of the OTT market, and MPEG-DASH is a possible common format.

In theory, a common format supported by all devices would lower the cost of establishing new services and make entry into the OTT market easier. But MPEG-DASH is another new format; it is still evolving, and it is too early to say whether it will become the standard.

In fact, a cross-platform standard is not necessarily such an appealing prospect to a well-established operator with enormous resources and a strong market position to defend. But MPEG-DASH is codec agnostic, and while the vast majority of video is currently encoded as H.264, this does mean that DASH is ready for UltraHD and hyper-bitrate codecs when they are needed.

The ideal approach to this issue is to achieve the maximum possible versatility by choosing technology that is readily adaptable to all current standards, and which has the architecture to allow easy updating when standards evolve.

So in developing a strategy for OTT, the potential operators need to be aware that they are entering a more complex undertaking. They need to accept that by bolting together broadcast and IP, they create a third type of technical arena, a hybrid with its own challenges. With the right planning, an operator can create an integration of OTT into the other services it provides, and use monitoring and analysis systems designed specifically for the hybrid environment to achieve efficiencies throughout the business.

All that complexity can be overwhelming, and in the rush to claim some of the OTT action, it’s easy to forget that complexity can be made simple with the right strategy and careful choice of appropriate tools.

Read the article online, BroadcastPRO

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