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Will Cable Operators, CDNs, and ISPs Make or Break the Future of Online Streaming Video?

Alon Maor, CEO and Co-founder, Qwilt
Alon Maor, CEO and Co-founder, Qwilt

Alon Maor, CEO and Co-founder, Qwilt

For consumers wondering why “House of Cards” is not streaming in HD on Netflix or why the live season finale of “Game of Thrones” on HBO GO is displaying a buffering message, there are often more questions than answers and many 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. 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 percent growth of video year over year, translating to 60 percent growth of their overall internet traffic. This presents 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 depends on a remarkably sophisticated level of industry cooperation. 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.

Network operators increasingly view their fixed and mobile broadband offerings as strategic product lines. In August 2013, James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, stated that given the inevitable transition of TV to the internet, “there could come a day” when Cablevision stops offering TV services, making broadband its primary offering. That ‘day’ seems even closer after Cablevision became the first pay TV provider to resell Hulu’s Internet video streaming service.

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 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. 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 a transformation to an intelligent network that leverages optimization technology, such as open caching, which pushes content out to the neighborhood where it can be delivered more cost effectively and at higher quality to consumers. A number of online video optimization initiatives are already underway to address network scale within the current ecosystem model. Specifically, a number of cable operators around the world have deployed open caching technology to leverage its value deep in their networks, close to consumers.

Open caching, deployed inside operator networks, is the hallmark of the new open architecture for streaming video. This technology is transparent, universal, neutral, trusted, secure and stands in contrast to the closed cache systems operated by some content providers today, which appear as black boxes to network operators, and address only one content provider at a time. This reduces the ability for operators to optimize traffic on their networks. 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, there’s a good possibility that content providers will use operator open caching resources just as they use core routers and data switches today to get content to consumers.

Operators have a strategic choice to make regarding how they transform their networks for the future of online video. Now that it’s 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.

Network Optimization for Online Video Depends on Ecosystem Engagement

With all that said, the online video situation is dynamic and some new scenarios may emerge. One particular scenario is encryption by the content providers that might obscure the video stream running across the operator network and, therefore, impact the value of open caching.

Currently, most content providers use HTTP protocols to transmit video from their servers to the consumer, allowing open caching technology deployed in operator networks to detect, classify, store and deliver Over-The-Top (OTT) video, including VoD and live. This tool is available to operators looking for an open, universal and content-agnostic networking solution to optimize OTT traffic. HTTP, when coupled with Digital Rights Management (DRM) offers content providers the privacy and protection they need to manage cost, while providing consumers with assurance of privacy.

A number of content providers have already moved to HTTPs infrastructure to encrypt their streaming services. These developments mean that more ecosystem collaboration, especially among content providers, commercial CDNs and ISPs, is essential to ensure the value of the new open streaming architecture is preserved. With collaboration, handling encrypted streams on open caches can be readily and easily supported as nothing more than another use case in the functional specification.

Introducing the Streaming Video Alliance

We’ve reached the point in the evolution of online streaming where more open interaction and collaboration among ecosystem members is essential. To this end, the Streaming Video Alliance (SVA) was announced last November and is now comprised of over 25 industry leaders whose joint vision is to create an open architecture for streaming and promote best practices in the areas of operations, quality, security, and privacy. Mutual goals of transparency, open architecture and quality of service have already begun to emerge as themes in the early stages of life for the SVA.

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.

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