The Top 5 Content Challenges for Operators
Author: Jay Hinman, Skyfire
2013 saw mobile network operators around the world continuing their tentative adjustment to an environment in which over-the-top content defined much of their network deployment, upgrade and internal infrastructure decision-making. I’ve noticed that the OTT content most feared by mobile network operators is often the most unexpected as well. Auto-play videos in Vine and Instagram apps hit networks quite hard in 2013, and now Facebook has launched auto-play videos in users’ mobile streams as well, albeit with a network-saving tweak that loads and auto-plays the videos only when the user is on Wi-Fi. Cue the collective sigh of relief from operators worldwide.
What other content types are operators finding themselves blindsided by in a fast-paced world defined by OTT? Let’s take a look at the top five problematic content types that every mobile network planner will continue to nervously grapple with in 2014.
1. Auto-play video: It’s no secret that short mobile video-clip applications like the immensely popular Vine (from Twitter) and Instagram (owned by Facebook) did more to congest networks than virtually any other content type this past year. Carriers found themselves struggling to react to the popularity of these services, which instantly brought videos that automatically played – no button pressing needed – into the daily lives and streams of each Vine and Instagram user. The symbiotic, if testy, relationship between OTT video providers/facilitators such as these and the mobile operators on whose networks their content plays has never been more tightly linked. If the content can’t be successfully optimized and compressed for delivery by the latter – then it’s the consumer that loses out, and by extension, their operator, who may in turn lose that consumer to a competitor.
2. Instant parameter changes to OTT players: What’s to stop, say, YouTube from instantly changing how their video behaves over mobile networks, in the interest of a better experience for their customers? What indeed. In 2013, YouTube switched to adaptive bitrate streaming over mobile networks, which brought 1080p video (the big-bandwidth good stuff) to many users’ devices for the first time, as long as the network was uncongested enough to handle it. There are network benefits to this, to be sure, but this bandwidth fills every bit of network capacity available to it, so when that capacity is there, it looks terrific. When it isn’t, it is either steamed at much lower bitrates or suffers from the twin customer experience evils of long start times and re-buffering (the spinning wheel, which may be the most watched “mobile video” of all time). In 2014, expect further tweaks from major content providers that will catch network operators unawares.
3. HD/HQ video: It used to be that we called a nice-looking video “high def,” remember? Some OTT video content providers have admirably introduced “HQ” (high quality) video into our mobile lexicon as well. It generally means that it’s encoded at a higher bitrate than, say, an average streaming video, with the “HD” nomenclature reserved for the true gold standard. Users within apps are increasingly being given an option to play their videos in “HQ” mode, with the implicit understanding that there might be a trade-off of longer start times and re-buffering, in exchange for a more visually appealing experience. This is yet another un-welcomed tax on the mobile operator’s network that will require more sophisticated and flexible video optimization intervention in 2014, particularly at times when said network isn’t ready or able to handle user-selected, user-defined HD or HQ video.
4. Pirated, illegal content: This sort of content – often adult in nature, or illegally streamed sports content divorced from the actual rights to that content – isn’t talked about much, but it actually drowns out operator-managed content in terms of volumes. Much of the non-live content was ripped on desktops originally, and unlike YouTube’s aforementioned ABR streaming, it is decidedly network-unfriendly. We’ve seen at Opera Software and Skyfire that this is an especially huge concern of our operator partners in Asia. It’s a great example of a bandwidth-busting content type that won’t be solved by the content providers themselves, and must by necessity be tackled by operators and their mobile video optimization partners in 2014.
5. Streaming audio: Finally, 2013 showed us that citizens of the world are increasingly insisting that their music be delivered on-demand from “the great jukebox in the sky,” and preferably directly to a mobile device. The success of Spotify, Pandora and similar services seems likely to continue to snowball in 2014, pushing huge amounts of songs and streams across mobile networks where songs once never traveled. These services are increasingly being bundled into automobiles as well, or listened to via auxiliary hook-ups that are becoming de rigeur in many parts of the world. In the next year, operators will be looking to for solutions that can surgically focus on poor user experiences across content types, not simply on video alone.
Operators could barely articulate several of these challenges even a mere year ago, so it’s fair to say that other unknown challenges are silently looming and will come to the forefront this year. It will certainly be interesting to watch how the network traffic management ecosystem evolves in the next twelve months to address them.