OTT: Why satellite fits the bill

  • With Hans Massart

OTT: Why satellite fits the bill

With Hans Massart, Head of Media and Broadcast at ST Engineering iDirect…

Over-the-top (OTT) video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have helped stifle periods of collective boredom over the past 18 months. Videoconferencing platforms like Zoom have kept us as close as possible to loved ones and fully realised the virtual office. Video has also had a critical effect on educational services, humanitarian efforts, and governmental and defence operations during the pandemic - and there’s no denying we’ll continue to be reliant on it well beyond the Covid era. 

The shift from traditional viewing habits is evident and the importance of video access undeniable. How do service providers keep pace with a rapidly evolving landscape and most importantly, how do they satisfy this growing demand? If service providers are to deliver on the promise of OTT, they must also evolve and look beyond traditional methods of connectivity.

Namely, they’ll have to consider satellite as the technology’s capabilities are uniquely matched to meet the requirements of video services if they’re to be delivered reliably, seamlessly, and to every corner of the world.
‘Are you still watching?’ Yes, say almost one billion 

In 2020, it was reported that nearly 800 million people worldwide were subscribed to an over-the top (OTT) service. This counts as any on-demand service that is solely accessed via an internet connection, such as major streaming platforms Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.

The pace at which online streaming has evolved is nothing short of revolutionary. A decade ago, online streaming services were still in their early stages. Fast forward to 2020 and OTT services are quickly being established as the future of how we consume television, film and other media, whether at home or on-the-go.

This trajectory shows no signs of changing course. It’s estimated that by 2022 82% of all internet traffic will result from video streaming. In the UK, streaming services have taken over traditional pay TV services. With countries across the globe also following suit, it is widely expected that OTT viewership will replace traditional TV globally, within a matter of years. Subscribers to Video-on-Demand (SVOD) services are forecast to grow to 1.43 billion by 2025 from 809 million in 2019.

OTT demand isn’t solely driven by the series-streamers and film-fanatics, however. In the context of the 2020-21 pandemic, there has been exponential growth in the use of OTT services for video streaming beyond entertainment, especially for education as schools shut and classes moved online. Pre-recorded lessons and video conferencing platforms like Zoom have proved invaluable as distance learning became a temporary norm for millions of students worldwide. 

Video is also crucial across many different verticals such as telemedicine, enterprise, mobility, government and defence. For the latter, for example, beamed video directly into the cockpit of fighter jets are used to improve the situational awareness of pilots, and real-time video briefings and updates during operations are reliant on dependable, high-quality video. For humanitarian agencies, responding to emergency situations or planning effective mission strategies requires many players for whom video conferencing can virtually connect. 

The buffering dilemma 
As Internet Protocol (IP) video is increasingly becoming the new normal for entertainment seekers, factors such as website demand, internet traffic and latency can affect service delivery. In addition to being able to stream their content on a range of devices, consumers expect to receive their content on-demand: at any time, at any location and with uninterrupted playback. 

OTT is a unicast service, meaning each device used in a household for streaming is considered a separate stream - meaning they all need to be delivered with unique requirements. 

Providing this connectivity for streaming services, especially for live content such as sports and news coverage - which are both huge potential growth areas - to a wide audience doesn’t come without its challenges. For instance, facilitating the required amount of bandwidth must be done efficiently and, equally, sound traffic management and minimalization is crucial to ensuring unblemished streaming.

Latency issues and congestion can also be caused by the provider’s authentication system, which puts even more pressure on the overall network. This can cause frustration for the viewer. With an average customer tolerance duration of 90 seconds when subjected to low-quality streaming, the effect can be detrimental. 

Adding to that pressure on the network has been the unprecedented demand for OTT services during the pandemic. strain on many networks and caused some platforms to look for ways to reduce data consumption, like Netflix, which cut its streaming quality in Europe for 30 days. Delivering such an amount of individual streams presents a challenge, not just to the last mile, but to the backbone too. Network overload can cause huge issues like service blackouts, and bandwidth strains are likely to rise with hungry applications like 4K.

To keep pace with this rising demand for content, it’s crucial that service providers are able to deliver it both seamlessly and cost-effectively.

Satellite smarts 
To overcome network strain and issues like buffering, satellite can overcome many challenges with video and OTT services. At peak times especially, terrestrial networks can experience severe congestion: we have all experienced the frustration of buffering that interrupts our viewing and perhaps causes us to give up watching altogether. 

Satellite utilizes the Content Distribution Network (CDN) which sends multiple copies of the same content as close as necessary to the consumer. This significantly reduces distribution backbone traffic and ensures efficient use of bandwidth. 

By distributing content spatially relative to end-users, the CDN achieves high performance and availability - such as minimized start latency and buffering - providing the customer with optimal viewing means and better QoE. Satellite is also scalable. Satellite can address scalability in terms of receivers, as a network of receivers can increase rapidly and dramatically, yet satellite will not struggle to reach each receiver due to its ability to multicast. When an operator decides to increase both its footprint into more isolated regions and with additional receivers, satellite can support this new coverage with ease.

The wide footprint of satellite means that it can also scale quickly and economically and reach users in remote locations who don’t have access to terrestrial connectivity. The ability of satellite to reach to even the most remote places on the planet, means that no child needs to forego their education and can even enjoy interactive classes through bi-directional satellite links. 

Seafaring streaming 
Likewise, satellite can deliver connectivity to maritime or aerospace situations. The superyacht community, for example, is a prime user of services like Netflix as passengers relax on board. Wisconsin-based satellite service provider Isotropic Networks noticed that the demand from its superyacht customers was putting extreme pressure on available bandwidth and passengers were experiencing a degraded experience.

To address the pressure on bandwidth, Isotropic Networks developed a Digital Subscriber Management System which greatly reduces the bandwidth required on the upstream side. Isotropic broadcasts a constant downstream feed of Netflix content, either by subscriber request or when there is additional bandwidth available, and the top 10 trending features are broadcast. Use of a caching server allows unlimited access and unlimited users permissions to view the content. The system is run over the iDirect Evolution® platform which increases the performance and efficiency of the satellite link, reduces latency and enables multicasting. The most popular content is multicasted through caches, directly to the user automatically, resulting in a fast and efficient service. The use of satellite extends the geographical reach of the service into areas without a strong terrestrial broadband link, ensuring QoE for Isotropic customers in the U.S. and Europe.

Speed is everything when it comes to user experience, and the iDirect platform enabled Isotropic to provide the speeds needed for high-demand networks and for bandwidth-heavy applications and streaming. The ability to introduce different sized multicast streams into the standard downstream carrier makes for very efficient use of the Evolution platform. Due to the Evolution platform’s innovative technology and multicasting capabilities, Isotropic was able to reduce latency, congestion and buffering times for its customers. In addition, it also significantly alleviated pressure from its service. 

ST Engineering iDirect’s Dialog® platform and associated broadcast equipment also offers the capability to support OTT distribution.

The right choice 
Video will continue playing a huge role across the entertainment and educational industries, as well as verticals such as the humanitarian, aero and mobility markets. Given the stringent user requirements, a facilitator of video services that can meet the unique requirements of video services - low buffering, remote access, multicasting - makes satellite the right partner. 

And although not traditionally thought of as the answer to OTT, there are many reasons why satellite will continue to be essential partner for this market. Satellite’s multicast capabilities can distribute the vast amount of content that OTT generates whilst offering a very high user experience.