The 4K revolution is underway: 18.6 million US homes already have a 4K Ultra HD TV, and UHD TV sales are growing faster than HD sales did at the same stage in their evolution. Increasingly, major sports events are being broadcast in UHD, most high-quality TV production is being shot in UHD and hundreds of UHD channels are expected to launch in the next few years. (See Sales of 4K Sets to Rise 40% This Year, Says CTA.)
We are also seeing 4K start to be utilized by online publishers. Netflix and Amazon, for example, have been offering 4K streams since 2014. This could pose significant challenges for operators as networks will struggle to cope with the massive volumes of traffic generated by UHD video. It will not be practical to just keep expanding bandwidth to accommodate 4K traffic; usage efficiency will need to improve.
We discussed this with Jon Alexander, senior director of product management, overseeing the media suite of products at Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT). He manages Level 3's global content delivery network (CDN) and its Vyvx broadcast solution, which he integrated into a single business unit to better align with the company's global strategy. He has also been instrumental in building the international and domestic partnerships that have drawn broadcasters, professional sports organizations, cable MSOs, OTT and gaming companies and global enterprises to use Level 3's product suite. He spoke to Telco Transformation about preparing networks for this new age of streaming media, and its impact on intelligent network management.
Telco Transformation: UHD TV improves video resolution to 4K and will bring vivid audio-visual experiences enabled by wide color gamut (WCG), high dynamic range (HDR), high frame rate (HFR) and improved audio quality. CDN networks can't just rely on more bandwidth to cope with these new demands; they will need to get smarter. How is Level 3 differentiating its CDN network to make inroads in this new market?
Jon Alexander: More publishers are indeed experimenting with 4K streaming, and the volumes of content with this resolution are rising over time. We expect most publishers in 2017 will continue to operate with a maximum resolution of 1080p before migrating to 4K. The challenge today is to deliver 4K quality video where the average bitrate is 15-25 megabits per second -- less than 10% of end-users have the bandwidth and the devices to sustain a 4K streaming experience.
In the interim, some of our clients are looking to improve video quality with HFR and HDR which deliver a significantly better visual experience typically with only a 30% increase in required bitrate over a standard 1080p video. Viewers of fast moving sports or action scenes have a richer visual experience with HFR while HDR delivers higher contrast and makes images more vibrant, valuable for theatrical content.
At Level 3, we focus on enhancing the video quality of experience (QoE) as measured by three key metrics: average stream bitrate, rebuffering and video start failures. With 4K, HDR and HFR video we are pushing the limits of available end-user bandwidth. At the network layer, we are placing content closer to the last mile and tightly integrating our global IP backbone with ISP networks to ensure that we are physically bringing the content closer to the end-user. Additionally, we continue to optimize the network transport and application protocols, packet scheduling and routing to make the most of the available network capacity.
Also, the customers' QoE cannot be isolated from the constraints of home devices. Over time, we expect more powerful and improved home networking devices will sustain higher throughputs, and more advanced end-user devices will have the ability to decode content at higher frame rates, resolutions and color depths in addition to supporting new generations of video codecs.
TT: Users are now viewing video on a variety of devices. What new challenges does this pose, and how do you address them?
JA: The variance in capabilities of end-user devices is indeed one of the most significant challenges we face. As we look at QoE, there are three main dimensions in how we categorize the problem: geography, network, and device. We conducted an analysis and found that we are delivering content to over 3,300 unique device types per hour. These devices range from Roku 4, which is 4K compatible, to a Windows Phone which is far from it. Our ability to maintain a consistent quality of service across the population of devices that receive our content is daunting as there is a significant variation in characteristics and capabilities between devices. A major focus of our innovation efforts is to optimize the customer experience across all these devices. The consistency of QoE across all devices requires specific network and application-level optimizations within our CDN to ensure that we are delivering high-quality content optimally to those devices.
TT: Does that mean you are using big data and machine learning to gather information on each of the devices on the network used and the corresponding customer experience?
JA: We have an enormous big data platform which collects flow, utilization, performance and usage data from our network and systems. Currently, the data is consumed manually, and optimizations are recommended by our engineering and operations team. Over the next few years, our aim is to expand the automation of the processes so that our systems can make real-time, dynamic adjustments to optimize the delivery, for example, based on the characteristics of the device receiving the content.
Look out for Part II of this interview, where Alexander discusses discusses the role SDN control and big data will play in optimization of networks for 4K media.
— Kishore Jethanandani, Contributing Writer, Telco Transformation