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Mobile video is staring at a bandwidth precipice

There’s no question that mobile is revolutionising the way video is consumed, writes Andy Fry, and there is a surfeit of data and analysis to back this. But if content   owners don’t keep an eye on their delivery networks they could be facing a bandwidth crisis.

Ericsson’s 8th annual ConsumerLab TV and Media report, for example, forecasts that, by 2020, 50% of all TV and video viewing will take place on a mobile screen (tablets, smartphones and laptops). This represents an increase of 85% since 2010, with the smartphone alone accounting for almost one quarter (an impressive increase of 160% since 2010).

That prediction is consistent with what we know about the way platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and Facebook are being accessed. In June 2017, for example, Netflix users in the US watched 125 million hours of content via their smartphones – up 35% on June 2015. Over at YouTube, mobile now accounts for more than half of the company’s views. As for Facebook, we’re looking at more than 1.1 billion mobile daily active users.

This shift in behaviour has not been lost on leading mobile networks either. In the US, the likes of T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon all view video as a key way of winning customers, who they can then offer a suite of products and services. With all the US carriers offering unlimited data plans and aggressive discounts on premium video such as MLB, Hulu and DirecTV, this is another driver towards mainstream mobile video consumption.


It doesn't end there. In mature media markets, mobile video fights for mindshare with existing delivery platforms. But in many emerging markets, mobile is shaping up as the de facto and primary viewing platform. According to a study by We Are Social and Hootsuite, 79% of India's internet traffic is on mobile – making that platform a primary target for the likes of Netflix. You see a similar bias towards mobile in Nigeria, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey, which between them represent an eye-watering 600 million population opportunity.

In addition to all of the above, there is a powerful commercial agenda driving mobile video – namely the rate of ad growth on small screens. In the case of Facebook, for example, mobile ads account for 86% of the company’s total US$10 billion revenues. Looking beyond these two behemoths, Ooyala says smartphones and tablets represent 56% of all AVOD viewing.

Overall, Ooyala is even more bullish about mobile than Ericsson. In the Q3 2017 edition of its Global Video Index (the latest at time of writing), it forecasts that 60% of all video plays will be on mobile devices within the next six months. Explaining key drivers, Jim O’Neill, principal industry analyst at Ooyala, cites developments such as larger screens and improved audio. In terms of the kind of device being used, O’Neill says video was played on smartphones four times more than on tablets – setting a record high in July 2017 at 51.1% of all plays.

Especially noteworthy in Ooyala’s analysis is its dismissal of the notion that mobile platforms are only any good for watching short-form video. In its GVI it said: “Smartphones, tablets and connected TVs all saw long-form content time watched exceed 50% for the third consecutive quarter.” In fact, PCs are now the primary platform for viewing shortform, perhaps suggesting that bite-sized video is mostly consumed in the workplace.

Summarising mobile video trends, Ooyala says the bottom line is that: “Younger viewers – and, increasingly, older viewers, too – remain enamoured with mobility. While some will only watch long-form content on the largest screens available, many more have decided screen size, by and large, is meaningless for any application — even sports. Now that more devices are readily available in the market, expect a surge in mobile viewing.”

Buffering issues

So far, so good. But high levels of mobile video adoption do bring some challenges in terms of delivering a satisfactory consumer experience. In a recent comment piece, Jonathan Smith, managing director EMEA, Limelight Networks, explored this point, identifying a number of problems that can make a mobile user lose interest in content. These include buffering or irritating delays. “Over half of consumers think buffering is the most frustrating aspect of watching online video, and 46% will stop watching a video if it stops to buffer twice,” says Smith, “and this shoots up to 80% when a video buffers three times.”




Smith also points out that delays can be a particular problem if users are consuming content across multiple screens simultaneously (for example watching a live sports match while engaging with related content on mobile). If the two get out of sync then it begins to undermine the user’s experience.

Problem like latency and buffering are exacerbated in high stress scenarios, argues Smith, such as a surge in user demand (maybe during a major live event). “Without the proper infrastructure in place, the upsurge in demand can result in latency and push viewers to access content elsewhere.”

 “Without the proper infrastructure in place, the upsurge in demand can result in latency and push viewers to access content elsewhere.”

Smith, of course, is raising these points as a way of encouraging content owners moving into the mobile video space to work with a good CDN (content delivery network) like Limelight. And he sees other ways in which the right CDN can save new-to-mobile content owners a lot of time, money and frustration. For example, he says, a CDN can help content providers ensure that their content is scalable internationally, so that “customers everywhere will enjoy the same quality of experience, regardless of where they access content from.”

Robust CDNs can also monitor data on viewer habits, says Smith, and act quickly. “For example, if users are struggling to interact with a feature on a page, perhaps a certain button does not function properly on certain types of devices, the CDN can flag this promptly and avoid loss of traffic as a result.”

The content owner/CDN/consumer dynamic is not the only area that needs attention in the new mobile video age. There is also a critical issue around bandwidth and data, argues Guido Meardi, CEO & co-founder, V-Nova. His view is that mobile networks are straining to overcome constraints in capacity because of the pace of consumer demand for video. As a result, many end users are getting a substandard video experience – with the situation poised to get worse: “Many networks aren’t performing at the speed they claim and that is likely to get worse because demand is increasing faster than capacity.”


Fortunately, Meardi claims that V-Nova has come up with a partial solution – its Perseus codec technology. “Perseus is a software solution which, via a simple upgrade, enables operators to provide high-quality video at unprecedented bandwidth operating points. Consumers watching video on mobile phones can watch in low coverage areas, stream many more hours of video within the same data package and enjoy a great user experience with HD video, fast time to play and no buffering.”

Perseus, says Meardi, allows operators to stream premium live and VOD video at bitrates as low as 100 kbps, 720p HD video below 400 kbps and Full HD video below 1 mbps, even for content such as live sports.  “This translates into reductions of time to play, instances of buffering, data rate costs per minute for the end user and CDN and storage costs for the operator.”

V-Nova has several case studies to back up the transformative impact of its video compression solution. In the UK, for example, it has shown how Perseus has enabled EE to deliver high-quality video experiences on the move and in remote places such as The New Forest. In India, meanwhile, the software is used by OTT service FastFilmz to deliver video over congested and unreliable 2G networks. “The deployment of Perseus has enabled FastFilmz to launch the first subscription video service for consumers who are mobile bandwidth-constrained,” says Dominic Charles, joint-CEO & Co-Founder of FastFilmz. “At the same time, we are able to halve the data costs of streaming and downloading movies, which is a huge deal for our market.”

It has taken a while for the market to respond fully to V-Nova’s offering, says Meardi, “because there was a widespread view in the industry that we’d gone as far as we could go with compression. It had become like a petrified forest. But now interest in what we are doing is snowballing, and we’ve been able to bring in Eutelsat and Sky Ventures as shareholders.”

One obvious question for V-Nova is what happens to Perseus when 5G arrives. After all, the big promise of 5G is that it will do away with the technical constraints challenging the market. What is the role of a compression technology like Perseus when 5G promises to provide enough capacity to run smart cities, immersive media, consumer-facing IoT applications, e-health and augmented reality overlays?

Meardi has two answers. The first is that 5G is still some way from being a reality: “Even if it rolls out on schedule, 5G will only be in 6% of the global market by 2023. No one can afford to wait for 5G because mobile video is happening right now. Our compression technology can help operators capture the mobile video market now so they are ready when 5G arrives. They can't really afford to ignore current consumer demand.”

Even if 5G rolls out faster than expected, it’s not a problem for V-Nova “because Perseus works best on advanced networks,” says Meardi. “So the combination of 5G and Perseus really brings the prospect of rich content such as UHD and VR closer. In addition, Perseus enables 1080p60 live sports below 1.5-2 Mbps. In 4G this is challenging (ie, only possible some of the time, and it quickly drains data allowances), but with 5G this will really be able to scale.”

V-Nova is not alone in addressing the bandwidth issue. Google is also on the case with its VP9 compression codec while SVOD pioneer Netflix has been working on an AI-based compression system called Dynamic Optimizer with the University of Southern California. In simple terms, this makes it possible to encode videos on a scene-by-scene basis, cutting the amount of data required to stream video, and letting users on slow connections view better-quality video.

Netflix VP of product innovation Todd Yellin demonstrated the benefit of this new AI approach using a trailer for Netflix/Marvel series Iron Fist. Using traditional encoding, Netflix delivered a 555kbps stream, but with Dynamic Optimizer that was reduced to 227kbps – without loss of visual quality. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is also working on a machine learning system to reduce buffering. Called Pensieve, the new technology improves video streaming by 10% to 30%.

While the capacity crunch may seem like a subject best suited to technology forums, Meardi is adamant it is a critical business issue that everyone in the mobile video content chain needs to address – whether via compression technology or other means: “In terms of monetisation this is a trainwreck waiting to happen because substandard performance is likely to result in subscriber churn and advertisers going somewhere else. It’s a critical problem that many in the industry have no idea about.”