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Video service providers continue to face growing competition from online subscription VOD services like Netflix, Amazon, and now Apple, who are spending billions of dollars on original content with the goal of luring consumers away from traditional Pay TV. Service providers, unlikely to make the same investments in content creation, are left to ask themselves how they are going to defend their dominant market position and not only protect their subscriber counts, but grow them. Beyond launching new multi-screen services, adding more content, and refining bundled pricing models, there is a simpler way for operators to bolster subscriber counts – improving stream quality and reliability. Stream quality, including quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE), is one of the top reasons why consumers sign up for and stick with their Pay TV services. On the other hand, when quality suffers, subscriber defection is swift and consumers that cancel their TV service because of quality issues are unlikely to return soon.
For IP delivered adaptive bit-rate (ABR) streaming video services, the performance and capabilities of the underlying content delivery network (CDN) can have a dramatic effect on quality. Even minor glitches can have a large impact on customer satisfaction. Here are some ways in which CDNs can improve the consumers perception of reliability:
One item affecting consumer’s quality of experience is buffering. Buffering typically presents itself as a spinning wheel that appears on the consumer’s screen while they wait for their show to start playing. While buffering issues have diminished over the years as networks have improved, customer surveys continue to show that buffering ranks as a top issue for IP streaming services. According to one study by Adobe, nearly 80% of adult viewers surveyed said that if a piece of content takes too long to load, they will either stop viewing it altogether or switch to a different device. How long is too long? Studies have shown that abandonment rates begin to ramp up at latencies as low as half a second and continue to grow as the duration lengthens. According to research conducted by the University of Massachusetts, nearly 6% of viewers abandon streams for each second of delay over 2 seconds. Beyond the immediate effect, consumers that abandon streams are less likely to return and try again.
CDNs that push high performance caching servers deeper toward the network edge can largely eliminate buffering by serving more streams from local resources. By smartly positioning content within the CDN network and accurately routing requests to the edge servers that can deliver the best experience, CDNs can limit the amount of traffic that has to traverse the upstream network. In addition, embedded ultra-low latency features enable CDNs to achieve deliver faster stream starts, helping to prevent stream abandonment from occurring.
ABR technology commonly used to deliver IP streams is designed to prioritize stream continuity over video quality. Whenever network bandwidth becomes scarce, ABR clients will detect and automatically respond to network delays by reducing the consumer’s video quality in an effort to prevent session interruption. Unfortunately, this adaptation process presumes all streams are created equal, which is rarely the case. For example, most operators would prefer that premium tier customers who pay more for their service receive preferential treatment when it comes to stream quality. Premium customers should never have their stream quality diminished in favor of preserving stream quality for a lower tier customer. Quality may also be prioritized by device. For example, TVs should take priority over smartphones given that video quality downshifts will be more evident on larger screens.
More advanced CDNs feature session-level controls that can dynamically adjust the ABR quality profiles available to each client according to configurable business rules. Rules can be applied by based on subscriber attributes, device type, geography, and other factors. By proactively managing CDN traffic to fit within the available network capacity, CDNs can eliminate potential sources of buffering and improve the quality of experience for everyone.
Network connectivity or CDN component failures can be a potential source of quality issues. CDNs must be designed to prevent a single point of failure from causing an interruption in content ingress, caching, or streaming. According to video analytics firm Conviva, viewers who experience even a single video start-up failure return 54% less frequently to a service than those who don’t, making fault detection a critical requirement for CDNs. To prevent interruptions, intelligent request routing software can keep tabs on CDN performance and quickly identify problem areas, diverting requests to alternate resources when required. The faster and more effective a CDN is at detecting faults, the lower the likelihood is that consumer’s quality of experience will be affected by a component or network connectivity failure.
In addition to automated resiliency and redundancy features, it is critical that service providers have access to CDN data that provides deeper insight into service quality and consumer experience. Progressive monitoring of CDN performance and errors can help to identify potential areas of improvement. By tracking down and fixing issues that are affecting or could affect service quality in the future, Pay TV operators can achieve reliability rates that strongly differentiate their services with online alternatives.
Applying a heavy focus on quality and reliability is a great way for service providers to improve business results. Even minor improvements in quality can pay large dividends over time, helping to reduce churn, improve customer loyalty, and enhance the value proposition Pay TV service offerings have over other competitive services. With the right CDN solution and architecture, service providers can position service quality as a key differentiator in the fight for subscriber attention, prevent subscriber losses, and begin to grow subscriber counts.