As someone who has spent a considerable length of their career working with network vendors overseeing data networks and their performance, I have always found video streaming an exciting topic. The growth in online video streaming has been phenomenal in recent years. This year alone, the global video streaming industry recorded a growth of more than 100 %, from USD 24.8 billion in 2019 to an estimated USD 50.3 billion in 20201.
Over-the-top (OTT) video services, as expected, continue to be the primary factor behind this growth, propelled by competitive subscription rates, content variety, availability on any type and on any number of devices, and the fact that OTT can be delivered not just on IP networks but also on cable and satellite. OTT players continue to expand their market shares across the globe. Closer to home here in the US, we see Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+ dominating 57 % of the video streaming market2. In the more recent months2, OTT players in the country saw further intensification in new sign-ups as people spent more time indoors due to the lockdown. Netflix alone added a whopping 5.2 million subscribers in the first six months of this year3.
The video galore
However, not just OTT services are pushing this explosive growth in video streaming. The demand for YouTube’s free videos saw the content sharing platform snap up 20 % of market share in Q2 2020. Others, like Facebook and Instagram, have also jumped on the bandwagon, launching their own video streaming applications Facebook Watch and IGTV. It is evident that video streaming is on a fast track to becoming the new definition of the ‘Internet’, easily outdoing other bandwidth-intensive applications such as cloud gaming, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Cisco expects 82 % of all IP traffic to be video by 2022, compared to 4 % and 1 % respectively for gaming and AR/VR content4.
Video streaming: boon or bane?
While video traffic has resulted in higher data usage, it has also created a somewhat vicious cycle for network operators. I have noticed this trend here in the US, based on my conversations with our network analytics and network performance monitoring clients. The demand for video content seems to move in tandem with network speeds, given that better speeds translate into faster streaming and improved quality of experience (QoE). The evolution to 4G and now to 5G on mobile and 10G on fixed broadband is literally video pipe upgrades for most customers, as they begin to enjoy gigabytes of high-quality, uninterrupted video content on smartphones and smart TVs. This ramps up data usage, eating into the new network capacity. Before long, network operators will find themselves in need of bigger data pipes, calling for new technology upgrades, which then again will increase speeds and bandwidth and, subsequently, video usage.
Certain types of data plans also contribute significantly to the rise of video traffic on networks. ‘All-you-can-eat’ plans, such as those offered on 4G and 5G mobile data, allow users to stream unlimited video without the risk of overages. The same applies to mobile data tethering or the use of multiple endpoints on a single home broadband connection for endless video and TV streaming services on demand.
One of the immediate effects of a rapid increase in video traffic is the strain it puts on network resources, resulting in network congestion and poor network performance. While this impairs almost all applications to some degree, video takes the biggest hit given its dependency on real-time availability of bandwidth and speeds. Buffering, stalling or non-loading videos are a direct result of network congestion, often leading to highly dissatisfied customers and, subsequently, to an increased risk of churn.
When it comes to online video streaming, all operators face the same dilemma: Too little video streaming, and there is a little uptake of data plans; too much video streaming, and there is the perpetual catch-up game with bandwidth and costly network investments. Striking a balance requires detailed insights into how video really affects the network and how it can be leveraged to create new revenue proposition for operators.
DPI for deciphering video traffic
In this aspect, deep packet inspection (DPI), a packet inspection and classification method, has long been a reliable and highly accurate technology for monitoring video traffic. Our DPI engine R&S®PACE 2 not only accurately detects video traffic on the network but can also differentiate between content providers such as Netflix or Facebook. It can even zoom into video-based traffic attributes within a non-video application such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Telegram, identifying video attachments and files that are shared in chats.
With real-time information on where, what, how much and whose video traffic is on their network, operators can pinpoint nodes and applications handling heavy video traffic, and use that information to optimize the delivery pathways or the content itself to maintain the required QoE. With DPI, network operators are able to track traffic patterns, such as increased binge-watching at a certain time of the day, and allocate the necessary resources to pre-emptively manage these routine traffic peaks. They will also be able to detect trending, viral and popular content that requires local caching within the operator’s content delivery network (CDN).
Translating insights into opportunities
The rise of video traffic is not all about challenges. It also brings about a plethora of opportunities for operators. Similar to how US cable operators have been offering broadband to promote cable TV subscriptions, network operators are in a prime position to offer data plans that are differentiated by QoE. Plans at a premium price, for example, can offer uncompressed and uninterrupted video streaming. At peak times, the prioritization of video streaming quality for subscribers will be based on their plan type.
In order to implement these offerings successfully and meet user expectations, it is critical to have timely insights into the performance, speeds and possible congestion occurring across the entire operator network. An operator might offer some of their customers a plan that guarantees a 1080p unbuffered video streaming quality, but be unaware of a fast-growing bottleneck that will essentially impinge on their ability to fulfill their subscribers’ service level agreements (SLA).
Video traffic insights are also key for operator video content plans. As the demand for online streaming increases continuously, operators require analyses of video trends such as preferences for different video formats, OTT platforms and even specific web series and channels, in order to form the right content partnerships and develop content plans that are contextual to the needs of their customers.
R&S®PACE 2 delivers monitoring of unlimited data packets and real-time, granular insights into video traffic. It allows both video consumption trends and network issues to be identified as they happen, and in most circumstances, before they do. This becomes a key monitoring tool for network operators, network analytics providers and network performance vendors. With its comprehensive library of the latest traffic signatures, R&S®PACE 2 becomes a critical intelligence engine that helps them to learn about the impact of video on network conditions as well as troubleshoot and remedy issues in real time while identifying new and emerging video consumption trends that can create potential new revenue streams.
Regardless of whether it is a one-minute cat video or a daily soap opera that runs over five years, we know that video will continue to dominate today’s networks for the foreseeable future. Network operators as providers of last mile connectivity have both the means and the competitive edge to monetize video streaming — with either QoE, content or bandwidth plans. All they need now are the right tools that deliver the required intelligence, timely and accurately, for the successful deployment of their video streaming strategies.
1. Content Streaming Global Market Report 2020-30: COVID-19 Implications and Growth - https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/5023173/content-streaming-global-market-report-2020-30
2. The Nielsen Total Audience Report (August 2020) - https://www.nielsen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/08/nielsen-total-audience-report-aug-2020.pdf
3. Netflix Investors - https://www.netflixinvestor.com/financials/financial-statements/default.aspx
4. Cisco Visual Networking Index (2017 - 2022) - https://www.cisco.com/c/dam/m/en_us/network-intelligence/service-provider/digital-transformation/knowledge-network-webinars/pdfs/1213-business-services-ckn.pdf