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As more people watch video online, via their PCs and mobile phones, broadcasters and content providers are turning to content delivery networks to cope with the extra strain

The final group stage football match between England and Slovenia in last summer’s World Cup won’t go down in history as a classic, but it did earn a place in the history books as the most concurrent number of streams of an event the BBC has ever had to deliver.

The game was in the afternoon, so many elected to watch it online while at work, requiring the BBC to serve 800,000 streams at peak demand. This was nearly treble the previous highest audience for a single event, seen a year previously when 270,000 people streamed Andy Murray’s ill-fated semi-final tennis match against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon.

Such sporting events are examples of how the growth in online video is placing huge pressures on broadcasters to serve quality video online as well as through terrestrial, cable and satellite TV. Figures from ComScore show that in spring 2009, 4.65bn video clips were watched online each month, but by autumn 2010 this had risen 40% to 6.5bn. Over the same period the average number of minutes of video a viewer watched online rose almost 50% from 650 to 960 a month.

The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the desktop, either. Figures from ComScore’s MobiLens survey of mobile usage show that between November 2009 and November 2010 there was a 52% rise in the number of people watching video on their smartphones, from 1.7m to 2.7m. This makes the UK the biggest market for video consumption on mobile within the EU’s top five markets (the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy), across which the average increase over the same period was 66%.

Expecting the unexpected

For broadcasters, this massive growth in traffic is prompting upgrades to their servers and infrastructure as well as an increasing reliance on content delivery networks (CDNs) to meet peak demand. These host live (and recorded) content on their infrastructure, which is separate from the public web. They’ll usually have a direct connection to each ISP to ensure the video viewing experience is better than one served entirely over the public internet from the broadcaster’s own server room.

Mark Kortekaas, general manager of the BBC’s Online Technology Group, says, “We’re constantly expanding our hosting facilities in and around London through which we serve video content, but we need to be prepared for major events and unexpected spikes in traffic. For planned events like the World Cup or a General Election, we can plan ahead with a third-party CDN. We also have arrangements for our content to be mirrored on their networks so they can host and deliver content away from our infrastructure if demand goes above a particular level. Breaking news is a good example because you can’t plan for it and yet you need suddenly to deliver content to a huge audience you couldn’t have predicted.”

Indeed, the heavy demand placed on broadcasters by rising video consumption has seen traffic volumes at CDN Limelight Networks doubling every year. George Fraser, VP of international business at Limelight, believes this is down to the runaway success of the BBC’s iPlayer and the proliferation of web-connected devices.

“The BBC has made the public aware of catch-up services so we’ve seen huge growth in video viewing, and not just to PCs,” he says. “The iPhone was a game-changer too and now there are a wide variety of smartphones streaming video content on 3G and Wi-Fi, as well as games consoles and web-connected TVs. Demand for video is rocketing and that’s why broadcasters are increasingly relying on us to deliver their content for them.”

According to Fraser, it’s not just the volume of traffic that’s driving broadcasters to rely on CDNs, but also quality issues. “When you compare what video online was like five years ago to today, the difference is amazing,” he says. “Now you can get full-screen video that looks okay on a TV. That’s what is really making the demands on broadcasters. Most will use adaptive bit rates, analysing what connection a person has and giving them the best quality they can get. We estimate this puts up bandwidth demands by around 15% because you’re always delivering the most you can rather than forcing people to chose the quality they believe will display best.”

Serving the masses

Movie rental service LoveFilm’s chief marketing officer Simon Morris agrees that mass-market awareness of downloading and streaming movies came into its own last year and shows no sign of abating. With the launch of internet-ready TVs, and YouView around the corner, the strains of delivering feature-length material will increase.

“Mass awareness of streaming movies to your PC seemed to come to the fore in the first half of 2010, but we noticed huge demand once we launched our service on the Sony PlayStation3 last autumn - that was a real game-changer for us, alongside internet-ready TVs,” Morris says.

“When I look back at our experiment with the country’s first download-to-own movie, King Kong in 2006, it’s incomparable. It really was a case of trying to suck a golfball down a hosepipe back then. Streaming HD-quality films to TVs will be the next big challenge.”

Even faced with such demands, Phil O’Ferral, senior VP of MTVNI, which includes the MTV and Nickelodeon channels, believes there’s no need for the relationship between content owners and broadcasters to change when it comes to online video. The pressures of delivering video in the face of mounting demand are best met by those with the technology to do so, he reckons.

“We offer some clips on our channels’ websites, but our biggest online market is pay-TV,” he says. “We’re available on Sky Player, which is where we’re happy being. We leave the distribution to Sky and its content-delivery partners because we’re the guys with the content and they’re the experts at broadcasting it.”

The common model of free footage being ad-funded is also placing extra pressure on broadcasters to ensure content is hosted or co-hosted by a third-party network that can provide prompt delivery of both the video and ads. Suranga Chandratillake, CEO of video search engine, hosting and advertising service blinkx, says it’s now becoming more important than ever for content owners and broadcasters to ensure their video arrives quickly.

“On our video search service, expectations are far higher now than they were just a year or two ago,” he says. “If a video doesn’t appear within a couple of seconds, with its pre-roll in place, then people will simply click on the next result. Content owners and broadcasters realise this and we think it’s a big reason behind so many using third-party networks to host and display both their content as well as relevant ads.”

Chandratillake believes this year will be dominated by three issues. While volumes will continue to rise, so too will quality demands, while the issue of net neutrality will come to the fore as regulators decide whether it’s fair to allow ISPs to prioritise their own or partners’ traffic, putting startups and small companies at a potential disadvantage. These pressures are likely to strengthen the hand of CDNs, which can save broadcasters from having to make huge investments in infrastructure by ensuring their content arrives, with its associated advertising, on the equivalent of a toll road, bypassing the congested public internet.