OTT Monetization Prospects Gain With Advance in Service Assurance

Calvin Harrison, COO, IneoQuest

Calvin Harrison, COO, IneoQuest

March 26, 2012 – As ever more entities peg their growth prospects to delivering premium video to IP-connected consumers, one of the least addressed questions is what it will take to overcome the proof-of-performance barrier to making money in this space.
With the likes of Google, Amazon, CE manufacturers and now even Intel signaling they want a piece of the pay TV pie as established pay TV providers pursue their own multiscreen strategies, arguments rage over how content owners’ shuffling of licensing rights might impact the market. But no matter what terms emerge in the licensing battles, everyone confronts the same reality: there’s no hope for success without developing the means to provide content owners and their advertisers rigorous assurance that quality of experience requirements are being met.

It’s a daunting challenge, acknowledges John Romm, COO of Avail-TVN, a leading provider of VOD content aggregation and distribution for network service providers that has expanded its services to include white label support for operator-branded TV Everywhere services. “When you look at processing of live channels, there’s a wide array of multicast formats and an increasing amount of adaptive bitrate distribution, all of which needs content provider acceptance,” Romm says.

“We have a responsibility to make sure service providers are not only provided with rich content but that the content operates within the business rules and parameters, it’s seamless to the service provider and their network and ultimately seamless to the customers using it,” he says. “We need to maximize and monetize for the content providers, and we need to be able to maximize and monetize for the service providers.”

This entails not only “making sure the quality of the video is streaming in such a fashion that it’s viewable, reasonable and attractive,” but also ensuring the system “understands what plays on which device at what period of time and when fast forward disable needs to be taken in or out of the picture based on the advertising rules.”

Nor are content owners and advertisers the only ones that have to be satisfied. Even more fundamental to success is avoiding the mistakes that can quickly drive consumers to alternative providers, notes Michael Fay, senior director, CDN product management, Level 3 Communications.

Citing statistics compiled by Azuki Systems, a provider of cloud-based video distribution services, Fay says the return rate of consumers to a service where viewers have experienced a video startup failure is 54 percent less than for viewers who don’t have that experience. “A one percent increase in buffering time leads to a three-minute decrease in viewing time,” Fay says. “For long-form video, viewers watch 32 percent more video when they don’t experience buffering.”

Fortunately, solutions are beginning to emerge that address the end-to-end performance monitoring challenges of operating in an IP video environment dominated by HTTP adaptive rate streaming, use of CDNs and disparate device types with different format requirements for adaptive rate fragmenting and securing content. But creating a robust service assurance regime that measures up to premium TV performance standards still requires much effort to ensure all the moving parts sync up into a cost-effective means of sustaining day-to-day operations.

One important bellwether to progress along these lines is the below-the-radar work IneoQuest has undertaken with content distributors worldwide to build approaches to maintaining video service performance that fit the many infrastructural strategies entities are pursuing to deliver content to connected devices. This is complicated by the fact that the complexities of adaptive streaming pose different sets of challenges depending on any given entity’s networking strategy, notes IneoQuest COO Calvin Harrison.

“We’ve developed our solutions to serve the different categories of customers looking at how to deliver content over-the-top,” Harrison says. “Some are network service providers with control over the network end to end who need to look at all the components from the encoding through to the end user. Others have relationships with third-party CDN suppliers, and some have no control over the distribution path.” And in the last two categories there are those who have subscriber relationships requiring authentication and therefore a degree of conversancy with the end users’ devices, and others who have no way of leveraging that connectivity for monitoring purposes.

Building on a TV quality assurance business now serving over 500 customers worldwide, IneoQuest has developed new monitoring probes and modes of tabulating performance for all these customer scenarios, Harrison says. The firm is calling the entire suite of adaptive rate-related solutions iVMS ASM, which distinguishes them from but relates them to the traditional iVMS solution suite the vendor provides for service assurance in the traditional pay TV market.

“With iVMS ASM, service and content providers can quickly identify QoS and QoE impairments within the multiscreen and OTT video network in real-time,” Harrison says. “iVMS ASM gives providers the indispensable end-to-end view to gain the intelligence needed to assure high-quality customer experience in this new video-everywhere world.”

At the heart of these capabilities is the firm’s new system of analytics VeriStream, which is designed to generate metrics precisely suited to the parameters of this new environment. VeriStream, much like the analytics used for legacy linear and VOD performance probes, translates raw data into color-coded readings providing operations managers immediate insight into what’s happening across a broad range of measurements, from the encoding input and output to ingestion and output at the origin server to the transition through cache to what’s happening at the user end of the chain.

In the case of a network service provider or a premium pay TV network like HBO delivering a TV Everywhere service to authenticated subscribers, IneoQuest provides a client-level video assurance solution consisting of a software library that can be built into video applications for mobile devices, computers and connected TVs. Performance and usage data are aggregated from devices for advanced analytics in the new IneoQuuest cMAC cloud platform.

“We configure the app to specifications of individual service providers so that the parameters they want to gauge performance on are fully covered,” Harrison says. “For example, a mobile service provider might want to correlate signal strength on the phone with situations where reception is bad to determine whether there’s a problem with the phone rather than the cause being poor coverage. You can set up alarming around any aggregation of metrics at the eMAC level.”

Looking at buffering performance from different perspectives is very important for full QoS analysis in the adaptive bitrate environment, he notes. “From a client standpoint, one of the things we analyze is various aspects of buffering,” he says. “Let’s say the adaptive rate process for a given device is sending ten-second chunks in one-second intervals. Our system picks up the fact the client is grabbing all those ten-second chunks it doesn’t need, which signals the server may be flooding the network. Or maybe the next request for a ten-second chunk takes 12 seconds to generate a response from the server, which may mean you have a file server problem.”

The system can measure many other client-side events as well, including everything from the amount of time it takes to start a video after the user clicks play, to the number of users that are abandoning videos, to freeze frames, to problems players are having with manifest files, to which cache servers are delivering the content. If, for example, someone in Boston is getting content from a caching server in Atlanta, there may be a latency issue, and, if there’s a massive shift along these lines, it could mean there’s a problem with the CDN.

For content distributors who do not have direct relationships with end users that can be leveraged for client-side analytics, IneoQuest has introduced Expedus ASM, a QoS probe that monitors content availability in adaptive streaming video networks from an end-user perspective without requiring access to end user devices. “Expedus ASM is an active solution that sits on the other side of caching servers and makes requests for every profile,” Harrison explains.

“For example,” he continues,” say you’re a content provider who’s interested in how streaming of a football game is performing in multiple markets. Our customer will put an Expedus probe in major cities to request low, medium and high bitrate flows for Apple and Silverlight with every possible combination in those bitrate categories.”

The solution can perform active testing 24/7 on multiple video streams from a given Website, with reports based on the same VeriStream analytics that are applied with the client app approach, although not with the same level of device granularity from one location to the next. In the case of the Expedus application, the results are reported into and processed by the iVSM system positioned with each customer’s operations center, as opposed to being run through the cloud-based cMAC.

Another key component of the iVMS ASM platform is the IQDialogue ASM, which is a next-generation probe that audits, monitors, analyzes and troubleshoots CDN networks. The probe conducts monitoring to ensure video assets are delivered to origin servers correctly and passively monitors interactions between caching servers and client devices to pinpoint communications errors and monitor video quality. IQDialogue ASM is a plug-and-play device that instantly recognizes all adaptive streaming protocols and provides a comprehensive, user-friendly platform to measure performance metrics and troubleshoot impairments in real-time, Harrison says.

Also feeding into the end-to-end analytics on the over-the-top side are the capabilities of the traditional iVMS system that are used at the encoding and transcoding centers. “Monitoring starts with a full decode of the video as it’s going into and coming out of encoders and transcoders before it’s getting segmented,” says Spencer Shellay, director of product management and business development for multiscreen video solutions at IneoQuest.

“What IneoQuest has brought to bear is the idea of a complete end-to-end monitoring application,” Shellay stresses. “Service providers and content distributors need to really understand what’s going on, even with a customer out on the edge of some unknown network.”

But there are further advances to come. For example, on the IneoQuest roadmap is the ability to give a full view through a single interface with cMAC tied to iVMS. “That will provide customers all the information they need for monitoring everything from the encoder to the end device,” Harrison says.

There’s also work to be done to accommodate comprehensive performance monitoring on adaptive streams in the growing number of situations where, rather than delivering IP content over the broadband connection to the home, service providers employ home media gateways to transcode the legacy MPEG-2 content for adaptive streaming to IP-connected devices. “We’re in early stages with this area,” Harrison says.

“It’s a matter of what you do first,” he adds, “but collecting the information for all these different clients over the home network involves the same analytical processes, except here you’re distributing the client libraries as widgets over the IP network. So it’s not that big a change.”

These are early days in the multiscreen video service space where there’s a lot of chaos and missteps occasioned by incomplete solutions and ill-planned launch strategies. “Some people take a seat-of-the-pants approach only to discover it’s not as easy as it sounds,” Harrison notes. “Others are being more cautious and testing things out. We’ve been hit from all over the world with RFPs with less focus on IPTV and middleware and much more on over-the-top and adaptive streaming. We’re in trials with many major service providers at this point.”