Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece John Reister of Vasona Networks looks at the role of mobile edge computing in providing a high-quality mobile video experience.
Mobile video is king. AT&T’s planned acquisition of Time Warner is just the latest in a line of overwhelming evidence. As AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson stated about his company’s next steps, “The future of mobile is video and the future of video is mobile.” And AT&T is not alone. Verizon continues to build out its fledgling go90 service. T-Mobile is letting subscribers watch until they drop with new One plans that support unlimited video streaming. There’s BT Sport, which is offering 24/7 sports streaming for free via EE.
On Facebook’s most recent earnings call, it boasted 1.6B mobile users, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg stating the company believes a camera will soon be the main way users share information. “People are creating and sharing more video, and we think it’s pretty clear video is only going to become more important,” he said.
Of course, mobile networks have been feeling the weight of this video consumption trend for quite some time now. And plainly speaking, they will be overwhelmed by it in the future.
Video quality can vary widely. Over 4G networks, video can look amazing. Or, it can look terrible. That’s because mobile networks have unpredictable capacity and lack the application awareness to consistently and fairly address traffic with different demand profiles. Plus, traditional streaming techniques like Adaptable Bitrate Video (ABR) typically call the shots. In this environment, some video sessions get more than their fair share of bandwidth, while others do not get nearly enough. But throughput guidance, one of mobile edge computing’s (MEC) most compelling use cases, is changing that.
Operators fret about video experience
In Vasona’s conversations with operators around the world, a dominant theme we hear is how to improve video delivery. Operators are looking for every viable approach to providing high-quality video experiences while keeping video bandwidth and latency demands from negatively impacting all types of data sessions. The MNO’s desire to deliver a consistently high-quality customer experience to the most users is at the heart of these discussions.
These vital concerns about customer experience are shared by video-content providers. Facebook. Amazon. Netflix. Google. They’re markedly different companies with distinct end games. They have one big thing in common – they all rely on video to drive business.
There’s an old saying in network design that no matter how big of a pipe you build, consumers will find a way to fill it. Missing from this adage is the role that content providers play in offering up all those consumed data bits. Consider the degree to which content provider and operator business models are intertwined. Historically, this has led to an often-contentious instead of collaborative relationship. Video providers constantly pump out higher-resolution content, operators do their best to deliver it and consumers devour as much of it as they can. In fact, over the past four years, video watching on mobile devices by the average consumer has increased by nearly 210 hours annually, according to an Ericsson ConsumerLab 2016 report.
Operators try to keep pace with demand. They deploy video optimizers that universally squash video streams, or TCP proxies that cram bits through the RAN despite having no visibility into real-time state of contention for RAN resources. They experiment with data consumption business models to guide usage. They add more raw capacity, spending a fortune to accommodate demand peaks. None of these strategies, however, proved to be viable long-term solutions. In fact, some are directly at odds with the aim to deliver superior experiences.
Meanwhile, the key driving focus for content providers is to make video easy to access, anywhere, with enough quality to drive increased watch time and ad revenue. The apps are gorgeous. The content can look stunning. But at the end of the day, it’s still distributed using ABR, which is having trouble delivering consistent high-quality video as “busy hour” mobile video consumption continues to overwhelm mobile capacity.
Throughput guidance ushering in next phase of mobile video delivery
When consumers watch a mobile video, the quality may jump between great, just OK and awful as ABR belatedly under and over-compensates to serve the stream based on device responsiveness. Real-time decisions by the content provider about what quality stream to deliver are unable to consider other activity in the cell at a given moment. By the time a need for adjustments is assessed by the device, the traffic jams in the cell have already happened. This is exacerbated when a user hands over between cells and the new cell poses entirely different latency and throughput conditions.
There’s also a fairness issue when ABR is in charge. When congestion causes one user’s stream bitrate to drop to 500K, this could allow another user’s stream to burst up, creating uneven experiences that negatively impact perceived quality. Because these users are now making different demands on the cell, fairness algorithms built into the radio will not compensate.
So how does the industry solve this untenable situation that is worsening all the time? By finally opening the crucial, real-time lines of communication between content providers and wireless carriers.
And that’s where the value of edge computing enters and proves real value by enabling cloud computing capabilities and a programmable environment at the edge of the network. From a vantage point of an aggregation site near the network edge, (as opposed to directly on eNodeBs, which is much less cost-efficient), software solutions based on MEC enable operators to share real-time information with content providers about cell conditions. MNOs use this crucial insight to communicate with video content providers about the best sustainable bitrate the cell can support to achieve consistent delivery quality. This means a rate that takes into consideration other sessions in contention in the cell and that doesn’t favor one subscriber while shortchanging another. A rate assessed for each user in each cell that will deliver a better quality of experience consistently and to every consumer.
Throughput guidance is a substantial leap forward from the current scenario where content providers adjust the quality of an ABR stream only in hindsight when the service degrades and in an attempt to salvage the session. It adjusts more quickly when the user hands over from cell to cell, ensuring that content maintains the best sustainable bitrate even when customers are on the go.
A real world approach with real world results
Throughput guidance isn’t a pipe dream. The ability to cost-effectively drive results by deploying strategically at key aggregation points throughout the network is driving increasing interest.
Vasona has been working with one of the world’s largest operators and largest streaming video providers to demonstrate its impact on more than half a million video streams. In the first 100,000 video streams analyzed, Vasona reduced stalls during busy hours by more than 20% on top of additional gains achieved with other Vasona traffic management solutions. Vasona is now working with another major video content provider to test improvement potential.
The numbers we are seeing on the growth of mobile video are staggering. More than half of all video viewing is now happening on mobile, and most of those views come from phones, not tablets, according to a report just published by video platform provider Ooyala. Since Q3 of 2013, mobile video views have grown more than 233 percent.
Wireless operators and video content providers have more motivation than ever to ensure consumers have premium video experiences and keep coming back for more. Revenues depend on it. Adoption depends on it. Innovation depends on it. And throughput guidance provides the much-needed tenable path forward today by empowering operators to deliver low latency benefits years ahead of 5G readiness. All while transforming networks, bringing flexibility and conserving RAN capital along the way. Put another feather in the cap of mobile edge computing, which continues to provide much-needed mobile network intelligence as the industry continues its march toward next-gen networks.
John Reister is vice president of product and marketing for Vasona Networks, which provides mobile edge software solutions that help operators deliver better user quality of experience while achieving network-resource efficiencies. Learn more at VasonaNetworks.com and follow on Twitter @vasonanetworks.