Content distribution is heading to the connected world.
Today's TV viewers want more content from an increasing number of sources, and that means that Internet delivery is a growing phenomenon. With hybrid technologies emerging, it is reasonable to expect that television broadcast will increasingly use the Internet to expand throughput beyond that afforded by a single RF channel. But there are limitations to the Internet that must be understood in order to capitalize on this commodity, and some of those constraints are being overcome by new technologies.
Streaming can now provide a high quality of service
In general, Internet TV is a means to provide streamed video content to a PC, STB or Internet-connected TV, by means of an Internet connection. Internet Protocol Television, or IPTV, refers to a special case where a full-time TV subscriber connection is established by means of a dedicated line (and channel) to the telephone system central office. It is envisioned, however, that many Internet TV viewers will get their content though their Internet connection, and as such, receive OTT video service that shares bandwidth with other Internet traffic.
This sharing of bandwidth creates a QoS challenge for Internet TV service: While a terrestrial channel has a fixed bandwidth (i.e., 19.2Mb/s in the U.S.), an Internet TV service must share the bandwidth, both locally (e.g., within a viewer's household) as well as regionally (e.g., with other subscribers). This means the bandwidth available to a receiver can vary continuously over a wide range, and different subscribers may have different levels of guaranteed service, as well. Lowering the video bit rate to the least common denominator would result in poor video quality to everyone; to deal with this, several technologies are available.
Progressive download vs. streaming
The simplest way to deliver video over the Internet is to use progressive download, sometimes called “HTTP streaming.” This is simply a bulk download of a video file to the viewer's terminal (i.e., Internet-connected TV, STB, PC, etc.). A temporary copy of the file is stored on the user's device, typically on a hard drive, and playback can start after a sufficient amount of the file has been downloaded. This means that content will always incur a considerable delay before it is available to be viewed, which makes a live service rather difficult to implement. However, because the files are downloaded using TCP, there can be a nearly 100 percent assurance that every single bit was transferred correctly.
True streaming, on the other hand, opens up a handshaking connection between the server and client using a set of Internet protocols to deliver streams, such as Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) and Microsoft Media Services (MMS). A streaming connection delivers a video stream with minimal buffering, allowing a nearly real-time presentation of the source content. In this respect, streaming has an advantage over progressive download, as continuous delivery is the goal, but the associated downside is that corrupted or missing packets are not detected. The consequence is that audio and video can have ongoing glitches when network congestion is experienced.
Adaptive bit rate streaming
To solve the QoS issue, adaptive bit rate (ABR) streaming has been developed. ABR allows each device to determine the quality of its connection and then use that metric to select the best-coded stream from a number of different quality streams. At the server end, a series of encoders encode a set of multiple streams at different bit rates, and these streams are then sliced up into segments or “chunks.” An ABR client in the viewer terminal detects the incoming stream bandwidth on the fly and uses this, along with a model based on the device's CPU capability, to select a segment among the various streams.
A special manifest file precedes the first segment, providing the client with a list of URLs from which each segment can be accessed. As each segment is received, the client progresses to the next segment in that stream, or it can jump to a parallel segment in one of the other streams if the channel bandwidth changes because of congestion, etc. In principle, a handful of streams will provide enough granularity so that the viewer does not detect a change in picture quality.
Note that ABR provides high transmission bandwidth efficiency when a unicast transmission (i.e., one-to-one) is used, but it can also work well with multicast and broadcast scenarios depending on how well the Internet infrastructure distributes bandwidth to users. ABR has the potential to deliver an audio/visual experience that we have come to expect from linear transmission: low delay, fast start time and a consistent experience across viewers.
Several manufacturers have developed different solutions for ABR streaming. Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) uses a format called F4F to deliver Flash videos over RTMP and HTTP. Apple HTTP adaptive Live Streaming (HLS) was developed for the iPhone and iPad, and is implemented using HTTP, H.264 and MPEG-2 Transport Streams, with a manifest file called M3U8. Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) Smooth Streaming is used within Silverlight on the Windows 7 phone and incorporates fragmented MP4 (fMP4) encapsulation, again with H.264 for video compression.
With these different enterprise systems, an interoperability problem exists because of proprietary protocols and manifest structures. Multiple ABR systems mean that different devices must either pick and choose which systems to support, leading to service-constrained devices, or must include all at increased cost. This situation has motivated companies and experts around the world to propose a single, standard ABR system.
DASH-ing to the rescue: a universal ABR system
Figure 1. MPEG-DASH defines a standard set of Media Presentation Description and Segment Formats that enable adaptive bit rate IP video streaming.
MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) is a newly standardized method for defining Stream Segments and Manifest Files for the purpose of ABR streaming. The specification (ISO-IEC 23009-1) defines a Media Presentation Description (MPD) that formalizes the stream manifest, which includes Segment timing, URLs and media characteristics such as video resolution and bit rates. (See Figure 1.) While compatible Segments can contain any media data — with arbitrary compression — two types of containers are exemplified in the standard: MPEG-4 file format and MPEG-2 Transport Stream.
In going to a standard system, MPEG-DASH is quickly deployable with the existing Internet infrastructure, using widely deployed standard HTTP servers/caches for scalable delivery. Generic encoders can be reused, with additional descriptive metadata for better client functionality, and legacy manifest files can be converted easily to MPD format, as well as sent in parallel for backward compatibility with low overhead. In addition, existing content and production equipment supporting legacy ABR streaming systems can be used for MPEG-DASH by means of a set of standard Profiles. Apple HLS content can be used with the DASH M2TS Main profile, and Microsoft IIS Smooth Streaming Content is suitable for DASH ISO-BMFF (Base Media File Format) Live profile.
Vendors are now proposing integrated workflow and delivery systems supporting ABR with multiple source formats, protocols and on multiple devices. While encoding latency can be an issue for live streams, MPEG-DASH includes a profile optimized for live encoding that can achieve a latency of a few seconds by encoding and immediate delivery of short Segments.
In addition to delivery of any multimedia content, MPEG-DASH supports a broad range of use cases, including live, VOD, time shifting (nPVR), ad insertion and dynamic update of program. MPEG-DASH also solves the problem of content repurposing to multiple devices with widely ranging capabilities. In principle, an MPEG-DASH-controlled stream can be targeted simultaneously to both large and small screens, as well as fixed and mobile.
Internet quickly becoming viable for long-form content
The once-exclusive realm of RF transmission as providing the highest quality content consumption experience is being challenged by streaming services. But new technologies and business models are providing broadcasters with the tools to compete with new service entities, and that's where content distribution is headed.
Aldo Cugnini is a consultant in the digital television industry and a partner in a mobile services company.
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