Content delivery networks and mABR: key to success of 4K and 8K video distribution

On 05-01-2023
Reading time : 3 minutes

High-definition 4K and 8K video are growing steadily in popularity worldwide. But network performance and latency may affect its ongoing growth: 4K and 8K video need high-performance networks and the right strategy to ensure end-user satisfaction.

It’s no secret that video is responsible for most internet traffic. A recent report estimates that video takes up around 60% of internet bandwidth, with Netflix alone swallowing up as much as 15% of global downstream internet traffic. By the end of 2022, it’s been forecast that video will make up 82% of all consumer internet traffic. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. How people consume video has changed: terrestrial TV has evolved and competes with OTT streaming platforms and content creators like Netflix, HBO, Disney, and others. YouTube continues to dominate the online video market, with over 2.5 billion monthly users. The lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 saw video streaming increase hugely in use. Hand in hand with this uptick in viewing by people worldwide has come an advance in video technologies, in the form of 4K and 8K.

Challenges to uptake  

However, 4K and 8K video delivery is growing steadily rather than spectacularly. Part of the reason is that compatible equipment and infrastructure aren’t evolving at quite the same rate as demand and development: 4K-compatible households amount to between 50% and 55% in Europe, and slightly higher in Asia. 

Major sporting events often set the trends in video, with big occasions like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games often being drivers to people replacing or upgrading home equipment to watch higher definition video. In addition, receiving 4K video in the home requires being connected to fiber, which still only around half the world has. There are signs that 8K is increasing dramatically, with some analysts estimating growth of over 45% CAGR to 2031, driven by demand from the entertainment industry. The gaming industry could boost that further, with the first TVs supporting 8K consoles emerging.

Delivering 4K or 8K video at scale carries other challenges. For example, frozen playback, known as buffering, significantly damages the user experience of streaming video. It’s particularly irritating for live video viewers: if you’re watching a World Cup match and you miss your team scoring a goal due to a frozen feed, it can ruin the match.

The more high definition the video, the larger its size and the more its quality risks being affected by network performance. High network latency, the time it takes to transmit and receive data, can lead to a poor experience for any application, but for live video, it can be disastrous. And while latency isn’t uniquely caused by network performance – local equipment such as set-top boxes or the viewing device itself can impact latency – it’s generally the main culprit. 

And latency is also responsible for how long the buffering lasts and the buffering rate, which is the percentage of current stream viewers affected. It’s a big problem in the video industry, and a major turn-off for viewers: buffering is the number one cause of abandoned playback video sessions by viewers. And for live broadcast events, it’s clearly unacceptable. Another example of where latency presents a major problem is in the gambling industry. Disruption to the broadcast of live sporting events can be incredibly costly and even potentially open up events to corruption. If a customer was watching a race on TV and trying to place a bet before the race ended, when the race had actually already ended and the stream was delayed, that’s a problem. The industry would face big issues of dissatisfied customers and missed revenues.

Solutions that can change the game 

What can the video industry do about it? One solution are content delivery networks (CDN), which keep a copy of transmitted data, known as a cache, in points of presence (POPs) worldwide. By storing content closer to end-users, video streamers can reduce latency for an improved viewer experience. CDN protocols also reduce the number of requests made by users for content, resulting in lower compute costs. It’s a solution whose time has come: according to research by Omdia, CDN revenues will grow at a CAGR of 5% to 2025, amounting to a value of $5.57 billion.

Furthermore, a multi-CDN approach is recommended for video service providers who want to increase reliability and performance. By combining multiple CDNs from different providers, video service providers can reap benefits over and above a single CDN approach. A multi-CDN increases flexibility and availability and can help overcome latency challenges. In addition, if one provider fails, the other CDNs in your network are still available. 

Multi-CDN isn’t without its own issues, however: cost is a factor, and there is greater complexity involved. So it makes sense for video service providers to carry out a cost/benefit analysis before launching a multi-CDN strategy, since for small and medium-sized companies operating in geographically challenged areas, multi-CDNs may not be financially viable.

The role of mABR 

Another technology that can help video service providers with 4K and 8K video is Multicast Adaptive Bit Rate (mABR). mABR can give video service providers a way to optimize video bandwidth usage and enhance the end-user experience. It is an evolution from unicast video diffusion, in which each video stream is unique between a viewer’s device and the broadcaster or video host, so streams are demultiplied. 

What mABR does is cast the video services to thousands of households through one stream, and then only inside the home itself is the stream converted back to unicast format to each individual device in a geographical area. This gives greater control, minimizes the chance of unicast traffic spikes during big live TV events, and improves video quality. For the video service provider, it also means major bandwidth savings since the network can be dimensioned according to average traffic rather than peak traffic, and also makes network performance easier to maintain. 

Ultimately, mABR can help move the CDN closer to the end-user, and potentially even into the set-top box itself in time. And while mABR isn’t extensively deployed by telecom operators today, it’s a technology that should grow in use in the face of increasing network traffic. It is particularly attractive for operators with budget challenges who don’t want to invest in further network extensions. It’s been predicted that global mABR households will grow to almost 90 million by 2027, up from around 8.5 million today.

The future of video 

What seems clear is that as demand for 4K, and more particularly, 8K video continues to increase, video service providers will need to adapt in order to deliver the quality of experience end-users demand. CDNs can help them future-proof video delivery now, leveraging an open, dynamic architecture, and mABR can enable the scalability and low latency needed for the live multiscreen video delivery environment.

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