The Future of Adaptive Bit Rate Technology

The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to the popularity of video streaming.
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The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to the popularity of video streaming. Cisco forecasts that consumer Internet video traffic will be 80 percent of all consumer Internet traffic in 2019, up from 64 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, the number of households that have broadband Internet but no pay TV subscription is increasing; approximately 15 percent of households with an adult under the age of 35 are not "traditional" pay TV subscribers.

Meeting viewers' quality expectations is one of the keys to reducing churn for subscription OTT and streaming services and increasing revenue for ad-supported services. There are many factors that govern the quality of video. Many of these, including source quality, encoding parameters, streaming protocol and choice of CDN are under the service provider's control. Other factors, most importantly the quality and bandwidth of the viewer's Internet connection, are uncontrollable and can vary widely from moment to moment.

Adaptive bit rate (ABR) technology has been widely deployed for video streaming services, and it originally was a huge improvement over the older progressive download techniques. But ABR has been around for a while now, and an important question to consider is what's next for quality and bandwidth improvements in OTT and video streaming?

Much has been made of the shift from the current H.264 codec to H.265 (HEVC), which does offer significant benefits for content compression. This transition will happen. However, shifts in codecs take several years (the move from MPEG-2 to H.264 has been well over a decade in the making, and is still ongoing) because of the huge implications of a codec change to the entire ecosystem, particularly to devices such as set-top boxes.

In the meantime, can content owners and service providers improve their ABR video quality and bandwidth efficiency?

The short answer is yes.

Improving ABR in a fundamental way without requiring significant ecosystem changes is possible and can yield substantial benefits. Let's look at one approach to solving this challenge, which works equally well with both the H.264 and H.265 codecs.

As its name suggests, ABR is focused on bit rates. Effectively determining the available bandwidth at the player is possible, and allows the player to respond to changes in network conditions that would otherwise cause buffering. Today, to keep the ABR mechanism simple, content is encoded at several standard bit rates. At each bit rate, the quality is allowed to vary in order to achieve the desired bit rate. This allows for a simple standardized player, but at the expense of visually objectionable variations in quality.

New techniques are emerging that improve the existing ABR player performance by providing quality-related information to the player, enabling it to make better bit rate choices and more effective use of the existing buffer. The result is a reduction in overall bit rate requirements and a significant reduction in content quality variance. These improvements translate to dramatic cost reductions for the operator, while providing the quality of experience demanded and desired by viewers today.

Kumar Subramanian is CEO of MediaMelon.