Internet Video is Coming; Is Your Wireless Network Ready?

Date:   Tuesday , December 01, 2009

Broadband Internet access is growing fast, bringing the benefits of high-speed connectivity to millions of users around the world. Carriers are driving this growth by offering DSL and cable modem service packages to subscribers that make Internet access a part of everyday life.

As the user base continues to grow, the behavior of the users continues to change. Many people look for the ‘killer apps’, the applications that are ‘killers’ from an essential need perspective. But perhaps the ‘killer app’ isn’t about the essential need, but about the application that will ‘kill’ the Internet. Clearly, the number of users is growing fast. But in the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in the bandwidth consumed by Internet Video. The major content providers are establishing websites to allow their subscribers to access content via the ‘free’ medium of the Internet.

In the U.K., the iPlayer from the BBC was introduced in July 2007. The iPlayer allows the U.K. based Internet users to access up to one week’s content from across the BBC radio and TV lineup. During 2008, iPlayer accounted for five percent of all content on the Internet in the U.K. As of December 2008, more than 180 million programs had been viewed on iPlayer.

In the U.S., numerous sites allow Internet users to access popular video content. Hulu, a company jointly owned by NBC, Fox, and ABC, publishes movies, TV shows, and other content. In February 2009, comScore VideoMetrix reported that Hulu had an audience of 34.7 million people who watched 332.5 million video streams. That was a 42 percent increase in visitors since January 2009. This growth is particularly impressive considering Hulu is available only in the U.S.

As Internet video affects the usage of wired broadband, it is logical to expect the same usage on wireless broadband.

Growth of Broadband Wireless
The graph below, from the work of Chetan Sharma Consulting, shows the increasing penetration of 3G usage worldwide. As the subscriber base has grown, so has their data network use. In the beginning, 3G subscribers just wanted access to email and Web browsing. Now they want to do more on a DSL-like connection.

Broadband Wireless Customer Demands
In January 2009, Cisco released a Visual Networking Index ( forecasting data trends. The study forecasts mobile data traffic to exceed mobile voice traffic by 2010. More significantly, the VNI projected a 66-fold increase in data consumption between 2008 and 2013, at a compounded annual growth rate of 131 percent. Cisco predicts monthly mobile data consumption to exceed 2.2 Exabytes (1 Exabyte = 1,000,000 Gigabytes) by 2013. Finally, in the same study, Cisco believes that video will total 64 percent of total mobile traffic by 2013.

Will Video Work on Mobile Broadband?
Mobile broadband works under the same protocols as wired broadband. The subscriber’s experience is enhanced by the ability to be nomadic; high speed connectivity, usually via a data card or dongle, makes this ‘roaming’ possible. The proliferation of netbooks and integrated 3G and 4G radios in laptops together with 3G and 4G mobile handsets is driving the consumption of Internet video.

Many Internet video sites use the Adobe Flash protocol to deliver video. In fact, more than 95 percent of all video on the Internet is delivered this way. Flash content is usually accessed using the HTTP protocol and is delivered to devices as Progressive Download (P.D.).

Is Internet Video Over Wireless Difficult?
Wired broadband networks have delivered ever-higher access speeds over the last fifteen years. With intelligent network design and well-managed build-outs, subscribers have come to expect high-speed access.

Wireless networks have grown too, and from a relative bandwidth standpoint, they have shown increasing rates of speed as users migrated from 2G to 2.5G to 3G, and now to 3.5G and 4G. However, wireless data networks are constrained by factors that do not affect wired networks today.

Mobile data networks are dependent upon spectrum availability. Fiber can be added relatively quickly to relieve congestion and increase throughput. With wireless, the available spectrum is fixed, and numerous methods have been developed to enhance throughput. However, service providers may be at the physical limits for squeezing more speed and capacity from their existing spectrum.

Because mobile data networks are dynamic, traffic patterns and impacts from outside factors change on a frequent basis. This means that wireless networks are subject to unpredictable noise that bandwidth allocation and network buildouts can never fully mitigate.

Scalability and Ensuring Quality: the Two Biggest Challenges for Delivering Internet Video Over Wireless Broadband
With the increase of 3G coverage and the promise of 4G speeds, expectations for video quality will only increase. Larger pipes can scale, but they are also subject to larger swings in network bandwidth on the Radio Access Network (RAN). The payload of video also puts a huge burden on the network, requiring mobile operators to make significant investments in network capacity.

Quality issues lie in the unpredictable nature of the RAN. In a typical wireless network, the bandwidth varies with time. Everything operates successfully when network bandwidth is large enough to accommodate the size of the video transmission. However, when the bandwidth drops below the required threshold, a data pileup at the server occurs, leading to unacceptable subscriber playback delays (i.e., stalls).

For carriers offering 3G and 4G services who expect video growth, other key optimization and operating requirements include:

* TCP support – The TCP protocol is used on wired broadband for Internet video, and it will be the same for wireless broadband
* Network adaptation – Delivery must adapt based on the network conditions to give users the optimal experience
* Reliability – In the intensely competitive nature of business today, any degradation in customer experience can lead to churn

Finding a Solution
Operators must satisfy several criteria when finding solutions that deliver Internet video over wireless broadband. These solutions must also be cost-effective, scalable and carrier-grade.

* Operators must be able to estimate the network conditions in realtime. Network analysis methods can provide information about bandwidth, bandwidth fluctuations, packet loss, latency, and other factors that impact delivery.

* Operators must monitor the relative ‘inventory’ of video at the player relative to the stream that can be delivered. By understanding the subscriber buffer and network conditions that are present, the flow of video can be adjusted to ensure that video continues to flow.

* An intelligent method for preventing the streaming of video prior to its reasonable playback is also necessary to prevent the consumption of bandwidth with a payload that is not needed. However, video downloads should not be so small that it prevents successful playback of high quality video.

These three criteria are important, but there can be many more.

As users increasingly migrate to more capable mobile data devices, the consumption of Internet video will grow. The inherent weaknesses of the broadband wireless networks relative to wired broadband networks requires a transport modification to ensure scalability to meet the standards of subscribers that have a high (and rising) threshold for playback quality. Operators must plan networks and solutions to deliver Internet video over existing and future mobile data networks that reduce bandwidth consumption while ensuring a high quality video subscriber experience.

The authors are Sujit Dey, Founder and CTO and Craig Lee, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development of Ortiva Wireless