Cook Brings In Apple

Earlier this year, Tim Cook announced Apple TV+, the company’s long-awaited over-the-top (OTT) video service, would launch this fall. The presentation of the news came in Apple’s typical hype-building fashion. But with news of original programming comes celebrities and with that a new degree of hysteria – even for Apple. The video presentation featured some of the biggest names in entertainment, from Oprah to Steven Spielberg, Steve Carell to Reese Witherspoon, Jason Momoa to Big Bird.

This push into streaming is not just focused on the exclusive, Apple-created content of Apple TV+, however. Instead, Apple is hoping to make its TV app the centerpiece of any streaming experience. Apple aims to integrate other services, including HBO, Showtime, Starz, and CBS All Access, directly into its interface, handle all streams and allow users to pay for these services through the app. Notably absent is preeminent streamer Netflix.

Less than a month after this industry-shaking news, another giant entered the fold.

Disney Perks Up Its Ears

In a mid-April event, Bob Iger announced Disney+; the company’s also long-awaited OTT video service, would also launch this fall. Disney, of course, is not a new entrant to content creation. It has its library of classics, Pixar films and all of its recently acquired Fox properties. It also holds perhaps the two most valuable content engines that have ever existed in Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These franchises have produced six of the seven most significant domestic box office openings of all-time.

In addition to this library of beloved content and the expertise to continue creating more of it, Disney set the initial price of its new service at $7 per month. This price is significantly less than Netflix, which offers its most basic plan for $12.99 per month.

With the entries of Apple and Disney, it’s clear that we’re coming to an inflection point for OTT video. But lost in the fog of the streaming wars is the strain that more and better video will put on networks – the very mechanism that allows watchers to consume OTT content. Now more than ever, network operators must prepare for ever-increasing bandwidth demands.

Network Challenges of the Streaming War

Video is now the overwhelming function being supported by networks. According to Sandvine’s Global Internet Phenomena Report, almost 58 percent of the total downstream internet traffic is video. By itself, that would be enough to worry network operators with legacy networks. Compounding concerns, however, the push towards streaming video today is no longer coming just from consumer preferences. It’s also coming from content creators.

Take, for example, Oscar-winner Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone. Although CBS Television Studios produced the project and CBS backed it with a Super Bowl ad, CBS did not give it a traditional network distribution. Instead, the CBS All Access streaming service aired it. Even those funding and making video content are choosing to put it on non-traditional platforms.

With these two forces driving online video, it’s no wonder that US consumers are increasingly considering canceling pay-TV services. OTT video services are projected to have a U.S. market penetration of more than 58 percent in the next three years, according to eMarketer analysis. Meanwhile, video quality standards in the streaming era continue to change. We’ve gone from standard definition to high definition, and now, 4K is gaining steam as more 4K-capable devices become available. Some have even already begun to discuss the 4K successor, 8K UHD-2, although that is years down the line.

This combination of higher streaming volume and higher quality video equates to stress for the networks that must carry it. To do so and to thrive, networks need greater capacity infrastructure, but even more importantly, optimization to scale from both a capacity and operational perspective.

Rising to Support an OTT World

For network providers, the trick of streaming video isn’t just about having enough network capacity. It’s about providing an excellent quality of experience (QoE) for the viewer. Traditionally, streaming video providers sent video over the top of the internet data connection. This simple approach, however, can be impacted by network congestion and result in viewers watching that dreaded “spinning disk.” That means that, in addition to supporting massive data transfer with minimal delay, network providers need to think about the network as an integral part of the total video distribution solution.

Closer & Newer

The first part of the equation and perhaps the most intuitive way to provide a great QoE is updating infrastructure and bringing content caches closer to the viewer. While often overlooked, data does not just appear out of nowhere. It is physically traveling over any number of connections. Therefore, it’s logical that having the best physical connection as close as possible to the end-user improves speed and service quality.

Today, however, coaxial infrastructures are aging and limited in their ability to meet demand. Fiber is the future – and increasingly the present – of wireline network infrastructure. Network providers have been making significant efforts to push fiber, and therefore, network activity, closer to end-users to increase bandwidth, supply a better experience and drive performance.

The fiber push means that streaming content no longer has to travel from a server located hundreds or thousands of miles away to reach consumers. Less travel from server locations mitigates the risk of delays along the way that can lead to poor performance and creates increased capacity demand across the entire network core. Rather, as head-ends turn into mini data centers, content is caching much closer to the end-user. This level of proximity improves responsiveness, overall quality of experience, and enables support of higher capacity streaming like 4K video.

High speed and responsiveness are crucial in the growing streaming era. Even more valuable, though, is incorporating the ability to automate and optimize network activity to support growing bandwidth needs. That step means moving from rapid network response to network demand anticipation and, in turn, adaptability.

The Adaptive Network

Adaptive networks provide the operational scalability required to

  1. adjust to the increasing pressure that streaming video puts on network infrastructure
  2. respond to unpredictability in traffic patterns

Getting there takes more than a snap of the fingers, however. It requires the ability to scale from both a capacity and an operational perspective. Adaptive networks must combine programmable equipment, data analytics, and intelligent algorithms with software control and automation. Together, these create a feedback loop that tells the video service provider how well its application is performing and tells the internet service provider how well its network is performing. This loop informs the network how to adapt to match the demand of the streaming video services it is carrying.

Smart Infrastructure

The infrastructure elements, both physical and virtual, must be highly intelligent and interpret data so the network can make decisions itself. Being enabled to make high-end decisions requires the supporting IP/optical infrastructure be highly instrumented to deliver routing and performance telemetry to algorithms that determine the health of the network. The massive amount of information that this layer produces creates the need for big network analytics and intelligence functions.

Data – Big and Small

We often hear the term “big data.” In this context, this is the information that informs the network on how to adjust in the long term, what to look out for, and potential vulnerabilities. Small data, however, also happens at a rapid pace. Something as small as an immediate request from a customer, for example, requires a quick network response. Those moves are possible through network analytics that interprets network performance and its impact upon service quality.

Making Software Work For You

As it stands today, human intervention is a fundamental component to making network changes. However, as the future adaptive network takes hold, operator influence will begin to wane. Network automation will have a more significant function in taking care of network maintenance. With this, network operators will significantly reduce the possibility of human error bringing network issues or outages, instead of keeping it running at peak performance.

In the context of streaming video, an adaptive network means:

  1. The ability to measure Quality of Experience (QoE) at the user device level,
  2. The ability to measure Quality of Service (QoS) of the network, and
  3. Correlating these inputs to determine cause and effect.

Making these assessments allows the network to determine the appropriate solution, reconfigure the network, and cache resources to optimize the consumer’s viewing experience. This is adaptivity.

The Future: 5G Networks, OTT and Beyond

As streaming continues to grow, so do networks, and the one that people can’t hear enough about is 5G. That’s with good reason. The higher speed capabilities and reduced latency of 5G are perfect attributes to support OTT video. As OTT providers increase their presence in the live video space, this becomes even more valuable. Beyond speed and responsiveness, 5G’s network slicing functionality will allow operators to dedicate parts of their network to specific applications. Streaming entertainment could have a part of 5G networks all to itself.

Regardless of the type of network, we used to watch a video, embracing network solutions that support the growing appetite for the never-ending buffet of streaming services is critical. Embracing efforts to cache video content closer to the edge and to enable adaptive networks supports OTT streaming today but also prepares the network for the future – a future that moves far beyond today’s capabilities. In five years, immersive Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality tie-ins could make Black Mirror’s interactive Bandersnatch episode look quaint. Networks that can adapt will be prepared, and their users and operators will see the benefit.

Loudon Blair

Senior Director of Corporate Strategy

Loudon Blair is Senior Director of Corporate Strategy at Ciena. Since joining the company in 1997, he has performed several roles in the development of Ciena's networking products including the formation of Ciena's vision for new and evolving network architectures. Today, he is responsible for strategic planning and assessment of industry and technology trends.