Advanced Television

OTT QoE: Who carries the can?

November 18, 2015

A couple of recent polls have revealed that Quality of Experience is an important factor in satisfaction and subscription renewal with OTT services. You may feel this falls into the ‘You don’t say?’ or even the ‘Do bears use wooded areas as lavatories?’ category of surveys. But behind the obvious are challenging technology questions and equally challenging questions about transparency and responsibility.

Other recent news items have recounted the results of various US and other pay-TV providers and noted the continued decline in net subs. Reaction is often split pretty evenly, either: given the price of subscription (and the differential to well-known OTT players) the marginal fall is really surprisingly small, or: OMG! OTT is an existential threat to pay-TV and the ‘Sky’ (or Dish, Comcast, Rogers, etc) is falling in.

Those ever so smart stock markets tend to believe the latter for a few days and then realise (all over again) the former is more true. One of the things that keep it true is the QoE vertically integrated service providers can offer and maintain; Virgin, Comcast, UPC, etc, etc, is normally provide a good to very good (let’s not go overboard here) service as a result of the integrated control they have over their networks and the vendors and service companies that supply it.

OTT providers, by contrast, have very limited control over end-user experience as their content is a stranger in a foreign land passing through borders, gateways, servers, CMS, and last miles over which it has little insight and no control.

And the end user doesn’t know whether the problem is with the organisation they’ve paid money to or one of the hundreds of others that may separate their connection from that content supplier. I was recently treated to the semi-final day at a tennis tournament in Switzerland. The night before, I was able to watch the quarters in HD on FTA in our hotel. Then there was the UHD, 3D, surround-sound experience of actually being there (always remembering to look at the action rather than bizarrely absorb it through the lens of a smart phone or tablet as if I wasn’t there…?).

Next day, I was understandably keen to see the final, but we had moved on to another country and it wasn’t on any of the channels in our quaint lodging. But not so quaint it didn’t have impressively fast broadband. So, I forked-out €9 to watch it on the ATP’s official OTT service. For about 20 minutes I was quite impressed, good sharp picture and sound on my tablet even though tennis is a tough subject for TV with all that high-speed movement of a small object.

Then the picture froze for about five seconds. Then it froze again for about 10 seconds, then again for about 20, then… You get the picture – which is what I did, it just wasn’t moving much. By the time the match ended I wasn’t just the normal four or five seconds of latency behind reality, I was in a different time zone.

It’s not the end of the world. But it is the end of my propensity to consume PPV from the ATP. Did they (or their doubtless turnkey supplier) skimp on servers, was there a problem with the coding, did some local switching underperform, was the hotel’s WiFi dipping, was the chip in my tablet having a bad day? Dunno. Don’t care.

If an OTT provider is serious about maintaining a business it has to make this kind of inadequacy go away. Many vendors vie for OTT business on the basis they can monitor and manipulate the stream over the whole journey and rectify any problems that occur. Certainly, there are some immensely impressive strides being made in this area but streaming is still often a victim of failures beyond its control or of its own success – just ask the hapless streamers of La Liga.

Hands-free may be the ideal business model for OTT providers and Hands-Off may be the preferred mantra for regulators who believe in Net Neutrality, but the truth is OTT, for the foreseeable future, needs a hand. Netflix, the world’s most successful OTT proposition by far, has, however reluctantly, accepted that reality and cut peering deals where it has to.

Others will follow suit, or they will struggle as they wait for the Nirvana of proper fast broadband ubiquity. ‘Fast’ broadband is a world of semantics and post code lottery. How fast is fast relies on your supplier, where you live and your government’s version of ‘digital age’ priorities.

The village where I live was literally one of the last places in the country to get broadband (nothing personal, I assume). When we eventually got it, it was OK; the latest switches and relatively short distance to the exchange meant 10-15Mb most of the time. A few weeks ago, BT dug up the road nearby and laid fibre and, sure enough, a card came through the door inviting me to join the fibre revolution at 25Mbs. While I don’t call that fast by world standards, for a few £ a month I thought I’d have some of that. I rang up only to be told the deal was actually 15Mb-25Mb, and as they could see that at that moment I was getting 16Mb they couldn’t say my service would improve. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Categories: Blogs, Broadband, Nick Snow, OTT, Pay TV, Regulation