Content Delivery at the Crossroads: The Ever-increasing Demand for Scale
As the first digital natives slowly paved the road for the digital revolution of how we consume content, generation Z and especially late millennials have been reshaping the entertainment industry at a faster pace every year. The ripples of this are being clearly felt throughout several industries.
Eyeballs drive everything. As they have been shifting from TV screens to smartphones and later to tablets, the ratio between the times spent on each has been transformed. The younger the generation, the more obvious the shift becomes. As young entrepreneurs in generation Z grow up and begin shaping their own environment further, the trends we see now are unlikely to slow down.
After stating the obvious, let’s stop here for a second and explore why this is important. We live in a digital world. The Internet has become our everyday tool to work, get entertained, do business, etc. We see how retail has been completely disrupted, how banking is being disrupted (send and receive money from friends, without a fee), I don’t have to mention transportation or how we plan a trip and whether we stay in a hotel, etc. In many ways, the Internet has become a public utility. New, disruptive companies will continue to emerge and reshape our world, but there is at least one thing that will remain: the problem of content delivery at scale, especially surge traffic, will stay with us until we solve it.
As an individual Internet user, I expect the whole Internet ecosystem to adapt to the changing demand and follow the changes in the industry. As a business person running a company that uses the Internet, I expect my team and myself to constantly monitor our ecosystem, assess changes in demand, and adapt as quickly as possible. If I am responsible for governing the Internet, I have to try to understand the whole ecosystem end-to-end, big and small, and try to keep the interests of the public and businesses in mind when drafting rules.
The point is: there is tremendous pressure between the ever accelerating pace of change in how we are using the Internet in our everyday life coupled with our high expectations of internet services (for example the quality of streaming live & on-demand video) and the existing ecosystem with inherent limitations, lots of players with special interests and a drive toward stricter governance (this is the Internet ecosystem, with ISPs, content providers, aggregators, etc.).
While I believe that the issue of content delivery at scale is a larger problem and that it needs to be addressed at a fundamental level for the long term, let‘s focus on one specific example that is clearly understood by all industry players: OTT (Over-the-Top) content delivery.
While the FCC is trying to maintain a balance between the needs and influence of content creators and owners, aggregators, ISPs, entrepreneurs, etc., most of the talks in the media revolve around the legal aspects of the issue. There are few discussions about the technological aspects of the accelerating revolution and the state of the ecosystem that has to carry all this content at the end of the day.
We can clearly see the different strategies from several sides of the ecosystem addressing the same issue: Netflix is shrinking file sizes (re-encoding) to reduce bandwidth consumption. T-Mobile, AT&T, Comcast and other ISPs are trying to get more control over the immense video traffic traversing their network in various ways. The content delivery problem at scale presents itself clearly. There is a spectrum between the economic cost to upgrade existing networks and how fast the upgrade can be physically implemented (for example by ISPs, wireless carriers). While it can be debated where the different companies are positioned in that spectrum, industry experts tend to agree upon at least the following: if all TV programming, including prime-time, was moved to IP, networks would crumble because the ecosystem is not yet prepared to handle those kinds of load levels.
Access networks (ISPs, cell/wireless carriers), especially those tied closely to content producer companies, often offer content delivery services as well as media streaming services. This trend makes it difficult to follow who is competing with whom, and further complicates the FCC’s determination process to identify whether there is a net neutrality issue or a technical issue (or a combination of the two). While assuring seamless content delivery is obviously in everyone’s best interest, the line between the legal and the technical side is blurred and agreement upon what part each of the players (content owners, aggregators, distributors, etc.) should share in presenting a solution to the delivery problem varies. There are several existing audio and video streaming technology solutions and many companies built around them operating in the industry, creating a healthy competing environment, but no single service, nor all of them combined, would be able to solve the delivery at scale problem largely because they all rely on the same and/or shared resources when it comes to reaching viewer’s eyeballs.
In my view, while the FCC is in a really tough position, it has played it right so far. Despite intensive lobbying from multiple sides and the challenges of understanding this increasingly complex ecosystem, I believe that the FCC took the right direction, protecting the Internet and the interests of end-users for the long term. As an Internet end-user, I think it is worthy of recognition as an important step in the history of the Internet.
However, regardless how good or bad the governance of the Internet is or will be in the future, a solution must be developed and it has to come earlier than later. The solution won’t come from the outside of the ecosystem. Governance will not solve the technical problems or ease challenges for the Internet end-users. I believe one solution for the long term could be to commoditize content delivery, but that is further down the road. In order to step forward, the industry players have to come together, work as a team to serve their common customer (the subscriber and/or viewer) and provide the convenience and quality we have come to need and expect.