The Reality of Internet TV: Who’s to Blame for Buffering?

Whilst I’m sure many of you enjoyed last week’s FIFA World Cup finals in a crowded pub somewhere, there were some of us who opted to watch the games from the comfort of our own homes. Unfortunately no-one in my house is keen on the World Cup (or football in general) so I was resigned to streaming the matches from ITV player on my laptop.

And it seems I was not alone. It has been stated that this year’s world cup was one of the largest live events on the internet. It also broke social media records on Twitter with over 600 million tweets.

But watching the game online was not as simple as you might expect. Even with my 50Mb “superfast” fibre I was faced with buffering and jittering – not to mention I could hear cheering from my neighbours before anything had happened on my screen!

Screenshot from ITV Player on my laptop
Screenshot from ITV Player on my laptop

So why does this happen? And who’s to blame?

Many of us are quick to point the finger at our Internet service providers, after all aren’t they the ones to ensure we receive good-quality connectivity? We all know that whilst we are sold packages of promised speeds, they are only a measurement of maximum capacity and are not always guaranteed.

However a simple check on speedtest.net showed me that although I may not be receiving neck-breaking speeds of 50Mb, I was able to get up to 24Mb which is more than enough to stream live video content. Although it’s much more demanding on the network to stream live content, the average speed needed to watch video content can be from anything as low as 2Mb (Netflix recommend 5 Megabits per second to stream in HD which should give you a good idea).

So is it to the content provider that we look now? Is it more likely that it was ITV player that was struggling to cope with the demand? It seems probable due to the popularity of the World Cup – was a live match too much for them to handle?

I asked Tony Brown, Senior Analyst at Ovum and he told me that – “Broadcasters can do catch-up OTT without too many problems as each piece of content will be viewed at different times so there is no capacity strain. However live OTT content can be a real killer because they are effectively trying to offer broadcast services on a broadband network.

Broadband networks are not designed with for this kind of demand so whilst it is possible to stream live content OTT, once events get to a certain level of popularity such as the World Cup, there will just be too much strain on the network”

Given this it’s hardly surprising that this has been a contentious topic for discussion this year. ISPs are feeling hard-done by the effect live broadcasting and video traffic is having on their networks. And maybe you can understand their argument that even though it is not their fault, they are the first ones to be blamed when customers experience problems.

A perfect example of this is the latest in the ongoing debate between Verizon and Netflix. After recently receiving a complaint from a customer who was experiencing performance problems with their Netflix service, Verizon studied the connection and concluded that there was no congestion anywhere within their network. They are adamant that was due to a problem on Netflix’s side, and judging by their most recent blog post they intend customers to be fully aware of this. As they entered into a partnership earlier this year it will be interesting to see how this complex relationship between ISP and OTT plays out.

So maybe next time I experience buffering I won’t be so quick to blame my ISP. But then again I think I’ll watch the football in the pub from now on…

Online video and OTT partnerships will be the focus of the Mobile Broadband track at Broadband World Forum (Thursday 23 October). Why not tweet us your questions for our interactive Think Tank Debate “How can Operators Minimize the Effect of Video on the Network?” @BBWorldForum 

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