Akamai Technologies’ Ian Munford: “More than any other genre, sport pushes at the boundaries of what can be done”
The excitement surrounding the streaming potential of the EURO 2016 championships commenced well in advance of the initial kick-off. Akamai – the CDN delivering live streams for multiple broadcasters covering the tournament – was among those contributing to the debate, with director of product marketing, media solutions, Ian Munford forecasting massive and record-breaking streaming activity.
Certainly, the indications from the first week of matches appeared highly encouraging when SVG Europe joined Akamai (and a number of other broadcast technology journalists) at The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, London, for a screening of the England vs Wales clash on 16 June. That match proved to be a huge hit with online viewers, attracting an audience of 1.9m and peak traffic of 4.15 Tbps (the average video bitrate was 2.14 Mbps). But the following day’s meeting between Italy and Sweden was even more of a crowd-puller, with a peak audience size of 1.99m and maximum peak traffic of 4.28 Tbps making it the tournament’s most streamed match at the time of writing. (To monitor streaming figures for matches throughout the tournament, keep an eye on the dedicated Akamai microsite at https://tech.akamai.com/european-football/).
“We are seeing a lot more live activity around the Euros [than in previous tournaments],” says Munford, “and what is also very noticeable is that this is true of the early phases of the tournament too. One would expect to see more activity as the championship progresses, but even in the early stages here we are seeing a couple of individual records being broken in terms of traffic and the like. It bodes well for a very good online event for the respective broadcasters.”
For Munford, the strong take-up for Akamai’s CDN services at the Euros underlines the validity of its stated emphasis on streaming quality. “Historically, we collectively as viewers have been quite forgiving of online streaming,” he says. “But those days are now long gone, and with the advent of subscription models [the expectation of quality] will continue to increase. If people are paying a chunk of money, then they want to have great quality service. From our perspective, that means it is important to think long and hard about pushing the envelope in terms of TV quality, and it is clear that 2016 has seen some very interesting developments in this regard, such as our involvement in the live streaming of sports in 4K.”
There is no doubt that sports is integral to the long-term Akamai plan – not just for its day-to-day traffic-building opportunities, but also for its potential as a technological testing-ground. “Sports is hugely important to us from a traffic perspective, but it goes beyond that in terms of sport’s track record of pushing the boundaries of what can we done – more than any other genre, in fact,” says Munford. “This helps to explain why so many trials and innovative projects are driven from sports.”
Issues of scale
As well as the continuing emergence of 4K as a mass adoption tool, Munford is also excited by the potential of HDR (“I think that the challenges for delivery online are fewer than those in the traditional linear world”). Audio is set fair for exciting times, too, he suggests: “In the same way as it is doing with 4K, online technology will allow us to push the boundaries of audio even further”, with immersive, 3D and 7.1 audio cited as examples.
For a major CDN such as Akamai, these developments will obviously not be without their fair share of challenges. “One of the main issues going forward will be how to scale very high quality experiences, not just on a global level but a national one as well,” says Munford. “Various technologies we are bringing out, including multicast, are going to help with that, and we are working with telcos around the world [to deliver the best possible results]. We see client technology being effectively the root around which the industry will move, and by client technology I mean smart devices in the home and in our pockets that [can allow us to deliver that quality of scale].”
Monitoring the ever-spiralling number of streams remains another significant challenge, although Munford feels the online community is making progress here as well. “In the broadcast world they monitor everything end-to-end to the nth degree, but in the online world that has not happened [to such a degree thus far]. But we are doing it now, and I think the level of maturity in thinking in the online world, and that in TV, are now starting to merge.”
By way of example, Munford points to Akamai’s announcement at NAB of a new Broadcast Operations Control Center, located at its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The facility is designed to help ensure the reliability of OTT services through a combination of highly trained technical staff and a host of monitoring, analytics, reporting, quality and availability measurement tools that provide real-time support and operational insight for customers delivering critical live, linear and on-demand video content.
As 2016 continues, the buzz around VR becomes evermore intense, and Munford is certainly not immune to the sense of excitement around the emerging technology. Like many others, he is cautious about its trajectory – but believes that it has considerable potential if developed and implemented carefully.
“The debate about VR is a bit like the one around 3D a few years ago, but the difference with VR is that it will find its earlier adopters predominantly in the games industry,” he says. “They are the ones who will drive development and the volume required to build sustainable environments. From a sports perspective, the applications are still being tested in trials all over the place, some of which we are involved in. [I agree that] people will be cautious after 3D, but I think the interactivity VR affords will be great for sport. The best results are to be gained where the technology is supporting the content as opposed to the content being fitted into the technology. Fortunately, the former seems to be happening with VR, so I think it will be successful.”