IPTV connects far-flung fans

One of the big markets that IPTV has opened up is that of the disenfranchised expat: the American in Spain desperate for a sight of the NFL, the Indian in Canada hankering after cricket, and all the other migratory sports fans round the world. Ustream’s recent deal to carry live sporting events from IMG Media’s stable highlights the potential of the global displaced audience.

San Francisco-based Ustream describes itself as the largest live online broadcast network, and the strategic alliance with IMG Media certainly covers a lot of sport. In football terms alone tournaments include World Cup Qualifiers and international friendlies, as well as KNVB Cup and Eredivisie (Netherlands), Cofidis Cup and Jupiler Pro League (Belgium), Primera División (Argentina), the SOGAZ Russian Football Championship and the Danish Superligaen.

Then there’s golf, motorsports, rugby, badminton, volleyball winter sports, water sports and action sports. Asked whether the service is aimed mainly at geographically separated audiences, David Thompson, VP of Marketing at Ustream’s answer is a simple, stark: “Yes.”

Luckily, he’s more voluble in describing the Ustream proposition, especially when it comes to negotiating the minefield that can be global rights maps.

“We offer our broadcasters a beginning-to-end live streaming solution starting with access via satellite and going all the way through to broadcaster and viewer customer support,” he says. “Every week we have multiple simultaneous events that require us to pull the content via satellite and make the streams only available to certain countries. Each league and match coming from IMG has dozens of restrictions and we have the ability to block content in the required territories and update our settings in real-time if necessary. We give our VIP broadcasters complete support to ensure a seamless live event and a key challenge is maintaining efficient coordination and operation of all events given the unique needs of each event.

“We also have a landing page we will be launching soon that will recognise each individual user’s geolocation and spotlight the content that is available to them, while hiding the content that is blocked.”

Ustream works on Flash, streaming H.264 with multiple bitrates available to the user, including mobile device transcoding. Streams are downlinked via satellite and encoded by multiple professional grade Cisco Media Encoder machines, while the company also offers social media integration and the ability to distribute to third party publishing sites, partners, leagues and Facebook pages for syndication.

Thompson says that Ustream has the largest live streaming audience online, with the platform reaching 57 million unique viewers monthly. And with the astonishing growth in mobile services that is starting to be witnessed in many countries, those figures are only going one way.

“In July 2011 more than 10% of access to the site in the United States was on mobile. As of October 2012 that number has gone up to 25%,” he says. “4G has been great for us. While the networks can still get congested and service caps can affect some users, the significantly higher upload and download speeds available on 4G networks have positive implications for streaming. HD live video over mobile connections is now a reality.”

Thompson sees other technologies coming down the pipe, such as HEVC and MPEG-DASH, as only being beneficial for companies such as his too in that they will melt away the remaining boundaries between phones, tablets, laptops and TVs.

“Browsers will follow Chrome by adding native support for DASH,” he says. “DASH will retire the currently adopted adaptive HTTP protocols such as Smooth Streaming, HLS or HTTP Dynamic Streaming. Finally there will be a way to deliver live adaptive video using native HTML5 on all major browsers.”

The details of the alliance with IMG Media have been left under wraps, with no clear indication of how much it’s worth or how long it will last. Thompson, however, sees the future as predominantly a rosy one, both for the two companies involved and for sport via IPTV as a whole.

“Currently, we’re at the end of an era of the internet being second class to broadcast television,” he says. “My vision for two years from now is that it will become commonplace for all major sports broadcasts to be distributed worldwide through multiple platforms including mobile phones and laptops. Currently a lot of the content that IMG is providing us with isn’t available everywhere, so we’re filling in the dark markets.

“Audiences want access to their favourite teams content live right at the click of a button from anywhere in the world and from and from any device that they want. Ustream wants to help become another tool for sports broadcasters to use our technology to reach an even larger audience and fan base.”

And given the size of the potential market out there (as nicely illustrated, for instance, by the USA being one of the biggest requester of content on the ESPNcricinfo site) they could be onto a winner. Rugby fans stuck in Sacremento and baseball fans languishing in Lagos no doubt agree.

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