Live Sports Could Force Adoption of New Streaming Protocols

This post originally appeared in M&E Daily.

For the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Akamai delivered 7 Terabits per second of streaming video, an eight-fold increase over the 2010 Olympics. That was on top of Akamai’s normal daily volume at the time of around 20 Tbs.

For the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Akamai’s Media Products Division senior VP and GM Bill Wheaton told the 2nd Screen Sports Summit in New York last week, server_rackthe CDN expects to deliver 7 Tbs in the U.S. alone. Worldwide volume, Wheaton estimated, could reach 25 to 30 Tbs., on top of Akamai’s normal daily load of 32 to 34 Tbs.

By 2020, if current projections hold, the Olympics could generate 1,000 times today’s level of demand for video, Wheaton said, or roughly 25,000 Tbs of data. Other global sporting events, like the FIFA World Cup could generate similar levels of demand, as consumers around the world increasingly turn to the internet, particularly with mobile devices, for watching live sports.

As demand increases, so too do consumers’ expectations of quality.

“With television, it doesn’t buffer, it starts quickly, it’s always on, it always works. That doesn’t happen today on the internet,” Wheaton said But expectations are changing. “People are paying real money for this, they expect it to work.” he said.

Getting it to work at the expected volumes, however, will require some fairly radical changes to how video is delivered over the internet today.

“I guarantee you can’t continue to do it the same way we do it today,” he said. “We can’t continue to stack and rack servers to that level. We can’t write code that is that efficient. We’re going to have to do it in different ways.”

One of those ways, according to Wheaton, could well be Google’s experimental QUIC transport protocol, which is based on the User Datagram Protocol (UDP), which is a lightweight counterpart to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) protocol used to transfer most web content, including video content that uses HLS, Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming and Adobe Prime Time.

UDP does away with many of the bi-directional quality control features of TCP, such as pausing and buffering while the client server requests that the source server resend a lost packet. That reduces latency and improves through-put, which are critical for real-time applications like online gaming and live streaming.

“With UDP you get a 30 to 40 percent improvement in through-put, you see start up times drop by 50 percent and we see rebuffers drop almost to zero,” Wheaton said.

Another necessary change, Wheaton said, is the adoption of peer-assisted delivery to reduce bandwidth usage.

“I know that’s a bad word, but because we work with so many different network operators we’re going to make sure it works for them, within their network, within their rules, the way they want it to work,” Wheaton said.

Almost as Wheaton was speaking, in fact, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office was issuing a new patent to BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen for a new protocol called BitTorrent Live, which he claims is optimized for live video streaming (M&E Daily reached out to Cohen but has not yet received a reply).

According to patent’s summary of the invention, BitTorrent Live is a “protocol for streaming content in peer-t0-peer networks:

According to the protocol, a peer-to-peer network includes multiple clubs and multiple peers that receive content distributed by a source of the network. Each of the plurality of peers is part of at least two of the clubs. As content is generated, the source divides the content into multiple data blocks and assigns each data block to a club. Each data block is transmitted to peers that belong to the club assigned to the data block. When a peer in a club receives a data block assigned to that club, the peer distributes the data block to other peers in the club. Additionally, the peer transmits the data block to peers in other clubs. Also, the peer receives data blocks assigned to other clubs from peers that are not members of the club.

“The amount of utility of BitTorrent Live is based on how many people are watching something simultaneously. Big events where everybody is watching the same thing at the same time, like sports, are the best applications,” Cohen told the website Torrent Freak. “Ironically in addition to being much better on bandwidth costs BitTorrent Live also has much lower latency, five seconds instead of 30-60 seconds, which is bordering on tape delayed instead of live.”

Despite BitTorrent’s checkered history, BitTorrent Live might ultimately find a place in the peer-assisted, UDP-based future of live sports streaming.