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Has the BBC Cured Streaming Latency?

Photo of Alistair Taylor
by Alistair Taylor

Two weeks ago, the NFL warned subscription video on demand (SVOD) services to up their content delivery game if they are to be taken seriously when bidding for premium rights. It must therefore come as good news for streaming services as it appears the BBC may have potentially broken through the latency problem facing streamers of live sporting events.

With SVOD services competing to become the indispensable ‘Netflix of Sports’, replacing the need for traditional pay-TV, reducing latency became an even higher priority for BBC’s research and development team.

The issue of latency (the delay in data communication over a network) was most prominently felt during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with social media and largely public screenings spoiling the live experience for the viewers who were playing catch up on live games, which notably lagged behind terrestrial TV broadcasts of the same matches.

During the 2018 World Cup, which saw record viewing figures online, following the rise in adoption of content consumption via streaming services, the BBC trialled Ultra-high definition (UHD) and High dynamic range (HDR) feeds via BBC iPlayer, but viewers complained the stream significantly lagged behind the live feed that traditional broadcasters and other SVOD services provided. Several SVOD providers, including Optus – also at the World Cup, Eleven Sports, Amazon Prime Video and DAZN, to name a few, have struggled with live streaming sports content.

The latest sub-standard live streaming experience occurred during the first evening of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League (UCL) on September 18th. SFR (French telecommunications company and Altice-France subsidiary) and its SVOD service RMC Sport left customers with lagging issues and outages for portions of the Liverpool versus PSG, and Monaco versus Atletico Madrid games. Blamed on a surge of 200,000 new sign-ups in the build up to the competition, RMC Sport’s servers were unable to cope with the increased workload. Customers impacted are to receive a one-month refund of their subscription as a consequence.

Having outbid pay-TV operator Canal+ and BeIN Sports for the French UCL rights until 2021 (for $1.2 billion back in May 2017), the streaming service needs to address these problems, especially following this warning from the NFL, as other rightsholders will likely follow suit. After the event, Altice-Europe chief executive, Alan Weill stated on BFMTV:

“The digital universe is growing every day but is still unstable in streaming TV. We have to offer a very high-quality experience because the subscriber wants value for money.”

This makes BBC’s potential breakthrough in removing latency issues from the streaming of live sports, all the more important for all SVOD services. The BBC is experimenting with a new technique which reduces the duration of each segment, creating a progressive series that can pass through a broadcast chain the moment it is ready.

BBC leading SVOD collaboration

Chris Poole, lead research engineer for BBC R&D, announced that the BBC would demo a beta version of the long-term solution at IBC:

“What we’re showing at IBC is a prototype. To roll it out properly will take time, and it needs coordination with the whole industry, so viewers shouldn’t expect the lag to disappear imminently. But perhaps by the time they’re watching the next World Cup, viewers will be cheering at the same time, regardless of how they’re watching the match.”

The news that the BBC wants to collaborate with other streaming services will be music to competitors' ears, as all will hope that by removing latency issues, they will become more attractive as content distributors to rights holders when premium rights come up for auction in 2021/2022.

As tech majors Facebook and Amazon and SVOD disruptors Eleven Sports, DAZN and ESPN+ aim to displace pay-TV networks and take over the sports broadcasting landscape, this news is significant. Although only an experiment currently, the BBC, by inviting industry wide cooperation, is facilitating the creation of the future of content delivery. It could be the case that the issue of latency is all but resolved come the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, when the tournament is likely to be predominately streamed to audiences, following the increasing adoption of streaming video and the further decline in pay-TV subscriptions.

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