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19 December 2019

DAI unleashes mobile revenues for sports streamers

It was not so surprising to find that live sports streaming loomed larger than ever at the recent annual Streaming Media West conference in Los Angeles, with DAI (Dynamic Ad Insertion) rising fast up the agenda for service providers to join the UX as a major priority. The underlying message though was that attention must be paid first to the underlying infrastructure or else no amount of clever technology can ensure a good experience or unlock revenues.

Google must have gone away happy because its own DAI platform received a largely favorable hearing for its ability to monetize live sports platforms. But it looked as if Google was getting the credit for up front investments in the infrastructure that it urges customers to make before deploying the product. Indeed, its Head of Sports & Entertainment Kiran Paranjpe admitted as much when he asserted that the underlying infrastructure, especially for live events, can “really make or break your audience development, your monetization strategies, retention strategies.”

In fact, Google is most insistent that its customers establish that various components and technologies are in place and tested before deploying its Ad Manager DAI in anger. Among three almost compulsory ones is a CDN as the origin server for all digital content, able to output content either as HLS streams or via distributed caches refenced by their URLs. Secondly, for VoD content, there has to be a Content Management System (CMS) to maintain content and provide an MRSS feed as output. MRSS (Media Really Simple Syndication) is the dominant standard for uploading videos and associated metadata to the cloud or a CDN as one workflow, or “feed”.

It should enable application of customized metadata at that feed level so that it is then attributed automatically to all content uploaded within that single workflow. Typically, this feed would be updated regularly, say every 10 minutes, so that videos can be posted to a given associated URL for that feed, which could be an external platform such as YouTube, or in this case the service provider’s CMS.

Google also makes recommendations around other key components, primarily the Injector, Encoder/Transcoder and Packager. The Injector uses the SCTE-104 for signaling markers to encoders to make room for ads to be inserted and inform the player when to pause content for the ad to be delivered. This works in conjunction with the SCTE-35 standard originally used in the US to signal a local ad insertion opportunity in transport streams, and in Europe to insert local TV programs such as news. Now it is used to insert any program or ad event in both linear transport streams and ABR delivery formats, most often DASH and HLS.

The encoder then as we know transforms the analog original into compressed digitally-formatted content, ready for transcoding into different variants or formats. Finally, the packager takes each encoded variant stream and converts it into multiple transport streams along with an SCTE-35 manifest text file that describes each stream with associated ad breaks, ready for eventual execution by the client player. At this stage encryption at the transport stream will be performed if required, before the content is inserted into a CDN in many cases.

At Streaming Media West, Brendan Reiley, Digital Media Director at racing operating company NASCAR, indicated that due diligence over these components had allowed intermediate service or platform providers to be eliminated as part of a migration from satellite to the cloud for streaming.

He suggested reliability had been improved by deploying these key components underneath Google DAI, which has enabled the key monetization benefits to be enjoyed, through the ability to serve dynamic targeted ads to users on mobile devices. “We couldn’t do that previously, we were missing out on mobile web,” said Reiley. “So implementing DAI has really helped with that. It’s helped us become more efficient.”

The side plot here, discernible at the conference, was that deployment of DAI has stoked up fears of the big technology players among traditional broadcasters, and galvanized their activities in the field. We see this with RTL Deutschland in its collaboration with UK video distribution technology vendor Yospace and advertising sales firm IP Deutschland announced June 2019, focused on Server-Side Dynamic Ad Insertion (SSDAI). The advertising technology was first tested on a live stream from US news site VOX on RTL’s channel TVNOW, with the key point being to demonstrate ability to scale live ad insertion across large audiences.

There is a tension between low latency and resolution of ad insertion decisions in real time as the numbers scale up, because the computational load becomes overwhelming. The answer in this case came from Yospace, through a combination of two related technical components, pre-fetching and pre-bidding.

The idea of pre-fetching is to decide which ads to stitch into each unique stream feed to individual users in advance of the actual break. This means that the decision is not quite live and could in theory fail to account for some factor that might change the decision on the spur of the moment, but is a necessary compromise to make for DAI scalability.

Then pre-bidding extends the concept to the automated auction, conducting it just ahead of the ad placement such that at least the targeted slot can be sold to the highest bidder a little before the ad goes out. This enables near real-time bidding where calls are made to multiple partners in the ecosystem. To deliver low latency at scale for live sports where end to end delay may be as little as 5 seconds, while allowing real time bidding via a complex ad decisioning ecosystem to maximize revenues, these ad decisioning calls clearly have to be made before the ad break actually occurs. Again, there is a sacrifice of immediacy, but this will almost always result in higher revenues by allowing the automated auction still to take place to attract the highest bidder.

Through its collaboration then RTL, in common with some other broadcasters, is hoping to match the stream monetization capability of emerging online services.

Broadcasters also registered great interest at Streaming Media West in another gathering trend, the switch from satellite to fiber, or sometimes cellular, for remote contribution from the field. At the event, World Surf League SVP Rich Robinson underlined the migration from satellite to fiber that had taken place over the last five years for remote production, noting how fiber cross connects have overcome the lack of flexibility and routability that had dogged earlier implementations.

That has enabled World surf League to reduce costs by avoiding need for as many engineers because production staff can support multiple events simultaneously.

“As connectivity has continued to extend in all of our different far-flung areas, we build to rely more on fiber,” said Robinson. “Just pushing a lot of those services back into the cloud, where the digital product tends to handshake with the production team, it’s become a lot easier for us to pass things off without the same concern of the dark art of encoding somehow getting in the way in a way that we have to kinda address. That’s where we’ve seen a lot of success with fiber cross-connects, and really kind of planning out how we’re gonna go from one network to the next, depending upon the vendor makeup that we work with.”

This trend towards fiber for remote production has spawned a number of emerging players such as GlobalConnect, with headquarters in Denmark and Norway, whose fiber infrastructure covers 26,000 miles (42,000 km) in Northern Europe following the merger with another such provider Broadnet. The company in September 2019 announced a partnership with Oslo-based Nevion to incorporate control software and contribution encoding using the JPEG 2000 compression standard still widely used at that point of the video chain to transport HD and 4K/UHD feeds in real-time from football arenas. The main gain was ability to consolidate multiple audio, video and network cables into a single 10 GB fiber connection.

GlobalConnect has focused both on resilience and scalability through a ring structure that ensures there are at least two fiber paths between any two nodes, and facility for rerouting rapidly to cater for surges in demand. The company has just completed a field trial demonstrating 400 Gbps coherent transmission over a 50 GHz fixed grid metro transport network concurrently with pre-existing 10G channels, which is the sort of capability likely to fare well in pitches to sports broadcasters for bandwidth-heavy remote contribution from multiple locations in those countries. We can expect further consolidation and collaboration in that field to assemble global coverage for networks optimized for remote production and contribution.