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26 August 2021

DAZN must make technical upgrades and fast, or face Italian exile

Surprise, surprise – DAZN’s dream of Italian sports streaming success has quickly soured into a nightmare.

Italy’s Serie A has demanded explanations from the UK-based sports streaming platform following a bout of user complaints about buffering and video quality issues during recent internet-delivered matches. Even the clubs themselves are putting pressure on DAZN, out of a duty to protect the integrity of this proud soccer nation, again implying that DAZN has bitten off a lot more than it can chew.

DAZN has blamed a traffic overload on one particular CDN (which has not been publicly named and shamed) within its multi-CDN architecture, which it says was resolved quickly, but not quickly enough for some viewers plagued by grainy video and black screens. It shows that even employing multiple CDNs, often with load balancing and automatic switching techniques as standard to avoid bottlenecks, is not enough to meet the high QoE standards for live sports streaming.

Unfortunately for DAZN, it has already failed to meet the contractual agreements that state it must meet qualitive and commercial standards, which is why Serie A has invited DAZN to participate in a technical roundtable. Tickets to be a fly on the wall during this meeting would fetch top dollar, as we envisage DAZN’s representatives getting the hairdryer treatment from Serie A bosses.

Ever since DAZN signed the landmark licensing deal (which was strongly opposed by Sky Italia prior to receiving regulatory approval), Faultline voiced deep concerns about Italy’s internet infrastructure. DAZN had clearly thought about this too, installing a DTT back-up option for areas where internet is poorest, but the problem is that these latest video quality issues appear to have taken place in regions without the DTT fallback option.

It is evidence of what Faultline has been saying since day one – “Even with this back-up clause established for communities with poor internet infrastructure, Italy faces a coverage crisis.”

And when we were contemplating how both DAZN and TIM could employ measures to avoid this crisis, we were thinking more along the lines of bandwidth saving techniques, which led us in April to propose that V-Nova’s LCEVC (low complexity enhancement video codec) technology would be a good fit for the venture, given TIM’s previous integration of V-Nova’s Perseus compression technology.

Instead, in the same month, DAZN deployed a customer care platform jointly operated by video QoE analytics vendor Conviva and IT asset management platform ServiceNow. It integrates Conviva’s streaming insights data into ServiceNow’s telecom and media portfolio – culminating in more reliable streaming services and personalized customer care experiences to drive user acquisition, reduce opex, and boost customer lifetime value.

Five months later, the reliability of this joint offering on which DAZN was sold surely has to be brought into question, although admittedly Conviva and ServiceNow cannot be held directly to ransom for CDN problems.

This is why we should reiterate our case for DAZN and TIM increasing investments in video compression technology. It speaks volume that DAZN recommends an internet connection speed of at least 8 Mbps downstream for receiving a single HD stream, yet Italy’s five joint fastest ISPs – Telecom Italia, Fastweb, Tiscali, Vodafone Italy, and Wind – only register a real-world average speed of 3.4 Mbps, according to the Netflix ISP Speed Index, which is unchanged from April 2021 to the latest data as of July 2021.

Looking at how an LCEVC implementation could hypothetically change that, video would be compressed by 50% using the MPEG-5 Part 2 enhancement codec, so that – in theory – a 4 Mbps connection rather than the recommended 8 Mbps would be able to handle a single HD stream from DAZN. By halving bandwidth, this effectively doubles the number of broadband households to which an HD offering can be marketed to and successfully delivered. This is just one of countless options at DAZN’s fingertips to improve the streaming experience.

DAZN can do what it can, but unfortunately the nature of being an IP-based content provider is that you will almost always be held accountable for ISP network or WiFi-related problems. The problem is that we don’t think DAZN is doing enough.

This is not new ground for DAZN. It ran into problems while streaming content to Italian viewers last year, which has prompted the Italian consumer association Codacons to demand immediate refunds for paying subscribers. The difference this time around, and what is sparking such outrage across Italian media, is that DAZN has been allowed to acquire rights to show a total of 266 Serie A matches over three years (not including 114 co-exclusive matches), with DAZN streaming seven out of ten matches a week on an exclusive basis, and the remaining three on a co-exclusive basis. It needed the backing of TIM, which contributed 40% of the total €2.5 billion agreement, although the Italian operator has so far been spared any public backlash.

With the checks cleared and regulators giving the greenlight, there are surely no grounds for the rights contract to be reserved, but Sky Italia will be sniffing around for anything it can use to its advantage.

Likewise, Faultline will keeping all ears to the ground for anything productive (or not) that comes from the forthcoming closed doors technical roundtable between DAZN and Serie A.