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16 December 2021

Phenix feels around for low-latency outside sports, after SRT sign-up

Believe it or not, there are some new interest areas emerging for the Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) low-latency streaming protocol, beyond sports. One vendor preaching that message is Phenix Real Time Systems, which has just joined the SRT Alliance after integrating SRT into its real-time streaming platform, with CMO Jed Corenthal walking Faultline through the process this week.

The caveat is that these future low-latency applications remain smaller than small beer in market terms, more like peanuts, and those being explored by the likes of Phenix link back to sports in some way anyway, like with microbets.

First things first, the pitch is that Phenix, headquartered in Chicago, can provide real-time video streaming at scale with all viewers in sync, watching the same content at the same time, alongside hundreds of thousands to millions of fellow participants. To do this, Phenix started with WebRTC, but has heavily modified the protocol to suit its needs. Of course, you still need to ingest the source video from somewhere, and that is where SRT comes in – taking about five months for Phenix to implement.

The main driver behind the move was to make sure that Phenix could better collaborate with developers, and that the improved compatibility should increase its reach – as well as upping the reliability.

To that end, in the past year, Phenix has doubled its revenues, and is now very nearly profitable. This is good news for the firm, which secured a Series B round of $16.7 million back in April, with some 50 staff and offices in the US, Kiev, and Zurich.

Corenthal caveated that he is not a technologist, before outlining Phenix’s experience with WebRTC. The firm expanded on it significantly, and has spent a lot of time and effort overhauling it from its chat-based roots. Phenix has focused on automating a lot of the backend functions, using a few AI tools to provision and allocate resources, as audiences scale up and down.

The Cheltenham Festival, the second largest horse racing event in the UK, is a good example of that scaling. People will place bets and then tune in for that particular race, before leaving the stream until they place their next bet. The shifts are unpredictable, with Corenthal saying that Phenix would see between 200,000 and 400,000 people arrive and then quickly leave.

This is why the back-end automation is so important, with Corenthal noting that Phenix does not really have to do anything while the event is running, and can effectively guarantee less than half a second of latency. He pointed to notable outages in pay-per-view fighting events as examples of platforms that could not handle such sudden arrivals of viewers.

However, sports and sports betting are still the main drivers of the real-time and low-latency video platforms, for both rightsholders and broadcasters. Corenthal highlighted the drive to move from the ‘bet and watch’ paradigm to the new ‘watch and bet’ approach that is enabled by the low-latency technologies.

While the traditional betting approach was outcome-based, the newer one facilitates microbets, such as guessing the outcome of a penalty kick that has just been awarded.  These ‘in-play’ bets can only work when the latency is low enough, otherwise sophisticated groups would be able to ‘courtside’ the system – by having someone physically at the event who could watch and instruct their fellow betters as to the outcome. In older systems, these courtsiders would have 30 to 60 seconds to play with, but this should be mitigated by ultra-low-latency systems.

Such illicit actions brought up the question of regulation in the US. Corenthal said that the UK’s mature betting market has provided a lot of expertise to draw from. However, we should note that the US professional leagues have much closer ties to the bookmakers than the UK, with most having official partners and some owning stakes.

Sports has enabled WebRTC to become the language of real-time streaming, said Corenthal, and that while there has clearly been a major shift in how audiences consume content thanks to OTT, the linear broadcast market is not dead just yet. As people move away from the legacy infrastructure, WebRTC will be one of the new models of consumption, and Corenthal thinks that WebRTC will eventually become the most used protocol for delivery.

So, while the content is delivered via WebRTC, it will still be watched on TVs. However, Corenthal is not much of a believer in the second or third screen approach, preferring the one-screen experience and the interactivity that can drive increased use. People will want to chat with friends or browse stats and trivia while they watch, and there is a lot of scope to use the best screen in the house for those functions.

Watch parties for fantasy football leagues were an example given, done in partnership with Yahoo Sports in the US, but Corenthal promised that more announcements are due soon – with one apparently being really big.

As for other interest areas, Phenix has seen a lot of interest from entertainment and music, with a multicamera project with Edgecast (formerly Verizon Media) being prominent. Thanks to the Edgecast collaboration, Phenix has ties with all the major US sports leagues, but this experience can be applied to other use cases. A notable User Generated Content (UGC) platform has recently approached Phenix too, which has the equivalent of thousands of channels to broadcast to viewers.

It seems that WebRTC has to tackle something of a reputation blight in 2022. Corenthal said that, initially, WebRTC was not compatible with devices, but now that has been solved. Now, the prevailing critique is that WebRTC cannot scale, but again, Corenthal notes that Phenix shows how you can do so.

The PaaS offering is cloud-native, and uses multiple cloud providers to ensure failover capabilities. Corenthal added that Phenix has recently launched Real Time RTMP ingest too, at around 600ms of latency, noting that this was (like SRT) an attempt to ensure that Phenix is as widely compatible as possible – able to ingest any type of source video. Phenix has also examined RIST, but not yet committed to the SRT rival.

As for the longer-term future, Corenthal noted that an exit via acquisition has a lot of different paths. Broadcasters, cloud platforms, sports leagues, and bookmakers are all in the market for video, and a platform such as Phenix should prove tempting. Things are rather flat out for Phenix currently.