Heightened Traffic and Lack of Predictability Continue to Shape the Online Video Landscape
As we all continue to adjust to the new reality with which the world has been confronted in the first nine months of 2020, the idea of “returning to normal” is very much a moving target. More realistically, our social and professional lives are on a winding and unpredictable path towards a “new normal” as we find new ways to work, learn, socialize, and be entertained.
Online video has been and will continue to be at the heart of many of these new ways of life. Whether it’s getting on group calls with coworkers and friends, studying and attending school via eLearning platforms, or watching a movie or TV show via a streaming provider, online video services have become a far more critical part of our lives than many could have imagined at this time last year. And with telecommuting becoming more and more prevalent, millions of people have begun to incorporate working from home into their everyday lives.
During the first five months of 2020, the largest live and VOD broadcasters using Lumen CDN Mesh Delivery platform saw online video traffic increase by an average of nearly 40% from their January levels, with several notable trends standing out among the data. Despite some consistency across these trends, however, television networks, 24/7 news channels, and VOD services had little to no lead time to prepare for the surge in demand.
Information over Entertainment
Given the turbulent times, combined with the reality of people spending much more time at home, it’s not surprising that live news sources across local, regional, and national networks have seen an increase in viewership. Speeches from politicians across the world have drawn more viewers than ever before, such as the spike that we saw in mid-March when political leaders announced their respective shelter-in-place orders.
Of course, major political speeches made in response to world events often come with little to no lead time, which can cause major headaches for the engineering teams responsible for capacity planning and ensuring the quality of experience of these video streams. When that happens, having a flexible solution that can scale rapidly is a huge advantage to these streaming providers as well as the underlying ISPs used by their viewers.
In the two months following most shelter-in-place orders, the five most popular live television broadcasters utilizing CDN Mesh Delivery saw an average increase in viewership of 112% compared to the two months prior.
Major European television networks saw their peak live traffic nearly double during that time (a greater spike than they have for the biggest European rugby and soccer events – for which they have months if not years to plan). Rather than crumble under the increased demand, they were able to weather it thanks to the traffic being distributed across our peer-to-peer delivery network:
Drilling down further into a spike on April 28, we see that as the video provider’s traffic skyrocketed, the quality of service improved as mesh delivery was able to reduce the strain on the CDN, which led to less rebuffering for the viewers watching the stream:
More broadly, the three largest television networks that used CDN Mesh Delivery to deliver announcements from heads of state were able to keep rebuffering levels consistently low during the various traffic spikes, seeing only slight variations compared to “normal” traffic conditions. One of the networks was even able to reduce peak-time rebuffering by 5% on mesh-compatible traffic.
Across three of the biggest ISPs plus a handful of smaller providers that delivered French President Emmanuel Macron’s national speeches from March through May, we saw fewer rebuffering instances during the peak traffic times compared to times of normal traffic, showing that overall performance improves as more users stream content via the mesh network.
This sort of increase in demand was consistent across many European television providers, which also put an extraordinary strain on ISP networks. Those who didn’t have a contingency plan in place such as offloading excess traffic onto a peer-to-peer network have been more susceptible to degradation of user experience. However, the data also indicates that the mesh network improved performance across the board – even for those users who didn’t have mesh enabled – by offloading traffic from the traditional network, thereby alleviating some of the congestion for those that were fetching content from only server-based networks.
Meanwhile, live sports events have started to return to European cities and US cities. But with games being played to empty stadiums and more being televised and streamed due to the inability for fans to watch in person, we expect to see similar traffic spikes among the sports video carriers in the coming months.
Acceleration of Cord Cutting
Canceling traditional cable television subscriptions in favor of live TV streaming providers was already a rapidly growing trend – particularly in the US and among younger viewers – prior to 2020, and has only accelerated since then.
According to Fortune, cancellation of traditional cable subscriptions jumped by 70% in the first quarter of this year across the United States, and will likely grow even more when the Q2 stats are released. Interestingly, however, this has not been accompanied by a similar rise in subscriptions to streaming TV services. Many of the providers continued to grow in Q1, but at a slower rate than this time last year, while others have actually shrunk during the same time. This is likely due to the economic impact that many people are suffering from, as well as the absence of live sports programming (one of the biggest selling points for many OTT services). So while more people than ever are canceling their cable subscriptions to save money, many are not yet replacing them with a streaming service until the economic impact subsides.
That’s not to say, however, that streaming TV viewership dropped across the board. Again looking at the two months following the shelter-in-place orders compared to the two months prior, we saw four of the five most popular VOD providers see dramatic increases in video volumes delivered, with an average increase of 61%, even as countries began opening back up.
A premium European subscription television channel saw their VOD traffic more than double for both peak and average viewing times, perhaps an indication that streaming platforms with diverse content catalogs are well positioned to see an increase in both viewing time and subscriptions during this time. Yet again, this was a spike that no one could have predicted at the start of the year, but which the provider had to be able to handle or else risk losing viewers and subscribers.
Solutions Tailor-Made for the New Normal
Some trends that we’ve seen during the first half of 2020 will partially subside when offices start re-opening, large-scale crowd events resume, and people feel more comfortable venturing outside and being around each other. However, many of these trends, such as increased work-from-home environments and cord-cutting strategies, are here to stay. The ability to determine when and how these shifts will occur is next to impossible. There’s simply no playbook for navigating this new reality, which makes scalability and flexibility more important than ever before.
As such, Lumen CDN Mesh Delivery is uniquely positioned to help businesses and consumers stay connected in their new digital work and social environments. By adding flexibility and elasticity to their delivery network, content providers do not have to worry about correctly provisioning CDN capacity to support their traffic or over/under committing to a CDN provider. We have been able to provide a seamless transition for services that have seen unexpected sustained traffic increases since mid-March, and will continue to offer flexible, adaptable delivery solutions to help platforms scale to the audiences who have turned to streaming to adapt to this new “normal.”
 Traffic comparison between January 2020 and May 2020.
 “Normal” traffic is defined as any time period outside of the designated “peak” time periods
 “Peak” traffic is defined as the top 5% of overall time period with the largest amount of concurrent viewers
 Devices using CDN Mesh Delivery, along with other devices with the OS, browser and hardware capabilities necessary to run peer-to-peer delivery but for which this type of delivery is not activated in order to establish a control group.
 The 3 major ISPs + Others accounted for 95.5% of total viewer traffic.
 Users using mesh technology and the control group combined.
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