With online video usage increasing, Akamai aims to use its global content delivery network to offer network television quality to audiences of broadcast scale. Stuart Cleary, director of product marketing for media and entertainment at Akamai, spoke to informitv about industry trends and its latest technical innovations. Among these is a soon to launch service aiming to make it easier for media providers to reach diverse devices and displays, from Apple iPads to network-connected televisions.

Akamai is building on the capabilities of its HD Network, which has been available for over a year. The aim is now to make it easier to media providers to deliver video to different devices using standard web protocols.

Given that high-definition is a term used very loosely on the web, the HD Network label may be misleading. Akamai can and does indeed deliver high-definition video, at anything up to 10 megabits per second, which by anyone’s definition is broadcast quality, although not everyone has a connection that can support such data rates.

While South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan may lead the world with average broadband data rates, the United States and the United Kingdom are outside the top ten countries, according the quarterly Akamai State of the Internet report, based on its observations of network traffic. Yet this does not necessarily correlate to usage of online video, at least as far as Akamai customers are concerned.

For Akamai, the main aim is to deliver the best possible experience that an individual user’s device and connectivity can sustain, for very large numbers of users.

“The initial focus was on providing quality at broadcast audience scale,” observes Stuart Cleary. That means addressing audiences that register on the Nielsen ratings scale, in other words a measurable percentage of those available to view television or video at that time.

“The big different since then is that we’ve unified delivery to the most common runtime environments on a single network.” The three main runtime environments that Akamai is addressing are Flash, Silverlight and Apple iOS devices.

Whereas video may have previously been served from a proprietary server, there has been a move to delivery of video in chunks, using the same transport protocol that is used to deliver web pages: HTTP.

This plays to the strengths of the Akamai network, which comprises 73,000 servers deployed with almost 1,000 internet service providers in 70 countries. It is a different topology to some of its competitors, which employ more centralised data centres.

Delivering video in chunks, as small files that can be conveniently cached, allows it to be served from standard web servers, closer to the consumer. That allows for greater scale at lower cost, enabling Akamai to serve audiences in the millions. “Had we not made the move to HTTP we just wouldn’t really be able to scale our infrastructure to meet those types of demands.”

Managing all those chunks of video, in multiple formats and at different data rates, is a logistical problem for media providers. It can mean hundreds of files for an hour of video. “We’ve recently turned our attention to focussing on how we can simplify delivery for our customers,” he explains.

At the moment there are a number of different delivery formats, from Adobe, Microsoft and Apple, which use mutually incompatible approaches to delivery over HTTP. Given their investment in these different formats, there appears to be little immediate prospect of a single standard emerging.

The solution offered by Akamai the company calls in the network packaging and encryption. Essentially, media providers can deliver video in a standard format. Akamai repackages this into an intermediate format that can be cached at the edge of the network. When a request comes in, it can be converted on the fly into the appropriate container format for the requesting device.

For instance, in response to a request from an Apple iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, the media will be converted into an MPEG2 transport stream, segmented and if required encrypted, in real time, for delivery to the end device. The relevant chunks can be cached for subsequent requests from similar devices.

An equivalent process handles requests for video in the new F4F format for HTTP dynamic streaming delivery to Adobe Flash runtimes. Akamai hopes to offer similar support for Silverlight in the future, subject to agreement with Microsoft.

Initially there will be support for pre-recorded files, with support for live streams following in the first half of 2011.

“The benefit for the customer is that they don’t have to change anything in their existing workflow,” claims Stuart Cleary. “It’s about providing value above and beyond basic delivery.”

The challenge for online video delivery now extends beyond the desktop and the laptop. “Over the last four years it has gone from being very PC-centric to delivering to a multitude of IP-enabled devices, including network connected televisions, set-top boxes and disc players.” These are driving viewer expectations of quality. On thing is becoming common: “You want a TV like experience, regardless of the device you are on.”

Over the next four or five years Akamai expects these trends to continue. “You’re going to see audiences to go online, with continued growth of delivery of media to network-connected devices other than personal computers, and you’re going to see long-form, higher bit-rate material, with video comprising the majority of network traffic.”

Stuart Cleary, the director of product marketing for media and entertainment at Akamai, was interviewed by William Cooper exclusively for Connected Vision © informitv 2010.