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Free-to-broadband: Will this be the next wave of public service television delivery?

By Dr Amal Punchihewa

The Mile High Video 2024 (MHV-2024), one of the leading video coding and streaming events since 2016, was held in February 2024 and focused mainly on streaming and video coding technologies. It also raised many questions, including, “Can streaming & video coding advancements enable online-only delivery?”

More importantly, how do many of the topics discussed as part of MHV2004 relate to the public broadcast domain?

Tim Davie, Director General of the BBC, said, “Ensuring the universality of public service television is being sustained into the future is of paramount importance to the UK and all its public service broadcasters.

“We are delighted to be deepening our collaboration in helping viewers access our content, ensuring that, in the Digital Age, we deliver value for all audiences and that no one is left behind.”

Last year, the UK announced a free-to-access streaming service and also a media bill to address various challenges due to rapid changes in the broadcast and media landscape. The bill is expected to make provisions for public service television, sustainability, and programme-making. It also addresses governance, audit of services and powers, including the regulation of television selection services, the regulation of on-demand programme services, the regulation of radio services and the regulation of radio selection services.

A new streaming service: Freely — from UK public service broadcasters (PSBs), will deliver live free television via broadband. This streaming service will be offered to British television sets and streaming devices later this year. Although no official launch date has been set for Freely, the service is expected to begin operations in the second quarter of 2024.

The service aims to streamline on-demand TV and live public service channels into one, easy-to-navigate service and is essentially the online streaming version of Freeview. It comes from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and will stream each broadcaster’s programming live with more channels set to follow.

In the UK, free-to-view TV platforms such as Freeview and Freesat have been available to the public for a long time. It was implemented by Digital UK (currently known as Everyone TV), a joint venture owned and supported by the UK’s leading public service broadcasters — BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

Digital UK merged with Freesat in 2021 and is currently also offering a free streaming service. Everyone TV is responsible for the day-to-day running of the UK’s free-to-view TV platforms, viz.  Freeview, Freesat, and pioneering free television’s evolution for a streaming age.

Going back to MHV-2024, what were the other announcements that may have an impact on broadcast and media, especially for online delivery?

Content steering, also known as content routing or traffic steering, is a technique used in content delivery networks (CDNs) to optimise the delivery of content to end users. CDNs are a network of servers that deliver web content to users based on their geographic location, the origin of the web page, and the content delivery server. Content steering is a key standard technology to smartly manage multi-CDNs.

A multi-CDN is the combination of multiple CDNs from different providers into a single network. When used correctly, a multi-CDN can provide flexibility, availability, and performance benefits when compared to a single CDN.

Understanding multi-CDNs begins with understanding the benefits of CDNs in general. CDNs play a vital role in serving and securing Internet traffic across the globe. By using a CDN, businesses can reduce demand on origin servers, protect against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and improve performance.

CDN plays an important role in online delivery and over-the-top (OTT) networks will work well if CDN can manage the traffic. CDN companies and CDN providers are continuing to innovate so that they can offer differentiation and be competitive in the market.   

A server-based analysis method was presented to assess the Quality of Experience (QoE) without any player involvement. This is a convenient tool for CDN companies; currently, Common Media Client Data (CMCD) is being more frequently used. CMCD is a specification that allows streaming video players to share information about their playback environment and behaviour with the CDN serving the video.

MHV-2024 discussions revealed that no public CDN has yet implemented Open Caching at scale. Open Caching is an open architecture developed and endorsed by the Streaming Video Alliance (SVA). It offers a platform that federates content delivery infrastructure deployed deep inside service provider networks into a global CDN with open APIs for content publishers. It is designed to help service providers easily deploy an edge CDN footprint, offering them more control over content flows. It also caters to the needs of global and regional content providers for more capacity, consistency in content delivery, and performance assurance. 

During MVH2024, compression was a key topic. Compression adapted to the type of content is known as content-aware coding.  The content-aware encoding improves on the encoding by adding logic that allows the encoder to seek an optimal bitrate value for a given resolution, without requiring extensive computational analysis. 

To prepare content for delivery using adaptive bitrate streaming, video needs to be encoded at multiple bit rates (high to low) and multiple resolutions. This technique allows today’s modern video players on Apple iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac to use streaming protocols that smoothly stream content without buffering.

These different renditions of display size (resolution) and quality (bitrate) allow the player to select the best version of the video that the current network conditions can support. The network could vary widely from LTE, 4G, 5G, public Wi-Fi, or a home network.

Different tools are required for different applications and devices to support implementations that are complexity-adaptive. Video Multi-method Assessment Fusion (VMAF) is an objective full-reference video quality metric developed by Netflix with the University of Southern California, the University of Nantes IPI/LS2N lab, and The University of Texas at Austin Laboratory for Image and Video Engineering (LIVE).

VMAF is unique because it predicts subjective video quality based on a reference and a distorted video sequence. Next-generation VMAF would be a video quality metric that spans different complexity needs. 

Discussions showed an apparent codec duopoly; the codec AV2 by Alliance for Open Media (AOM) aims to be finalised in 2026, and H.267 by ITU/ISO is set to be finalised in 2027.

MHV2024 also discussed the need for standards to reduce bit rates while non-standard techniques are deployed for the improvement of codecs. A new codec quality metric was proposed for improvements beyond the structural similarity index (SSIM) and traditional quality measure peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR) that has a poor correlation to subjective metrics. 

Pre-processing can be used for the super-resolution of old content and to optimise downscaling for adaptive streaming and post processing for super resolution to be performed for low-resolution coded visuals. Beyond block-based processing like in Versatile Video Coding (VVC) or hybrid coding these need to further evolve so that in compression, encoder control is codec agnostic.

Some major service providers presented their AI-based services related to video having a broader range.  The state-of-the-art in MPEG applications was also presented. Although some neural network tools were proposed to optimise the loop filter and Motion Estimation in JVET in 2019, we are only now seeing some technology implementation. Similarly, for auto encoders, research started way back in 2019, and we are only now talking of a standard that may potentially be presented in 2026. 

Will AI-based compression be a commercial reality if decoder complexity needs to be increased by a significant factor? But if AI compression can reuse and provide an evolutionary path to the AI primitives available in today’s silicon, then there could be a possibility for H.267 or AV2 to be an AI-based standard.

Bit saving or compression improvement has to be at a reasonable increase of complexity. Otherwise, every device needs to deploy more resources, including energy and time. 

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