Monday, October 20, 2014

Blueprint: Streaming Audio Goes Over the Top and Under the Radar

by Jay Hinman, VP of Operator Solutions, Opera Software

So much attention has rightly been paid by industry influencers—from media to analysts and vendors themselves—to the topic of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming and its effects on overall traffic and the end-user experience. While many solutions exist to address this very real need, nearly all in-network solutions overlook one of the fastest growing segments of OTT data consumption: audio streaming services.  

According to Mary Meeker’s 2014 Internet Trends Report, streaming music consumption is up 32% year-over-year compared to 2013, and subscribers have never had so many music streaming service options. And while OTT video may pose the biggest threat on the surface, the volume of 18-64 year olds streaming audio is a much greater and immediate force to be reckoned with, bandwidth pressure aside.

Ask any person born during or after Bill Clinton’s presidency how and where they listen to music, and you’ll likely not hear too many answers focused on LPs, CDs, phonographs and compact disc players—the remnant popularity of these formats in some sectors notwithstanding. It’s self-evident that young people today freely stream their music from OTT music services like Spotify, Google Play Music, Pandora, Rhapsody and Beats Audio, often with zero interest in “old media” like CDs and even downloadable mp3s. With the fading of stand-alone mp3 players like the iPod, their music is typically enjoyed while mobile and even when stationary, on devices connected to either a cellular or a Wi-Fi network. Those with auto, train or bus commutes often listen for hours at a time each day, and more often than not do so on their mobile carrier’s network – which extracts a heavy toll on both the network and on each consumer’s data plan.

Mobile operators have begun to recognize how valuable streaming audio (music in particular) might end up being to their ability to attract and retain customers. Witness T-Mobile USA and their recent “Music Freedom” bundling of multiple streaming music services in with data plans. By zero-rating these services within the context of an overall data plan, T-Mobile provides a powerful lure (music streaming won’t count against my minutes) to the music-crazy demographic they’re courting. T-Mobile’s move is probably a prescient one. A recent study by research firm Strategy Analytics into consumers’ mobile music habits in the United States, China, France, Germany, Spain and the UK found that 77% of mobile users are already listening to music on their phones—with 70% claiming to do so at least once per week or more. 72% also said that they use their mobile phones to listen to music at least once a week when the service is bundled into their operator data plan—which is exactly why T-Mobile USA saw this as a terrific opportunity to grab new music-loving users from their competitors.

It makes one wonder what the network operations teams at T-Mobile and other global operators who are experimenting with streaming audio data bundling are currently thinking. Here they were, focused on optimizing the explosion of OTT video, and it turns out that a fundamental and network-taxing shift has also been rapidly taking place in the consumption of audio services. Most optimization solutions to date have focused their efforts on one-size-fits-all optimization of all data, inspecting each image, video or audio stream that comes through the network and adjusting every last bit of it to fit the pre-determined size of the available pipe—whether an individual user really needed it or not.

In fact, I’d surmise that most users don’t want their audio steam to be unnecessarily “optimized” —i.e. run through network hardware to have its bitrate lowered haphazardly—if the cost they’ll pay is lowered sound quality, even if their own particular stream of Pandora might have played perfectly without intervention. Rather, users just want their music to play—free from buffering, stalling and long start times. They’d like it to sound great, too. Prescient operators know that music is very personal, and that it’s all about individual quality of experience.

These mobile operators, knowing how important and personal the modern mobile media experience is to legions of individuals, have been looking to surgical optimization solutions to help manage their burgeoning network traffic. Surgical optimization, typically using a cloud-based infrastructure, only looks at individual streaming sessions—say, you and that Bob Seger album you’re about to listen to on Spotify, or perhaps more relevant, the 16-year-old and her Katy Perry stream that’s just about to kick off. When the size of her stream doesn’t match the available network bandwidth, surgical optimization determines in milliseconds that this is indeed the case, and then turns that square peg into a round one, letting it easily fill the available pipe and thereby delivering a wonderful streaming experience to her. Moreover, if everyone around her happens to have more than enough “pipe” to stream their own music, surgical optimization stays out of the way, letting them stream their music of choice without the slightest intervention.

Networks, and network optimization solutions, have by necessity been forced to be reactive in response to the proliferation of smartphones and the OTT services that run beautifully on them. It’s comforting to know that operators are recognizing not simply that there’s a buck or two to be made or a point or two of churn rate to shed on packaging streaming audio services in with data plans, but that the clunky, everybody-shares-the-pain methods of dealing with network bottlenecks in the past are becoming a relic of just that—the past.

About the Author


 Jay Hinman is the Vice President of Operator Solutions for Opera Software, where he is responsible for marketing solutions for mobile operators, device-makers and other non-consumer portions of Opera's worldwide business. He is a longtime marketing leader with extensive, cross-discipline marketing management and team leadership experience in both start-up and large mobile and technology companies. Prior to working at Opera Software, Jay served as Senior Director of Marketing at MobiTV where he directed work efforts and strategic planning for all aspects of MobiTV’s marketing organization. He received his BA in English from University of California – Santa Barbara, and received his MBA in Marketing from the University of Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @JayHinman

0 comments:

Post a Comment

See also