Mass rollouts of 5G services are coinciding with the emergence of real-time video streaming technology that mobile carriers can apply in multiple service scenarios to drive higher market penetration during initial as well as second-phase deployments.
With implementation of a live streaming infrastructure that far outperforms traditional content delivery networks (CDNs), mobile network operators (MNOs) not only would be able to accomplish key service goals that once seemed out of reach for Phase 1 deployments. They would be seizing a moment when real-time experience is becoming essential in myriad aspects of personal and commercial engagements with Internet services and applications.
Trends in video-centric social activity, immersive entertainment, education, telemedicine, and much else impacting consumers have made network support for real-time video-rich personal experience a winning strategy for MNOs. And real-time video transmission is becoming a vital component of multiple applications in commercial life as well, from communications engaging dispersed workforces to video surveillance to immersive collaboration in engineering design, architecture, training, surgery and other pursuits.
The strategic opportunity described here isn’t about achieving the “ultra-low latency” referenced in branding associated with streaming sports and other live unidirectional programming in the 4-10 second latency ranges matching broadcast TV delivery. Rather, the focus is on cutting latency to 200-400ms, where the interval between the instant when a user initiates an interaction with video and the video appears on screen is indiscernible, even over great transmission distances.
The ability to tout a new level of experience with video has long been one of the major service differentiators underpinning the 5G vision. Carriers who take steps to realize that vision now without waiting to deploy much costlier facilities mapped to 3GPP Standalone Architecture (SA) specifications can build much stronger cases for people switching to 5G than they have proffered so far.
Current, less than exuberant market responses make clear there’s an intensifying need to convince consumers and businesses there are unique benefits equating to a value proposition that justifies the outlay for 5G smartphones and services. Once potential customers understand they can attain real-time video experiences that can’t be found anywhere else, MNOs will be better situated to realize the market expectations that are driving their investments in 5G.
The discussion that follows explains how MNOs can use the cloud-based real-time streaming platform developed by Red5 Pro to enable a new realm of video-rich experiences. As shall be seen, this is an Experience Delivery Network (XDN) infrastructure that can be operated by MNOs as an alternative to relying on traditional CDNs. In so doing, they can fulfill many of the requirements for establishing in-house 5G streaming infrastructures as envisioned in Phase 2 3GPP 5G Media Streaming specifications.
Not only does the XDN create an environment for delivering applications and services that will fuel demand for 5G connectivity. The infrastructure also has the power to draw professional providers of every description who are looking for a real-time streaming path to end users for their applications, triggering a virtuous cycle of supply and demand that will continue to grow as carriers activate Phase 2 5G architectures.
Part 1 explores the market conditions that make the case for introducing support for real-time video experiences sooner than later. This includes a look at where things stand in 5G deployments and uptake as well as an overview of real-time consumer and commercial video use cases that have high market appeal.
Part 2 looks at how MNOs can facilitate development and delivery of a new class of video-rich services through streaming infrastructures that will allow market partners to take full advantage of the functional advances embodied in 5G specifications. Part 3 concludes the discussion with an explanation of how MNOs can instantiate the Red5 Pro software stack on hierarchical configurations of commodity servers across any combination of private and public datacenters in order to enable these many use cases.
The 5G Market Case for Real-Time Video Connectivity
There’s a long way to go, but sizeable 5G footprints have taken shape over the past two years in many parts of the world. As a result, there’s already a lot to learn from real-world deployments as carriers figure out how to maximize returns on what they’ve invested so far in 5G.
5G Global Deployment Status
The 5G footprint in the U.S. is already huge. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have achieved nationwide reach, which, as defined by the FCC, means at least 200 million people can access each MNO’s 5G service.
These carriers, unlike most MNOs elsewhere, are also deploying small cells and other equipment supporting use of vast swaths of millimeter wavelength spectrum in the RF regions above 20 GHz to enable user access at gigabit speeds. As of Q4 2020, Verizon had the biggest millimeter wave (mmWave) footprint extending to parts of 55 cities with top access speeds reaching 4 Gbps in some areas.
AT&T’s mmWave footprint had expanded to about three dozen cities, while T-Mobile, following its acquisition of Sprint, had de-emphasized mmWave expansion with a swing to use of Sprint’s abundant licensed holdings at the 2.5 GHz mid-band tier. The MNO was activating 2.5 GHz sites at a rate of 1,000 per month with coverage extending to 210 cities and towns in Q4.
Elsewhere around the world MNOs are concentrating on use of licensed mid-band spectrum extending into the 3.5-3.6 GHz and other blocks in many countries. This will increasingly be the case in the U.S. as well, where the FCC began opening up more mid-band spectrum in August with allocation of 70 MHz in its first 3.5 GHz band auction, to be followed by a second auction covering another 100 MHz.
Together, these uses of spectrum provide a good picture of what levels of throughput users can expect, depending on what spectrum tiers are in play, when they use their 5G smartphones. Data aggregated by the usage tracking firm Opensignal over a six-month period, as depicted in Figure 1, make clear there are great variations in user access rates, depending on whether spectrum is used exclusively for 5G and how much spectrum is involved.
Comparing Download Speed Averages in 10 Countries
4G 5G Speed Ratio (Mbps)
U.S. 28.9 52.0 1.8
Canada 58.4 183.7 3.1
UK 25.3 130.1 5.1
Germany 31.7 107.0 3.4
Italy 28.8 171.1 5.9
Spain 28.6 201.1 7.0
South Korea 60.5 377.2 5.6
Taiwan 32.9 211.8 6.4
Australia 43.1 215.8 5.0
Saudi Arabia 30.1 377.2 12.5
At the high end, when measuring mmWave connections, Verizon users are experiencing an average connectivity throughput that is 17.7 times the average Verizon 4G throughput, according to Opensignal. More broadly, users on mid-band connections are seeing rates in the 120-240 Mbps range that are 3-6x multiples of 4G rates in many countries with some mid-band access rates averaging over 1 Gbps. People accessing 5G in low-band 4G spectrum zones at 600-800 MHz are averaging connectivity at 1.7-1.8 times the 4G rates.
In other words, MNOs, no matter how they’re using spectrum for initial 5G rollouts, have every reason to promote higher bitrates as a selling point. But, given users’ general satisfaction with what they’re getting with 4G connectivity, it’s clear the pitch has to go beyond touting bitrates to explain what in the way of new services and experiences consumers can expect from an investment in a 5G smartphone.
Current Usage Trends
Sales messaging built around access speeds has yet to produce the kind of surge in 5G smartphone purchases MNOs are looking for. In the U.S., the picture improved somewhat in August 2020 when 5G handset sales, benefitting from a $300 year-to-year drop in average price to $730, reached 14% of all smartphone sales, up from 3% in January and on the way to a projected 20% for the entire year.
But total 5G users so far, calculated at 190 million worldwide, translate to a subscriber base representing just 2.3% of all mobile service subscribers. If the industry’s total shipments of 5G phones from 2019 through 2021 reaches 838 million, as predicted by research Canalys, market penetration of 5G, even if all those phones are sold by that time, will still only be in the 10% range.
Such predictions point to robust growth outstripping the pace of early 4G adoption, but they also take into account presumed drawbacks to market appeal. Researchers assume that carriers will be restricted as to what they can offer in the way of compelling new consumer and commercial services until they implement the next stage of 5G infrastructure advancement.
By all accounts, including the results from this global survey by data analytics firm Infovista, a great majority of carriers worldwide are rolling out 5G on non-standalone architecture (NSA), which employs software upgrades to expand the control plane functions of existing LTE Evolved Packet Cores (EPCs) to support 5G radio access networks (RANs). And in most cases, according to the Infovista survey, MNOs are employing Dynamic Shared Spectrum (DSS) technology to support use of the same frequencies for 4G and 5G transmissions.
These NSA deployments are fine for driving higher throughput with enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services but are incapable of supporting the slicing, distributed RAN infrastructure with high cell density, and Ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC) that are deemed essential to enabling many of the most promising use cases. Those capabilities await deployment of 5G Standalone Architecture (SA), which the Infovista survey found could be a long time coming. Only 37% of mobile operators worldwide intend to have SA architecture in place by 2022, and just half say they’ll get there by 2024.
That’s because getting beyond the NSA eMBB level of service will cost far more than what’s being spent on the first wave. Along with SA 5G cores, MNOs will need to implement more distributed architectures that move intelligent resources to the edge and divide the functions of next-generation 5G node base stations (gNBs) between central baseband units (CUs) and distributed units (DUs) at remote small cell radio locations.
Once more people have 5G phones, carriers will have greater incentive to invest in the infrastructure essential to delivering the marquee gigabit levels of throughput and SA capabilities touted for 5G. Thus, the solution to this classic chicken-and-egg dilemma is to leverage the available infrastructure to deliver applications people want but can’t get over 4G or via fixed broadband services.
That can be done with implementation of a real-time streaming platform that takes advantage of the gains in latency performance already implemented with 5G NSA. While URLLC technology used with SA buildouts will get the latency contribution of 5G RANs down to the 1ms level, the ultra-low latency contribution levels achieved with NSA deployments, calculated at 4-10ms, are low enough to work with real-time streaming in support of a multitude of services, applications and real-time experiences with routine uses of video that have the appeal to attract more users to 5G phones.
Consumer Service Enhancements now Achievable with Real-Time Streaming
Before exploring the technical details of how this can be done, it’s worth reviewing what those service opportunities look like to get a full sense of what can be accomplished without investing in 5G SA. Fundamentally, the Internet is alive with activity that points to real-time experience with video becoming the new norm in personal and commercial engagements online.
Often, specific use cases are created with the need for real-time video streaming top of mind.
For example, multiple types of auctions requiring real-time interaction between auctioneers and bidders are moving online. So, too, is casino-type gambling involving remotely located players that need to interact with dealers in real time.
But, more generally, a transformative video-driven impact on personal and commercial life is underway, blurring the lines between online and offline existence. As a result, the need to support real-time experiences is becoming the leading force behind service evolution across the Internet.
Living Internet Life in Real Time
On the personal side, the biggest mass market case in point involves usage trends on social media platforms, where the need for support for real-time video-rich experiences is growing by leaps and bounds. According to one Internet tracking report, 3.96 billion people – over half the world’s population – are now engaged in social media, which represents 87% of Internet users worldwide. In Q1 2020, users spent an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes daily on social networks, according to another report.
Ever more of this time involves socialization tied to video. For example, a big growth category is centered on community engagement with user-generated content (UGC) on Facebook Live and Instagram Live, which allow people to register comments in real time. Indeed, shared experiences with UGC have been the force behind the rapid ascendancy of TikTok into the top social media tier. In this arena, an annoying boundary between cyber and real life will disappear when everyone is able to comment based on seeing the content at the same time.
The same applies to more serious situations related to the rise of social activism. An explosion of cause-related communities engaging anywhere from thousands to tens of millions of people, as in the case of Black Lives Matter, has made the Internet the center of instantaneous communications tied to virally distributed videos of things happening in real time
Socialization around Live Sports and Game Playing
Social networks have also become hubs for sharing viewing experiences with live streamed sports and other mass media content. As online consumption extends community viewing beyond physical confines, the need to eliminate the spoiler factor has generated latency reduction techniques focused on achieving equivalency with broadcast latency. This might make sense in an environment where the audience is strictly in couch-potato mode, but the audience for live streamed content is anything but passive.
Consequently, distribution should occur in real time with no inconsistencies from one viewer to the next, as there is today when different modes of latency reduction are implemented over different CDNs. When everybody tuned in sees what’s happening at the same time, disparities between the social viewing experience in cyberspace and the experience in living space are eliminated.
The real-time streaming imperative also applies to social interaction with esports and game playing in general. On Facebook, for example, more than 700 million people interact with game-related content each month.
Such considerations are especially relevant when it comes to the surging popularity of esports. People are socializing around action where the competitive standing among players waxes and wanes at lightning speed. Ultra-low latency is essential.
And, when it comes to massive participation in all types of game playing, 5G is seen as a major conduit for consumer engagement with game-hosting cloud services like Google Stadia, Apple Arcade, Microsoft xCloud and Snap Games, which allow people to play without owning games installed on their handsets. One survey of MNOs has found operators anticipate cloud gaming could generate 25% or more of their 5G data traffic by 2022.
As these cloud platforms become centers of social interactivity, real-time streaming support for face-to-face interactions will be a significant enhancement to engagement with these services.
The VR Factor
Real-time streaming is also essential to multiplayer gaming and other applications involving network support for immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences. Indeed, the time is ripe for moving forward with making VR a big draw to consumers’ engagement with 5G service. In the U.S., for example, the number of U.S. consumers using VR jumped to 52.1 million in 2020, up 9 million from a year earlier, according to one count.
Much better viewing experiences, often delivered through untethered computerized head-mounted devices (HMDs) are supplanting the stomach-churning, low-resolution visuals that have long plagued VR. Along with higher resolution, technical advances have led to more accurate responses to user actions with improved motion-tracking, which, in some cases, can generate responses to eye movement as well as head and hand motion.
Just how important VR is to 5G carriers’ fortunes can be seen in how deeply invested some stakeholders have become in fostering development of VR and other extended-reality technology and applications for 5G. For example, Qualcomm, banking on a big 5G market for its Snapdragon 855 and 865 chipsets, has taken a leading role in fostering development of eyewear and XR functionalities with launch of an XR Optimized Certification Program aimed at certifying interoperability among 5G devices using its chipsets.
Most of the carriers involved in the program have not committed to specific dates and services, but some have made clear they are moving forward on a fast track to overcome the proverbial chicken-and-egg problem by ensuring there will be VR content available to induce VR headset owners to sign up for 5G. Deutsche Telekom, which has already experimented with VR coverage of music events, is one case in point with an initiative aimed at delivering sports, gaming and other VR content over its 5G network.
South Korea’s KT, too, is another carrier in the Qualcomm program that is pursuing an aggressive VR track. Having already launched a “Super VR TV” IPTV service, the carrier has signaled it will be among the first to introduce VR on 5G networks.
In the U.S., Verizon has taken a leading role in VR development with launch of Envrnmt, a seedbed for developers at its New Jersey facilities, and acquisition of RYOT, an L.A.-based immersive content studio. The carrier is also partnered with Walt Disney Studios to explore the possibilities of 5G connectivity for VR entertainment and has been engaged with various partners in delivery of live VR content over its own and other fixed broadband networks.
With support from real-time streaming and more than enough bandwidth, MNOs can put themselves in a strong position to engage VR users sooner than later on the 5G NSA foundation. Progress in efforts to enable network support for multiplayer VR games offers a case in point.
Until recently, the migration of multiplayer competition to the VR space largely involved networking a handful of players over premises LANs. But ever more developers are targeting mass engagement over Internet connections, not just for fast-action immersive play but for more socially oriented multiplayer engagements.
Virtual environments like The Playroom VR and Rec Room, both offered as free apps on various VR headset platforms, allow players in avatar mode to interact with each other in settings where they can play darts, paintball, laser tag and other games. VRChat, another popular socialization app, supports immersive interactions among people watching game-playing by professional streamers.
Real-time streaming at sub-half-second latencies is essential to delivering shared VR experiences over 5G networks in two respects. The first has to do with meeting the synchronization requirements that allow actions and reactions to impact all participants simultaneously. The speed at which the brain registers a scene with the turn of the head imposes latency restrictions that would be impossible to meet without clever real-time manipulations that bode well for enabling 5G services to fulfill the long-anticipated VR opportunity sooner than later.
One technique involves predictive intelligence using methods known as extrapolation or interpolation, which bring an estimation of what’s happening at a distance into the viewer’s present. Another is lag compensation, which does the opposite by shaping the user’s present around how everything was rendered by the server at a distance in the past equivalent to the lag time between server and user.
Balancing these methods across all users achieves the smoothest and most accurate rendering of competitive action, like the shooting of another avatar, sustaining an illusion of real-time interactions on every client. These techniques have made VR multiplayer gaming possible over real-time streaming infrastructures that can achieve end-to-end latency in the range of 150-200ms.
These low lag times are also essential to the other way real-time streaming comes into play to make VR a key opportunity for 5G. This has to do with minimizing bandwidth utilization to dimensions that don’t require the 1+ Gbps access speeds that entail use of mmWave spectrum in most scenarios where there’s not enough mid- or low-band spectrum to reach those bitrates.
There are well-defined approaches to keeping the transmission rate at reasonable levels based on delivering whatever is essential to updating the user’s field of view (FOV) with each turn of the head. These techniques work provided latency in delivering the new data is low enough to avoid unrealistic and potentially disorienting delays between the instant the brain expects to see what has entered the FOV and when the image is actually rendered on the head-mounted display.
These capabilities also apply in immersive and non-immersive 2D 3600 or 1800 viewing experiences offered with some live sports and other event coverage. While such coverage has appeared intermittently on season schedules in most major sports and was prominently featured during the 2018 Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, it has not caught on owing to poor visual quality and discomfort caused by delays in FOV adjustments. Given widespread consumer enthusiasm for the potential and the desire of producers to capitalize on the enthusiasm, this application looms as a major opportunity for 5G services that get it right.
Real-Time Video Experiences in Commercial Life
If real-time video-enhanced interactivity is now a high priority in casual Internet usage, it has become mission-critical to many aspects of Internet engagement in the commercial world. For example, going beyond rudimentary video conferencing, the need for a viable video-infused approach to collaboration, heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, pervades industries of every description.
Enabling VR-Based Collaboration
Video clarity as well as real-time interactivity is essential, not only for better renderings of participants' faces but also for making it possible to display image and video screen captures without having to stream such material separately. Moreover, collaboration has now become an immersive experience requiring real-time connectivity to enable use of VR technology in design, training, education, medicine and other areas.
The ability of 5G in first-phase deployments to overcome the latency issues that use of 4G connectivity in collaborative applications is important. But it’s the ability of 5G combined with real-time streaming to meet the challenges posed by shared participation in VR environments that creates truly unique opportunities for 5G service providers.
Growing use of VR in multiple fields attests to the potential scale of the opportunity. So far, attesting to the inadequacies of current networks, these use cases are self-contained. But they give a hint of the explosive potential once VR experiences can be delivered via 5G. (See Figure 2.)
Examples of VR use in business operations
Aviation – Airbus, using what’s known as RAMSIS (Realistic Anthropological Mathematical System), is able to create immersive 3D renderings of aircraft cabin designs that allow developers to better understand ergonomic implications of their concepts and to review component installation and maintenance processes. Similarly, Boeing has employed VR for designing and simulated testing of aircraft, utilizing specially trained development teams to look at issues related to human comfort in the preproduction phase.
Automotive Industry –Ford, which has long used VR technology in some design work, recently began using Oculus Rift headset technology to expand the role of VR for reviewing every facet of proposed designs down to the minutest details.
Worker Training – In a recent survey of marketing and sales professionals, the online training site HubSpot Academy found that 57% of respondents were interested in learning something new in a VR environment. Examples of how this enthusiasm is translating into real-world applications abound. Walmart has used VR to prepare employees for Black Friday sales by immersing them in a virtual environment with big crowds and long lines. In Houston, people looking to work in the HVAC sector can get VR-based training in the trade at the Training Center of Air Conditioning and Heating. Some 200 law enforcement agencies are reported to be using the VR training environment supplied by VirTra Systems.
Education – VR has captured wide interest as an education tool in a wide range of academic fields at all grade school and college levels, fueled in part by the turn to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. The technology could emerge as an important learning tool that puts students in one-on-one interactions with virtual mentors whose approaches to teaching and responses to student input can be individualized through use of AI. In one of the first studies devoted to analyzing whether VR learning aids recall, University of Maryland researchers discerned a nearly 10% improvement in learning by students using VR compared to students studying the same material without headsets.
Healthcare – The impetus behind VR utilization is especially strong owing to the major impact on treatment the technology has already been shown to have in a wide range of categories, including surgery, diagnostics, pain control, injury rehabilitation and conditions affecting mental health, including Alzheimer’s, autism, post traumatic disorder and schizophrenia. VR treatment programs are widely available from multiple suppliers like AppliedVR, which says its VR kit with therapeutic content is in use at 100 hospitals nationwide Cardiovascular specialists at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. now regularly use VR visualizations to prepare for procedures to fix aneurysms and blocked arteries. And, as in other fields, the medical profession is also using VR for training and basic research.
Marketing & Sales – Here, again, examples abound. Swedish furniture giant Ikea has set a course other retailers are beginning to emulate by making its virtual showrooms available for headset owners to explore from home. Lowe’s has implemented “Holoroom” environments using an app developed by Marxent that creates a virtual environment for customers to view what a room using various products from the store would look like. Audi is using technology supplied by ZeroLight to allow showroom visitors to fashion and examine close at hand the accessories for a new car and then take it for a spin through a virtual landscape. Tourist destinations and real estate brokers are making use of specially designed apps like the “Wild Within” VR experience designed by Oculus for British Columbia to give consumers an advanced look at the real things.
Real-Time Streaming with Video Surveillance
Another major area of activity where 5G with real-time streaming support will play a major role is video surveillance. As surveillance becomes ever more consequential in everything from public safety to industrial operations, home security and health care, the need for real-time visibility into all fields of view has become a top priority.
High-resolution digital cameras equipped to stream live video to monitoring stations near and far have moved far beyond the limitations of analog cameras with their grainy records of bad behavior. But the usefulness of digital technology is highly constrained when human monitors can’t see what’s happening in real time.
For example, the ability to react to what’s happening as conveyed instantly with high-definition clarity is vital to first responders in law enforcement, fire outbreaks and other emergencies. Additional benefits accrue from real-time synching of drone-delivered video with video streamed from other sources.
5G service providers can make it possible for surveillance managers to react to what’s happening in real time by implementing a platform that ingests and packages a cluster of high-resolution video feeds for simultaneous delivery to Internet-connected monitoring posts wherever they may be within less than half a second. Such capabilities, aided by advanced analytics, could make 5G connectivity a ubiquitous component of video surveillance in law enforcement, fire and other aspects of emergency management, national defense, and business operations, as well as residential applications.
The need for such capabilities was underscored in an advisory addressing the need for faster response times in active school shootings issued by the Department of Homeland Security, which noted that “the average duration of active shooter incidents in institutions of higher education within the United States is 12.5 minutes. In contrast, the average response time of campus and local law enforcement from the beginning of the incident to the scene is 18 minutes.”
In a real-time surveillance environment, 911 dispatchers and action coordinators can immediately match the caller’s location with the nearest camera feeds to provide a comprehensive perspective on the perpetrator’s whereabouts. In cases where video content analytics (VCA) is in play, guidance can be enhanced through automated perusal of multiple live video streams to provide more information than officials can amass manually.
For example, in the event of vehicular flight from a crime scene, the video feeds along multiple routes and from hovering drones can be instantly searched to pinpoint a license plate or, in the case of AI-assisted analytics, a vehicle of a certain make or color. When drones are in play, once the fleeing vehicle is found a drone can be assigned to follow it anywhere it goes.
But in the case of drones, which are playing an ever greater role in video surveillance across multiple market segments, it’s important to note that surveillance operations managers searching for ways to support real-time video communications will need to ensure drone feeds are accounted for in the video aggregation and distribution process. Minute distance-related disparities in timing of those and any other video feeds ingested by a distribution server must be eliminated to ensure synchronized real-time delivery of the aggregated streams to observation posts.
Similarly, in routine public safety and traffic management scenarios, real-time surveillance will contribute to municipalities’ ability to track accidents, crowd behavior, traffic patterns and other activity in public spaces. With the application of VCA across multiple live feeds, the smart city vision comes to life.
Part 2 – Meeting the 5G Real-Time Streaming Mandate
5G service support for all the real-time video streaming applications enumerated in Part 1 do not depend on MNOs’ deployment of SA technology. What’s required is a new streaming infrastructure that can achieve these latency levels with content delivered in either direction, at any distance and at any user-to-receiver ratio, whether it’s one to a few or millions or, in cases like video surveillance, many to one. For example, socializing video experience in real time requires that everyone on the receiving end can view the video simultaneously and respond with their own video transmissions knowing the same will hold for their recipients.
The Mandate for MNO-Operated Real-Time Streaming Infrastructure
The ability to create and operate such an infrastructure provides MNOs an opportunity to deliver real-time video experiences within their own domains that can’t be replicated through use of apps that rely on traditional CDN infrastructures to stream video into 5G RANs. By instantiating their own real-time streaming platforms, MNOs not only can deliver individual and commercial users a wealth of experiences they can’t obtain from other providers; carriers can build a marketplace for both B2B and B2C monetization beyond what they can achieve through reliance on traditional CDNs.
The need for such opportunities to drive ROI on 5G investments has been top of mind in the 3GPP Group’s development of 5G standards, as reflected in the two-way unicast 5G Media Streaming (5GMS) specifications recently issued with 5G NR Release 16. (Specifications for multicasting, known as Multimedia Broadcast Multicast System, are part of the still pending but largely completed Release 17.)
Notably, with provisions for collaborative relationships with third-party developers and service providers of every description, 3GPP has set the stage for MNOs to exploit these opportunities through their own streaming infrastructures or what might be called next-generation experience delivery networks (XDNs). But these specifications are extensions built on Phase 2 SA deployments, which as discussed earlier, are well off in the future for most MNOs.
Getting Ahead of the Phase 2 Curve
The challenge, then, is to get ahead of Phase 2 with a strategy that leverages current NSA deployments in conjunction with a real-time XDN that can later be utilized for implementation of the 5GMS specifications with the move to Phase 2. This can be done.
MNOs now have an opportunity to support demand for real-time interactive video streaming in all the consumer and commercial scenarios outlined in Part 1 in a way that gives them a head start on realizing the possibilities envisioned for Phase 2 implementation of 5GMS. With a real-time XDN already in place when MNOs turn up the new 5G SA cores, they’ll be able to move forward immediately with the added benefits enabled by 5GMS specifications, which are substantial.
The APIs and functional segmentations defined by those specifications support various approaches MNOs can take to enabling external providers to access subsets of functions provided in the 5GMS Architecture while retaining control of other functions within their own domains. For example, partners can upload streaming content to an MNO with reliance on the carrier’s 5GMS-defined functions like content delivery, network assistance, session management and metrics collection while keeping control of codecs, DRM, manifest formatting, and other functions.
Or, in live broadcast situations, MNOs can give providers the option to directly inject legacy production formats into the 5G streaming infrastructure, leaving transcoding with codec, DRM and manifest management under control of the MNO. Of course, MNOs can choose to apply either of these approaches to allocating functions in use case scenarios however they please.
Moreover, the specifications facilitate MNOs’ ability to offer ancillary media processing support for things like targeted advertising and linguistically appropriate closed captioning with content uploaded onto the streaming platform by third parties. As noted, whatever strategies they pursue, these approaches to utilizing 5GMS APIs and functional allocations create B2B business opportunities on top of the ability to deliver premium-value services.
Part 3 – The Red5 Pro XDN Solution
Red5 Pro makes all this possible on a highly scalable multi-cloud XDN architecture instantiated with phase-1 NSA deployments, supplementing the caching and one-way streaming of on-demand video over CDNs. Along with real-time streaming, the Red5 Pro platform makes it possible to flexibly allocate many of the functional allocations as described in Part 2. Once MNOs have shifted to phase 2 architecture, they’ll have the option to implement the approaches to function allocations as defined by 5GMS using the already deployed XDN infrastructure.
Massively Scalable Real-Time Streaming
The advantages of implementing an MNO-operated XDN on the Red5 Pro platform start with massive scalability. Each node within the XDN hierarchy of Origin, Relay and Edge nodes, as illustrated in Figure 3, can be deployed on low-power consuming virtual machines anywhere in the world to deliver real-time experiences with video simultaneously at any distance to any number of clients, from one to millions.
A simplified depiction of the XDN architecture
With ingest points pervasively deployed across the MNO’s targeted service area, be it a single in-country region or the whole world, the XDN can provide the real-time streaming environment entities in all the market segments discussed earlier are looking for. This includes producers of live events who have had to rely on CDNs to reach viewers on connected devices but would like to offer more compelling user experiences tied to real-time interactivity, whether it’s for delivering 3600/VR-related viewing, socialization, betting or some other purpose.
While some CDNs have streaming options publishers can use to reach users with live sports and other content within broadcast-caliber latency parameters, most notably with implementation of Chunked Transfer Encoding (CTE) used with the Common Media Application Format (CMAF), the resulting end-to-end lag time is still measured in seconds rather than milliseconds. XDN enables real-time interactions within 200-400ms and even lower latency parameters.
This is possible because the Red5 Pro platform dispenses with reliance on TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) at the transport layer and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) at the application layer. While these protocols are the foundation for the adaptive bitrate (ABR) mode of streaming over traditional CDNs, the time consumed by the client-server segment-by-segment communications and buffering mechanisms intrinsic to HTTP based ABR makes them unsuitable for use in real-time streaming.
But the XDN does comport with the requirements HTTP based streaming protocols were designed for by preserving distribution in the multi-profile configurations of an ABR ladder. The XDN can do this with ingestion of those profiles from an external transcoder or by utilizing transcoding positioned with XDN origin servers to play out content ingested as a single profile in the multiple profiles used with HTTP based ABR.
Streaming Protocol Flexibility
In either case, when the multiple versions of the stream reach each of the edge nodes after passing through the relay nodes in the Red5 Pro distribution hierarchy, the platform delivers whichever version of the stream is suited to each receiving device served from a given node. This is done using real-time assessment of device parameters and access bandwidth conditions.
To achieve real-time streaming, Red5 Pro utilizes the RTP (Real-Time Transport Protocol), the foundation for IP-based telephony, in conjunction with UDP (User Datagram Protocol) with no scaling limitations and no dropped-packet impediments to smooth streaming flows. To avoid any perceptible impact of packet losses associated with UDP, which TCP was designed to overcome, Red5 Pro employs a well-designed implementation of Negative Acknowledgement (NACK) messaging, which uses advanced iterations of Forward Error Correction (FEC) and other mechanisms to replace essential dropped packets.
With this transport foundation, the platform is designed to use streaming modes optimized for either mobile or fixed access scenarios on a session-by-session basis. In the case of fixed network connectivity, it leverages Red5 Pro’s ability to massively scale distribution via WebRTC. This is a real-time streaming protocol that eliminates the need for plug-ins or purpose-built hardware by virtue of the support for client interactions provided by all the major browsers, including Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari and Opera.
To stream content for access on mobile devices, Red5 Pro employs RTSP (Real-Time Streaming Protocol). Like WebRTC, RTSP relies on RTP but exploits the client-server architecture employed in mobile communications, eliminating the need for browser support.
Red5 Pro leverages these protocols’ mandatory support for utilization of SRTP (Secure Real-Time Transport Protocol) to protect audio and video channels with AES encryption. This obviates spending on DRM services in instances where DRM requirements aren’t baked into licensing agreements.
Along with ingesting any content delivered via WebRTC or RTSP, the XDN can ingest video formatted to all the other leading protocols used with video playout, including RTMP (Real-Time Messaging Protocol), SRT (Secure Reliable Transport), MPEG-TS (Transport Protocol).and HLS (HTTP Live Streaming). These are packaged for streaming on the RTP foundation with preservation of the original encapsulations for egress to clients that can’t be reached via WebRTC or RTSP.
Enabling Seamless Interoperability across Multiple IaaS Platforms
Set-up configurations and ongoing orchestration of all the nodes across the XDN are performed by the platform’s Stream Manager. The Stream Manager works in real time as it processes live stream information, applying automated scaling mechanisms to add or remove server nodes in response to fluctuations in traffic demand or the need to add new broadcasters and end users (Figure 4).
An illustration of how the Stream Manager spins up and provisions a new instance to add an Edge node to an existing cluster.
The Stream Manager’s autoscaling mechanism, utilizing Red5 Pro platform controllers designed to work with each provider’s APIs, also supports the cluster-wide redundancy that’s essential to fail-safe operations. With persistent performance monitoring of all engaged Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) providers, the Red5 Pro platform can instantaneously shift processing from a malfunctioning component within a node to another appliance in that node, or, in the event of the entire node going offline, move the processing to another node with no disruption to the flow or increase in latency.
These capabilities also apply to XDN-wide load balancing. By translating the commands of the XDN operations system (OS) to the API calls of the cloud operators, the OS is able to execute the load balancing essential to persistent high performance across the entire infrastructure without manual intervention.
XDN cross-cloud operations are enabled by pre-integrations with AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform and interactions with any other cloud facilities that are tied into the XDN via the widely used Terraform open-source multi-cloud toolset provided by Hashicorp. Terraform facilitates cross-cloud instantiations by translating IaaS resources into a high-level configuration syntax that allows IaaS APIs to be abstracted for access through a Terraform Cloud API specific to each cloud operator.
By leveraging those APIs, the XDN can manage any combination of contractually available Terraform-compatible IaaS resources as holistically integrated components of the live streaming infrastructure. In addition, the Red5 Pro Stream Manager can be manually integrated to work with the APIs of any cloud provider that isn’t integrated with Terraform.
A New Way to Cut 5G-XDN Connection Latency
A major advance benefitting 5G operators’ ability to meet the ultra-low latency goals of real-time video applications over the XDN can be found in how the Red5 Pro platform works with AWS Wavelength. Introduced in late 2019, Wavelength provides MNOs a way to speed traffic between 5G devices and AWS-hosted applications servers by instantiating AWS compute and storage services within their own network edge facilities.
This eliminates the usual latency incurred when that traffic has to traverse multiple hops on the Internet to reach those servers. Thus, in the case of an XDN running in the AWS cloud, the 5G traffic connects directly between user devices and the nearest XDN Nodes in the Wavelength Zones AWS has set up in regional datacenters worldwide. These Zones ensure that any 5G MNO whose facilities are equipped to serve as AWS Wavelength edge points will experience the fastest possible execution of applications when they implement an XDN in the AWS cloud.
It remains to be seen whether other public cloud service providers will emulate the AWS strategy, but as things now stand, 5G operators who take advantage of AWS Wavelength in conjunction with setting up an XDN infrastructure in the AWS cloud will be able to offer unparalleled real-time latency performance with any latency-sensitive services they and their customers provide over the XDN.
In fact, MNOs don’t have to wait for public cloud services to offer more Wavelength-like options. MNOs who choose to implement their own open-source cloud compute operations in the multi-cloud environment supported by Terraform can utilize virtualization platforms like OpenStack or Kubernetes to implement direct paths to the XDN within their 5G edge facilities.
Now that 5G service coverage is reaching mass scales in the U.S. and other parts of the world, carriers have an opportunity to fuel demand for next-gen smartphones and higher speed connectivity by exploiting the power of real-time video streaming.
Because most MNOs are operating over Phase 1 non-standalone 5G architecture, the general perception has been that such applications will have to stay on hold pending Phase 2 Standalone Architecture deployments. Thankfully, this is not the case.
Current 5G throughput gains range from 50% to 10x or more over 4G access rates, depending on amount and type of spectrum used. But take rates are dependent on 5G phone sales, and there, despite heavy advertising, current sales numbers underscore the need to build demand by offering benefits beyond higher throughput.
This can be done with creation of a streaming infrastructure that supports compelling real-time experiences with streamed video. This requires use of technology that obviates reliance on traditional CDN transport methods by reducing end-to-end latency to well under half a second.
The Experience Delivery Network (XDN) infrastructure enabled by Red5 Pro provides MNOs a highly scalable cross-cloud mode of distribution that comports with surging market demand for real-time interactive video applications. Employing a hierarchy of origin, relay and edge nodes, the XDN is designed to deliver such experiences with live-streamed video over mobile as well as fixed networks at any distance with scalability to millions of simultaneous users.
This means carriers who operate fixed as well as mobile networks can use the same real-time streaming platform to deliver this new class of services over all connections. Some of the application scenarios include:
- Real-time exchanges of user-generated videos on social media.
- Social interactions in response to simultaneous, real-time reception of live-streamed sports and esports.
- Network delivery of VR experiences tied to multiplayer gaming, video programming with ancillary features for VR users, and marketing of goods and services.
- Support for real-time engagement with video in online gambling and auctioning scenarios.
- Commercial services involving use of video in 2D or VR mode for collaboration and training in multiple fields.
- Emergency management and smart city operations calling for approaches to streaming surveillance videos that enable real-time reactions to events.
Such services could be delivered independently over the XDN by producers to mobile users, much as OTT video services are today. Or they could be bundled into mobile carrier-branded value-added 5G service packages. Moreover, with operation of their own XDNs, MNOs can monetize the availability of the infrastructure for third-party uses.
Breakthroughs in massive scaling of real-time video infrastructure as implemented by Red5 Pro have changed the perspective on MNOs’ ability to generate strong returns on initial 5G deployments. They now have an opportunity to differentiate their 5G services with delivery of a wide range of market-pleasing real-time video applications long before they move to SA 5G.
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