Mobile TV and video were once considered “killer apps” that would entice subscribers to use more data, helping the networks increase ARPU and hold onto customers in an increasingly cutthroat market.
Video was perhaps thought of as a panacea that would prevent operators becoming merely bit-pipes; but in reality, this is the situation they face today.
A decade ago during the early days of 3G, live TV and video was touted as a differentiator that simply wasn’t possible on 2G, and the operators even created in-house solutions to stream live video. Unfortunately, the user experience tended to be poor due to limited bandwidth, underpowered devices and badly implemented user interfaces.
And unlike today’s scenario where most online video is simply consumed via the Internet, back then every operator was scrambling to offer an in-house portal stuffed full of video downloads and live TV channels. It was certainly ambitious, but failed to catch on initially.
But with today’s high-speed 4G networks and big screen smartphones, has mobile TV and video lived up to the hype?
We take a brief look at some recent statistics with a special focus on emerging markets.
Demand for Mobile Video
Mobile video includes popular websites such as YouTube, Hulu and BBC iPlayer, as well as dedicated subscription-based apps such as Amazon Prime and Netflix. Spurred on by the rise of more powerful smartphones and tablets, mobile video consumption worldwide is growing phenomenally.
According to Cisco’s 5-year forecast, mobile data traffic grew 81% in 2013 of which 53% was video, and is predicted to rise to over two-thirds of all mobile data traffic by 2018.
And it’s mainly Emerging Markets that are helping to fuel this rise in video usage. In many cases, mobile is leapfrogging fixed line technologies entirely, with Internet use nearly on a par with fixed line. For example, Africa and the Middle East have a comparatively low Internet penetration at 21.3% and 44.9% respectively, but are embracing mobile for reasons of convenience and ease of deployment.
It is no surprise then that mobile video is becoming increasingly popular as access to the Internet, network speeds and smartphone penetration rises. These factors are driving the uptake of data services in general and making it easier for consumers to access Video On Demand, live TV and music streaming.
What is Driving Video Usage?
As 4G networks are deployed, mobile network speeds are increasing. Globally, the average mobile downlink speed in 2013 was 1,387 kbps, up from 526 kbps in 2012.
In the Middle East and Africa, the average downlink mobile network speed is predicted to rise from 529 kbps in 2013 to around 900 kbps in 2018. Good quality video eats up bandwidth, and with nearly 1 Mbps it’s finally becoming possible to stream higher resolution content that looks good on the small screen.
Studies have shown that subscribers on 3G networks in Nigeria tend to consume more music and video downloads than those on 2G (17% versus 10%). In other words, faster networks enable users to download video content more quickly, and receive higher quality and more reliable streams.
Of course, better quality video is what it’s all about for consumers, many of whom still prefer to use a tablet at home on WiFi rather than watch TV on a smartphone.
Smartphone Users Consume More Video
According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, the average smartphone generates as much data traffic as 49 basic feature phones, and a tablet device the equivalent to 127 feature phones. But despite the relatively low penetration of smartphones in emerging markets (31% in Argentina and 26% in Brazil) compared with mature markets (UK, USA and the UAE each have much more than 50% smartphone adoption), the latest smartphones with high-definition playback have helped encourage higher data usage for mobile video.
In fact in 2013, 79% of smartphone users in Brazil watched video clips of some kind, 28% of these at least once per day. This compares favourably to the UK where only 53% watch any kind of mobile video clips. In Thailand, the figure is even higher with 53% of users watching mobile video on a daily basis.
The Importance of Content and Quality of Experience
Most people are receptive to the idea of mobile TV and video, but only if the right price plan and content can be delivered; users are very sensitive to the overall quality of experience and picture quality, which need to be managed carefully to avoid dissatisfaction. And after all, nobody wants to pay for poor quality video, and nobody wants to pay per MB to watch a 2-hour movie!
Content providers must also cater to local tastes. In the UK, this might be a service offering the latest Hollywood films as an all-you-can-eat subscription service on every device (TV, tablet and mobile), but in India for example, the latest Bollywood movies would be a more attractive service.
Technical Challenges For Mobile Video
Many of the challenges in delivering great quality mobile video in mature markets also applies to emerging markets. But the technical issues may be more severe due to various environmental, geographical and technological factors. Because network speeds can vary so dramatically, video optimisation techniques such as bit-rate adaptation and media transcoding can be used to adapt the content on the fly to match the network speed. This helps to minimise disconnections and pauses during playback, and can determine the correct video bit-rate (in other words, the quality) to stream based on the network conditions.
Video optimisation then is essential to limit the amount of data traffic whilst balancing the overall user experience.
More powerful smartphones
Mobile device capabilities play a huge role in the end user experience i.e. a combination of multimedia playback formats, streaming delivery protocols, screen resolution, and features such as automatic bookmarking, bit-rate adaptation, quality of experience monitoring, and the level of interactivity that can be offered.
Due to the low levels of smartphone adoption in Emerging Markets, the baseline mobile video experience is often quite poor. Most feature phones support only basic video streaming using the older MPEG-4 or H.263 formats. In contrast, many of today’s top-tier smartphones can play full HD resolution video in H.264 format, which provides superior picture quality, bandwidth efficiency and error resilience.
So, is Mobile Video still a Killer App?
There is no doubt that mobile TV is becoming increasingly popular, whether it’s for on-demand content (downloaded and viewed) or live TV. We have reached a point where smartphones can easily handle full HD video, and streaming over the Internet and 4G mobile networks can be achieved at an acceptably high quality.
In future, the most successful mobile video and TV services will be those that enable you to watch on every device, wherever you are and at a low fixed price that doesn’t increase with data usage. And it’s up to the mobile operators to provide high-speed and reliable networks that allow us to use our favourite video services unhindered by data plans and bandwidth throttling.
Mobile TV and video is finally coming of age, but there is still a long way to go…