Video Streaming Pre-3G
By Steve Wallage, Tue May 13 10:30:00 GMT 2003

Video streaming can work without 3G, but will the operators let it?

Video streaming has always been thought of as a 3G application. In fact, to some, it has been the 'raison d'etre' of 3G. Yet, do we really need to wait for 3G to get video streaming to mobile devices.

A number of startups have been arguing that GPRS can adequately do the job. 3G will still face the same problems of form factors, low bandwidth (particularly initially) and device memory limitations. And there are signs that a number of mobile operators, previously reluctant to pre-empt the attractions of video streaming as the 3G 'killer application', are beginning to agree.

What Can GPRS Do?

Can GPRS really sustain video streaming given the low bandwidth and variable network performance. Two startups giving a resounding 'Yes' are Oplayo and PacketVideo.

The Oplayo video streaming codec is designed for speeds from only 9.6 kbit/s. They use progressive download video which ensures that the first frame of video arrives almost immediately (before other frames are buffered), and the effects of bandwidth variation are minimized. The impact of this progressive download is significant for clips of below 60 seconds.

PacketVideo use a version of progressive download which they brand as 'fast tracking'. This enables them to encode at 64 kbit/s for transmission at down to 9.6 kbit/s. They offer a Symbian media player which can be delivered OTA and re-branded by the operator or content provider.

Patrick Parodi at PacketVideo claims that they cam provide 5-6 frames per second at 30 kbit/s falling to 2-3 frames per second at 9.6 kbit/s. However, he believes that their technology can dynamically adapt to such bandwidth fluctuations.

It is not just the network but the mobile device capabilities which are needed to offer video streaming. The new wave of devices such as the Nokia 7650 and SonyEricsson P800 will drive this market. Philip O'Ferrall at Oplayo believes that 3G is still far from interesting to content providers given the delays, unproven nature and tiny current subscriber base. By contrast, he sees Java as increasingly the, "mass market" and therefore highly interesting.

The Early Adopters

Users in the UK, Czech Republic and Germany have downloaded 52,000 'Oplayer' media players. O'Ferrall expects this number to quickly rise, having just announced a deal with TIM. Oplayo also have two UK operators at 'consumer test' status, having successfully passed technical trials.

PacketVideo recently announced an agreement with Westel in Hungary, working with Siemens Mobile. This allows customers with the appropriate device to download MPEG-4 clips.

Australian operator, SingTel Optus, started a video streaming service in March, working with RealNetworks. The video clips will be delivered via MMS technology, and will offer up to 30 seconds of video including news and movie previews. Also in that part of the world, Vodafone New Zealand are working with local company, Private Broadcast Systems.

The Operator View

O'Ferrall believes the mobile operators are coming round to the Oplayo viewpoint. From thinking that video streaming is the, "unique selling point" of 3G, they now see it as a potential GPRS (or even GSM) service. Offering video streaming now, also provides the opportunity to migrate early adopters to a 3G service when it is offered.

O'Ferrall has an interesting viewpoint on the role of mobile operators in video streaming. On the surface, Oplayo would appear to be a thorn in the side of operators. They started a movie service to attract users directly. They have also sold their technology to a number of content providers who want to offer services directly to mobile subscribers. This includes music publisher, BMG, who used Oplayo to offer a 150 second music video, with a second to follow soon. O'Ferrall believes that there will be, "hundreds" of companies who set up to offer mobile video streaming content directly to consumers. However, he believes that the operators have the much stronger position. The reason; the operators charge just one fee, while the consumer would have to pay both the content provider and the operator if they went directly to the content provider.

Parodi also sees the operators as coming round slowly to the idea of video streaming pre-3G, but is more pessimistic on their opportunity. Parodi says he sometimes believes that. "there are only two groups who want video streaming; 3G operators and streaming vendors. Everybody else wants to slow it down. "

He believes that the evolution of devices such as the 7650 is ahead of what the operators are offering. He also sees, in part through his role as vice-chair of the Mobile Entertainment Forum, a lot of new players entering this market.

The Winning Content

O'Ferrall believes that it is still unclear which content will sell, but he suspects key drivers will be news clips (Oplayo offered a news service for updates on the Iraqi conflict), cartoons and the ubiquitous adult content. Interestingly, he does not see that sports clips will be as attractive as hoped by the likes of Hutchison.

Parodi has a somewhat different view. He believes that much of the video streaming for mobiles will be customized for this medium. As he puts it, "80% of mobile video streaming content does not yet exist." He is also very bullish on the opportunity for user-generated content and video messaging, partly because users would then be prepared to accept lower quality. Parodi sees timeliness as key, pointing out that a video clip of a goal being scored quickly loses its value over time.

In terms of length, Parodi sees 30-60 seconds as the maximum, while O'Ferrall believes some applications could offer a longer length.

Still a Lot of Barriers

It’s impressive to look at the trials of GPRS video streaming - it can work well. Barriers do abound - such as device cost, memory limitations, network performance, operator conservatism, DRM issues and operator tariffing. The most important issue is user demand. Operators need to beware that user demand is not met by other parties.

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Steve Wallage works and writes for the451. Steve has more than 13 years of experience as a technology analyst specializing in telecommunications.