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August 26, 2021by helo-10

Game day is being radically transformed, but not everyone stands to benefit, writes Derek Rast, Area Vice President – Australia and New Zealand, Fastly

There isn’t much that beats live sport.

But where game day at the ground used to be about getting a ‘front row’ seat and being as close to the action as physically possible, the experience is now being reimagined digitally, screen in hand courtesy of new speeds and applications afforded by 5G and in-stadium Wi-Fi which open new opportunities to provide richer participants for fans.

At Optus Stadium in Perth, for example, “low latency, high bandwidth connectivity can give spectators access to different camera angles in real-time, ultra high definition video from their smartphones, as well as information overlays to enhance the performance.”

At Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, a future is envisioned where spectators can replay action or watch it unfold from body-worn cameras on officials, or overlay the on-field action with player names and stats.

These are some incredible experiences – but there will always be people that can’t get to the ground, perhaps due to geography, prior commitments, budget, or other considerations.

That is already true today, and so sporting codes cater for these people by broadcasting the action to other channels, such as via an app or browser, or more traditional avenues like TV and radio.

As stadium experiences are digitally enhanced, it’s important to also ‘level up’ these other channels to ensure they keep pace with what is being offered at the ground.

Spoiler alert

Those following the action at home or elsewhere are often disadvantaged by the time it takes to deliver live pictures or audio to their devices.

Internet protocol-based delivery still has a long way to go in terms of latency. Traditional broadcasting typically carries a four-to-five-second delay. Many online services are outside that by a significant factor, taking up to a minute to get video from the point of capture to consumption. Nowhere is this as evident as it is with live sports, where neighbourhood cheers from viewers getting entertainment via cable or satellites can arrive well ahead of streamed content.

Then there’s the pressure of live streaming apps and social media; fans often take to social channels to celebrate a score. A tweet conservatively takes 10 seconds to craft and another five seconds to publish. As it currently stands, a tweet can reach a live streamer well before they’ve seen the action.

Online broadcasters can’t afford to deliver events with delays that significantly exceed the time it takes for a tweet to be written and delivered. Ideally, streams should reach viewers ahead of, or at simultaneous with, social media. This prevents social network ‘spoilers’ and allows participation from anywhere, as if you were right there at the ground.

This participation from anywhere may also allow for different kinds of engagement and participation. Quizzes and real-time voting can be built around the content. In addition, sports betting can also be improved by delivering the action to everyone more quickly.

Backing low-latency HLS

Newer codecs and protocols offer ways to compress video and get it to screens faster. Streaming providers choose the best bitrate for their customers, which can be selected by bandwidth available or even by device used.

We saw this in Australia during Covid; NBN Co reported that members of the Streaming Providers Forum took actions consisting of defaulting videos to SD, removing UHD bitrates or offering lower bitrates for some titles, using less bandwidth at a time when all networks were under strain. This allowed streams to be delivered more or less as normal, at a time when bandwidth was at a premium.

Similar technical tweaks are afoot in the live streaming space. With the introduction of the iPhone 12, Apple officially released its low-latency HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) format.

While the HLS protocol was originally built for scale and stability, this latest iteration is built for speed and seeks to push the boundaries of even live linear broadcasting.

Compatible with one of the biggest operating systems and platforms right out of the box, HLS was already destined to do well. But against a backdrop of digitally-enhanced stadiums, HLS is now a crucial element to replicating high-quality immersive digital experiences away from the stadiums.

Advanced content delivery networks (CDNs) – the crucial piece of infrastructure that brings streamed content to homes and devices as quickly as possible – such as Fastly were quick to support HLS and therefore help content and entertainment providers get live action to people as fast as possible.

With the help of digital, the live sports experience is changing forever. With a HLS-enabled CDN, the streaming experience can catch up and keep up.

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