5G streaming: expectation vs reality

Lars Larsson, CEO at Varnish Software.
(Image credit: Varnish Software.)

The 5G hype train has finally pulled into Cupertino California, as Apple launched its first 5G iPhone. And although 2019 was a pivotal year for 5G, with operators around the world launching commercial services, it's this latest move from Apple that has refuelled industry excitement once again. 

As the hype around 5G resurfaces and networks continue to be rolled out, consumers’ expectations of 5G networks rise. Promises of faster, higher quality content accessible in an instant are widely spoken about by operators and device manufacturers, as are a host of new use cases like rich AR and VR experiences. Consequently, a study from Ericsson found that 65% of early 5G adopters expect ground-breaking new applications. 

"What should we realistically expect from 5G content delivery in the short-term and the longer-term?"

Lars Larsson, Varnish Software.

However, many who order a new smartphone like the iPhone 12 won’t have a true 5G experience for a while, as networks aren’t sufficiently developed. Almost all the 5G commercial networks are ‘non-stand-alone’ (NSA), reliant on the operator’s existing 4G core, and don’t yet support the full span of 5G performance capabilities. Therefore, in reality, the biggest benefit to those that have got on-board early with 5G, is its speed.

So, what should we realistically expect from 5G content delivery in the short-term and the longer-term? Is it full steam ahead on the 5G train, or does too much hype too soon risk derailing consumer uptake by overpromising on what 5G can deliver?

Increased speed opens up increased quality

The biggest impact 5G will have in its first couple of years in the market will simply be on the mobile broadband experience and the role of EMBB in video/game streaming.

Video streaming proved to be the ‘killer app’ for 4G, making it possible to stream or broadcast live events over cellular networks in a way 3G simply could not. As a result, we now see a plethora of OTT platforms vying for consumer attention with fantastic original content, delivered immediately to hungry recipients across the globe regardless of their device or location. 

In turn, 5G networks can support more devices simultaneously than 4G, and offer even greater bandwidth and reduced latency. This improvement will be even more profound once full stand-alone (SA) 5G networks are rolled out over the next couple of years. This means, in theory, more people will be able to simultaneously stream video content at a higher quality, like 4K and 8K. 

The issue here is that consumers – fed a diet of 5G marketing material for a few years now – expect next-generation networks to work seamlessly and offer a better experience than the 4GLTE one they currently pay for. They don’t know the difference between 5G NSA and SA. And So, as 4K and 8K content becomes more commonplace, network operators will be under pressure to deliver (and exceed) the quality of experience we’ve come to expect today. 

Taking 4K as an example, a single 4K video is between 3-5 times larger than a current HD video. 8K videos are a further 3-5 times larger than 4K video. This means a greater data volume and a quicker rate of consumption, which will put pressure on the viewing experience, particularly during peak times, as each server needs to process at even greater speeds.

If we all want to watch the latest binge-worthy series in glorious 8K on our mobile devices, then 5G alone won’t be our saviour. For the technology’s promises to be truly realized, 5G networks need to be built out with caching at the edge of the network.

Caching at the edge

The general rule of thumb when delivering content to users is the closer you are to those users, the quicker you can deliver the content. And the quicker you can deliver the content, the happier your customers will be. CDNs have played a crucial role in distributing data over the traditional Internet. It’s these same CDNs that will face significant pressure to keep up with 5G, as true real-time content distribution requires storage of content at the edge of the network itself.

However, a new breed of virtual content delivery networks (vCDNs), powered by caching technology, are enabling network operators and streaming platforms to speed up the delivery of your favorite shows, movies and games. They do this while protecting the core network from excessive demand – demand that ultimately sees you frantically clicking refresh on your browser when faced with the spinning wheel of dread. 

"These new breed of vCDNs can be integrated tightly with the network and placed at the edge in 5G edge cloud data centres."

Lars Larsson, Varnish Software.

These new breed of vCDNs can be integrated tightly with the network and placed at the edge in 5G edge cloud data centres, which are considerably smaller than traditional data centre sites. This means they can often be built in urban areas much closer to where peak traffic volumes are likely to appear. These localised points of presence are still connected to the core network but allow content to be distributed closer to users to improve performance, while reducing backhaul load. 

The video content industry sees huge fluctuations in traffic, with occasional peaks that put a strain to the system. Equally, delivering video to thousands of spectators gathered in a single space has proven to be challenging until now. However, this highly elastic, cloud-native vCDN technology can handle high density situations, such as those needed in stadiums and city centers, as well as demand spikes from live sports events, season finales and viral content. The result is minimized latency, offering sub-millisecond cache response times. This means that any lag or buffering on video content is eradicated. 

Where you choose to get your video streaming content comes down to personal preference, with a smorgasbord of platforms to choose from, but the popularity of these platforms will only grow in the years to come. Their success will be dictated by operators’ ability to build out a robust underlying network edge, and using the technology to host their video content within this infrastructure.

Build the edge now, realise the potential later

What does this mean for those looking at upgrading to 5G phone now? 

5G will be a transformative technology, fuelling the industrial IoT, revolutionising telehealth and enriching entertainment. Greater bandwidth, connection density and lower last-mile latency connectivity will lead to new user experiences, like in-event AR, greater reliability and higher bitrates for improved streaming quality. But, we’re not quite there yet.

"Consumer expectations of 5G have been set high, but to make these a reality, operators are going to have to rethink."

Lars Larsson, Varnish Software.

With 5G rollout accelerating across the globe, and operators faced with growing consumer appetites for high-fidelity video and new experiences like virtual reality, traditional content delivery networks will struggle to match 5G for speed and capacity. As mobile devices come to dominate how content is accessed, and increasing levels of data processing occur at the network edge, the speed and latency of content delivery is more important than ever. 

The 5G hype train is in full gear once more and consumer expectations of 5G have been set high, but to make these a reality, operators are going to have to rethink how they architect their systems, and move storage and caching needs to take place at the outermost edge of the network. The priority for service providers has to be on building out reliable edge content delivery networks, laying the foundation for faster, more immersive experiences to be a success.

Lars Larsson

Lars Larsson, CEO, Varnish Software. Varnish Software is a pioneer in high-performance content delivery. Powered by a uniquely flexible caching technology, its solutions are the common denominator among the world’s most popular brands, such as Nikon, Sky, Emirates and Tesla. And Varnish Software is the company behind Varnish Cache, a caching technology trusted by more than 10 million websites worldwide.