How the world's most popular sporting event demonstrated the future of broadband services.

Canadian Service Provider RankingsEvery four years, soccer takes center stage as the premier global sporting event. For many, time stands still as countries and continents battle to determine who is the best in the world. All aspects of daily life, including work, social and family, turn to accommodate the schedules of various matches. Unlike North America, where people are traditionally more familiar with football, baseball and hockey as pastimes, soccer – or, to an international audience, football – brings about quasi-religious zeal. Top players are worshiped, winning coaches are placed on pedestals, and countries set aside deep-seeded differences to unify and celebrate the sport.

 This year’s 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa, was no different in terms of global popularity. Hundreds of broadcasters, representing more than 70 countries, transmitted the games to a television audience size of about 400 million per match and a total cumulative audience of more than 26 billion. New forms of digital media also allowed viewers to follow coverage through alternative means such as smartphones, tablets and traditional computers.

The 2010 World Cup, however, marked a significant turning point for North America. Because the U.S. had a much stronger team than in years past, several U.S.-based companies and broadcasters took a gamble by investing millions in content distribution. For example, AT&T, which offers Flo TV services on certain handsets under its own brand (AT&T Mobile TV), offered coverage of all 64 World Cup matches. Mobile users also had the option to watch games on Flo TV Personal Television and Auto Entertainment devices or via Verizon V Cast mobile TV phones.

In addition, ESPN bought the rights for both this year’s World Cup and the upcoming 2014 event in Brazil, at a staggering price tag of $100 million. In Canada, the games were broadcast live on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s network and were simultaneously available for streaming from CBC’s website. Rogers also made the games available with their Rogers On Demand TV and Online services, which also provided live streaming to mobile devices.

The 2010 World Cup possessed a combination of factors that contributed to its significant Internet presence:

  • It was the ultimate competition in the world’s most popular sport, and sporting events must be seen live by diehard fans.
  • It had global popularity, even in countries that didn’t send a team to South Africa.
  • Games took place over a period of many hours, spanning many time zones, so a large number of workers engaged in streaming activities at the office (where TV viewing is typically not available).

Other events, both anticipated and unanticipated, in the recent past have possessed one or two similar characteristics (for instance, President Obama’s inauguration and Michael Jackson’s death), resulting in heavy traffic spikes, but none have possessed all three to the extent of the World Cup.

We now know news and general consumer sites covering the World Cup have seen record-setting numbers in terms of hits. We have seen Internet polls on who the “hottest” players are, and both Twitter and Facebook helped transform David Villa into a household name. This information, although interesting, is not so helpful to network engineers tasked with allocating resources to maintain a high-level subscriber quality of experience. Engineers need a much deeper view into information surrounding an event’s impact on the networks.

Figure 1 depicts a snapshot of a large Canadian service provider’s rankings of the top 25 websites from June 14. Traffic tagged had surged onto the list since the start of the World Cup on June 11. Traffic tagged in this manner derives from Akamai Technologies, a company that provides a distributed computing platform for Internet content and application delivery. Akamai is extremely popular for distributing streaming video because it transparently mirrors multimedia content (video, images, audio) from content providers’ servers, then redistributes it to subscribers based on their proximity to Akamai’s servers and the quality of available connections. The report shows was the 12th-largest website on this network by total bytes. We can also see that dayover-day, traffic had increased by more than 80 percent, which coincides with popular matches of both Italy and Germany that took place within that timeframe. Clearly, Akamai emerged from the crowd to become a significant generator of traffic on this provider’s network.

Indeed, by June 18, had risen to second place, behind only YouTube in popularity, and was still increasing its byte usage at an astonishing rate of more than 80 percent day-over-day through the course of the tournament.

Content delivery networks and innovative distribution methods such as Akamai’s certainly help to maintain high levels of QoE by optimizing delivery; however, the network is still a limited and shared resource, so network providers are paying attention to applications (such as streaming video) that suddenly explode in popularity. In particular, service providers are engineering networks to intelligently anticipate traffic bursts for both the short term (unplanned events) and long term (anticipated events), factoring in buffers to accommodate abnormal surges, especially when these events overlap with peak usage periods. at work...Click to View Larger Image

Most network engineers already employ a plethora of tools that can track and measure an event’s impact on bandwidth based on hard quantitative data. But more service providers are deploying advanced network policy control techniques, not only to manage resources, but also to offer subscriber services in a new way – using consistent network-wide business logic rules. Integrated policy decision and enforcement points can be distributed effectively throughout the network for effective real-time evaluation of these business rules and enforcement of the necessary actions. As network demands for media-rich applications, like streaming video, continue to dominate subscriber usage growth, it is increasingly necessary to keep networks consistent and maintain subscriber QoE.

Using advanced techniques like network policy control, network engineers are teaming up with marketing departments to deliver consistent QoE for service promotion, like World Cup streaming options.

For example, using a combination of network policy control techniques, fixed and mobile service providers can:

  • Manage traffic by anticipating and allocating scarce resources during peak usage periods and offer protected streaming video for an extra $X/game.
  • Gather business intelligence statistics by reviewing daily changes in actual subscriber traffic data to project traffic patterns and high-demand usage periods.
  • Build short-term marketing campaigns to increase revenue during high-demand events – i.e., upgrade service tiers or switch to consumption-based billing during mass events to stream live content or develop loyalty programs.

As the Internet continues to evolve into a dynamic entity with almost a life of its own, complete with predictable and unpredictable behaviors, real-time data analytics and network policy control techniques must cross all departments and key stakeholders, from engineering and marketing up to the CEO, in order for service providers to optimize their network resources. The trend of business executives playing a more active role in resource management (or planning) is certain to continue in the future.

While some service providers have reaped the rewards of the World Cup’s popularity, thanks to usage-based billing and high subscriber satisfaction, others have struggled with overwhelming data levels and problems with filtering technologies. Those service providers that have invested in traffic measurement and network policy control tools are in a perfect position to smoothly manage and benefit from this type of network usage scenario. For others, the 2010 World Cup might have been the tipping point for considering the value of such tools.