The video online crap shoot

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

The premise sounds good: rather than subscribe to a cable or other video service, access movies and television shows via the internet using either our computers, or specialized set top boxes.

I bought into the concept when early last year I purchased an AppleTV, followed up by purchases of not one but two Roku boxes: one for me, one for my roommate. After all, the cost of the equipment was more than compensated for by the savings I achieved by not subscribing to either the local cable service (Charter), or the newly available AT&T U-Verse.

We already had a subscription to Netflix, and the Watch Now capability delivered through the Roku boxes was, for a time, very satisfying. The service supplemented our access to local programming through indoor antenna and digital conversion boxes, and at a fraction of the cost of cable.

Then came the big change at Netflix: support for streaming HD movies and TV shows. Of course, some would say the HD quality isn’t true HD, and the streams left something to be desired, but I found them to be excellent on my 720p television, as did my roommate on his older CRT-based TV.

However, when Roku started rolling out HD support to all Roku users, something started to go wrong. The first public releases of the beta software would cause the Roku boxes to spontaneously reboot. Later releases coincided with several people, who previously had reliable service, suffering stream and buffering issues, especially during peak media times, such as weekends and evenings. By the time that build 1.5 909 was released, both my roommate’s and my boxes became unusable, with the constant, and extremely slow, rebuffering.

Though the Roku people have since released another build to try and address the issue of re-buffering, the problems associated with the service have not improved, leaving me to wonder whether I am now the proud possessor of two black bricks.

The issue is further compounded by the support forum where every time I, or others, would report problems, some Roku user would come along and say something to the effect that “My service is great. I have no problems. The problem must be happening at your end.” And therein lies the real difficulty with streaming Internet video: there are so many places where the stream can fail, and so few tools available to help us really spot where the problems are happening.

For instance, Netflix uses the Limelight content delivery network to stream its video, and problems could be happening within the CDN. The load balancing mechanism could fail, as well as the file caching, and any of the bits inbetween.

The DNS server that routes requests could be failing. Most of the larger CDNs try to embed their own specialized DNS servers within local ISPs, in order to handle routing to the appropriate server. However, if this isn’t happening, or if the DNS requesting service is not optimized, a request for a video could be routed to a server many hops away, slowing down access of a video.

During transmission, access could be lost, or degrade, causing the clients to either have to shift down to lower quality streams, or struggle to re-establish access to the video stream. It’s frustrating when this happens at the start of a video, more so when it happens midstream.

The ISPs themselves could be at fault. For instance, we know that Comcast will throttle heavy users during peak times, but we suspect other ISPs may do the same. However, despite Google’s efforts to discover such hanky panky, it’s difficult to tell when deliberate throttling is happening.

Then there are those times when the ISP just plain fails: too overloaded, infrastructure too old, too many people using the service, etc.

In addition, even if we’re subscribed to Charter’s new big mouth plan, with 60mbps capability, the good service is for naught if we run into bandwidth caps five days after the beginning of the month.

Our own setups could be the problem, or at least part of it. For instance, a wireless router that fails, or not subscribing to a broadband plan that provides enough bandwidth. Perhaps a firewall is running amuck, or junior is playing World of Warcraft on one computer, while you’re trying to watch Terms of Endearment via your Roku.

Even world events can conspired against us: extraordinary events may send so many people to their weblogs, Twitter, newsreaders, et al, that the entire Internet groans under the burden of a billion tweets.

To recap then, from micro to macro the following are possible points of failure in video streaming:

  • Your system may have configuration problems, or you may not have the proper internet connection, or equipment, for streaming video
  • The equipment you use, such as a Roku box, or XBox, or the like, may have software glitches that don’t ensure smooth delivery of the content. For example, video is compressed, and software that doesn’t decompress the video efficiently could cause the overall stream to slow, or even begin to fail. If the box doesn’t have adequate buffering space, it could also add to you having intermittent problems with the service.
  • Your ISP may have oversold its services, be having temporary or infrastructure problems, or be especially busy. Even if all the technical pieces succeed, your ISP could be throttling you or applying a bandwidth cap.
  • The DNS server you use may not be optimized to ensure your video request goes to the closest or fastest server in a Content Delivery Network.
  • The network at any spot between you and the server could be suffering problems, including any of the previously referenced issues specific to your ISP.
  • The Content Delivery Network could be failing by not ensuring your request is going to the proper server, not providing enough servers or the proper caching to ensure that there are no hiccups in the service. The failure could be one based on too much of a burden for the server, or software that doesn’t do a good load balancing job.
  • Obama is inaugurated, and half the world is watching it via a live feed.

Many possible points of failure, and aside from some trivial changes we can control—such as subscribing to a broadband service that gives us enough bandwidth, or ensuring that our setup is correct, and junior is doing his homework— what happens to the video as it travels to our homes is mostly out of our control. Worse, we have very few tools that we can use to exactly pinpoint where the problem is happening.

So we have thread after thread in forums such as those for the Roku box where someone comes in and tells all of the people to run trace routes between the CDN server and yourself, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything useful. Nor does the individual who always shows up and tells you how they’re not having problems. In a way, this person is like the friend who responds to your news that you just lost your job, your boyfriend, and your cat with the information that they’ve been promoted, are getting married, and their cat had kittens. All cute.

I digress, though. If you have good access to Hulu but not Netflix Watch Now, you might think the problem is happening with Netflix, but the problem could be your ISP is throttling Netflix, and not Hulu. The Roku’s software may not be handling minor interrupts in the stream well, but how can you tell? You can monitor input and output on your modem, but that just tells you what’s happening, not what’s capable of happening.

You could switch DNS servers, but chances are, you’re going to have the same problems with OpenDNS that you have with the DNS server automatically assigned you by your ISP—and you have to deal with OpenDNS’s annoying habit of overriding your internet surfing experiences.

Then there’s the largest block of all: hard geographical borders built into what was once a borderless medium. You can’t watch Hulu? Well, you must live in Australia. You can’t watch Doctor Who at the BBC? You must live outside of the UK.

Streaming video troubleshooting is not for the faint of heart. Not when we have to become pseudo telecommunication engineers, just to try to troubleshoot our systems. Frustrated that your online video access isn’t working? Sometimes I think its a miracle when online video does work.

Though I look at my Roku brick in sadness—bereaved at what I once had, and wondering if I’ll ever have it again— I still believe in video over the Internet. I still believe that it provides options stripped by the government given monopolies to telephone and cable companies. I still believe online video opens doors and minds, and brings the world just a little closer together. But we need better tools̬not only to support online video, generally, but also to pinpoint where failure is occurring, and why.

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