The State of Streaming 2021
Streaming entertainment has been steadily rising in popularity for several years, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a significant jump. With movie theaters closed and in-person socializing unwise, and frequently impossible, home streaming became the media consumption of choice for millions of individuals worldwide.
With home streaming surging, the question of quality of experience (QoE) is receiving even more attention. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to watch content in HD (defined as 1080p and up) whenever they wished. But we’re not living in an ideal world, and QoE for streaming media content is still highly variable, to say the least.
It’s well known that you can’t begin to improve anything till you know what exactly you’re dealing with, so we decided to take a closer look at the state of streaming in North America, based on data collected throughout 2020. We’ve made some interesting discoveries.
Big screens win over mobile viewing
Over the last few years, we’ve been hearing a lot about the shift to mobile, but it turns out that the mobile experience isn’t ideal for every type of content. Less than 10% of all video consumption takes place on mobile devices.
Note that when we refer to mobile devices, we include mobile phones and tablets, and when we say TV, we mean both SmartTVs and streaming devices/boxes.
Further validating this observation, we see that streaming sessions that are played on big screens are on average 4x longer than sessions on mobile devices, with sessions lasting approximately, 90 minutes for TV vs. 25 min on mobile devices.
It’s worth pointing out that this balance could still change. The mobile revolution isn’t yet complete, for example, 5G is just around the corner. We could eventually see mobile viewing increase.
Mobile cellular networks are being put to surprising uses
The most unexpected finding that arose from our analysis is the amount of time that people spend streaming content through their mobile network onto their big screen TV. When consumers stream content through their mobile network, they aren’t always consuming it on their mobile device. On the contrary; more than 50% of the time, content streamed through mobile data is consumed on the big screen.
It’s a surprising discovery because mobile networks still provide a far poorer experience than fixed networks (e.g. using a home gateway with xDSL or fiber network connection). Compared with fixed networks, mobile network users put up with double the startup time and more than double the number of rebuffering incidents.
If you’re switching channels when streaming through a fixed network connection, it takes a few seconds for the new channel to appear, but if you’re streaming through a mobile network, it takes twice the time.
It’s not clear why consumers are making this choice. People who use a mobile network to watch content on their big screen receive much lower QoE than if they’d watch the same content on the same screen using a fixed network. It’s possible that some people may have poor internet bandwidth at home, or chose never to pay for home internet and simply use a large mobile data package.
HD consumers are still being short-changed
Close to a year and a half ago, the Wall Street Journal, together with researchers from Princeton University and the University of Chicago, ran a study which disproved the mistaken belief that a bigger bandwidth provides better HD content consumption. Among other findings, the study noted that premium internet subscribers who have bandwidth of 250 Mbps and up still only received Netflix or Amazon in HD less than 40% of the time.
Unfortunately, Compira’s new study shows that nothing much has changed. Almost all the consumers included in the study are paying for high-resolution TV through fixed streaming networks, and some for 4K. However, when they stream through those networks they actually receive HD only around 35% of the time. Consumers using mobile networks never get HD at all, whether they stream to a big screen or to their mobile devices.
Streaming ecosystems affect QoE
Most streaming devices have reached a consensus and use MPEG DASH as their dominant streaming format. If you’re streaming through an Android device, you’ll almost certainly receive the media content in MPEG DASH, but Apple TVs use HLS format.
Compira found that HLS-based systems deliver a superior user experience, with lower start time, fewer rebuffering incidents, and higher video quality.
There’s more to do for streaming media providers
From the amount of time spent consuming content on mobile devices to the ongoing disappointment of HD TV and the wide differences between ecosystems, Compira’s Streaming Status Report reveals interesting ways that streaming media consumption has - and has not - changed since the pandemic began. It’s clear that there’s still a long way to go before QoE for streaming media fully meets consumer expectations.