Video conferencing quality of experience in the age of Corona
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
With COVID-19 and the virus which causes it, the novel coronavirus, affecting the entire world, our lives have shifted online to an unprecedented extent. Millions of people in dozens of countries are in quarantine, self-isolation, or under shelter-in-place orders, and the only way that we can communicate with others, entertain ourselves, study, or work is through the internet.
The boom in video conferencing
Millions of people who had never heard of Zoom, Webex, or Google Hangouts Meet are now starting to use these and other video conferencing tools daily. With school canceled, school children and university students are receiving online lessons through video conferencing; employees at hundreds of thousands of companies are holding daily work meetings through video conferencing; friends are keeping in touch and celebrating birthdays through video conferencing; grandparents are chatting with their grandchildren; exercise classes that were formerly held in sports clubs, and even religious services are being held remotely. Web-based video conferencing is the enabler of all this digital connectivity.
In the early days of video conferencing, it required dedicated devices and sometimes specially-furnished video conferencing rooms, but today, web-based video conferencing can be enjoyed over any web-enabled device and in any location. Your laptop, TV, smartphone, and tablet can all support video conferencing.
Quality of experience is suffering
All of this is the good news. The downside is that massive demand for video conferencing, taken together with video stream binges by people stuck at home, is placing unprecedented pressure on the infrastructure and affecting quality of experience (QoE).
QoE is vital for video conferencing users, who rely on real-time, live, video and audio without any delays, jitters or freezes, similar to the expectation c
onsumers have about the streaming videos that they view online. Consumers are already complaining about long pauses for buffering and time lags in their video conferencing experiences. In one particularly extreme case, a choir practice held by Zoom had to be reduced to just solos because of difficulty synchronizing
There are many video conferencing providers operating at low price points or even free due to the current pandemic, so consumers won’t hesitate to switch if they aren’t receiving high quality video and audio. Note that Google Hangouts Meet, the premium Google video conferencing product, is free until July 1st; Microsoft’s premium collaboration tool MS Teams is free for six months; and other video conferencing and collaboration platforms are expanding free access.
This raises the stakes for providers to deliver consistently high QoE. Many of them build their business model on the hope that free users will convert to paid premium versions, either now or when the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us, which makes it even more important that they support high quality, lag-free, uninterrupted video and audio during this high-use period.
The challenges that stand in the way of great QoE
Networks are inherently chaotic, making the audio and video content journey to the end user problematic. High quality video conferencing experience requires low delivery latency and jitter for audio, and stable, medium-to-high bandwidth for video.
A video conference is frequently implemented using a media-gateway/mixer entity running on a cloud server. A single server of this type connects a large number of participants with audio and video over the internet. The audio and video datagrams sent by the server to the participants traverse the internet just like any other traffic (browsing, video streaming, gaming, etc.). This implies significant challenges for attaining high quality.
Video conference participants connect over various networks, ranging from corporate networks to ad-hoc connectivity in hotels, home WiFi networks, and cellular networks, each with its own congestion level, bandwidth, and stability. Conditions on each network are in constant flux, with usage shifting from one instant to the next.
These days, with almost everyone at home, video-conferencing, gaming, and video-streaming are all competing for the same bandwidth, dragging video conferencing quality down.
While enterprise networks are designed to handle more traffic (and more types of traffic) than home networks, corporate networks frequently block UDP out of cybersecurity concerns, forcing video conferencing providers to use the often-problematic TCP protocol (we’ve talked about the limitations of TCP in earlier posts).
Mobile phone networks are a particular challenge for video conferencing due to the frequent changes in network bandwidth and latency in cellular networks. Participants who are moving around during the session (and connecting and disconnecting from various cellular base stations along the way), can further aggravate the QoE issue.
The Compira Labs solution
Fortunately, Compira Labs has a solution. Our next-generation congestion control technology upgrades the network stack at media-gateway nodes to optimize delivery rates and reduce latency. The consumer doesn’t have to download, install, or configure anything, because all the changes occur on the provider side. We use data collection and analytics engines to gain visibility into network performance metrics, and feed that information into machine learning models that enable optimized performance. The diagram below shows how the three main components of the Compira solution -- Compira Stream (CS), Kernel Module (KM) and Thin Agent (TA) connect within the video conferencing provider’s cloud network.
With Compira Labs, video conferencing providers can ensure better Quality of Experience for their subscribers, without any need to change or upgrade the video conferencing delivery architecture, clients, and apps. Users will see more stable throughput, and an overall higher quality audio and video experience.
Compira Labs improves QoE for video conferencing during and after Corona
The surge in video conferencing usage is likely to continue for a long time, even beyond the end of Corona quarantine and self-isolation rules, especially now that so many people have become accustomed to it. Compira Labs helps video conferencing providers keep their promises and deliver the QoE that consumers demand.