Measuring the Network: Video is the Key

When cellular networks first emerged, the measuring stick was voice calls. The quality of the network was judged by the availability and quality of the voice calls that users were able to achieve, and a bad score in either of those areas quickly led to users looking to switch to a better-performing alternative.

As the capacity of cellular networks and the capabilities of mobile devices have both grown exponentially since their inception, so too has the proportion of cellular network traffic used to transmit voice calls dramatically reduced. This change began with SMS, or text messages, followed by picture messages, limited-capability web browsing via WAP and finally, fully-featured internet connectivity and access to the same services as available via a landline internet connection, from email and web browsing to HD streaming video.

Voice calls today, although still important for the cellular network and its users, are no longer the measuring stick used to determine network quality. In the majority of cases, their requirements on the network are no greater than they were 20 years ago, and it is now a rare case in most coverage areas when a voice call can’t be completed at an acceptable level of quality.

Instead, today’s best indication of network quality is video.

Although 3G networks early in their deployment cycle promised the widespread use of video calls, these have only truly come into their own for the cellular network with the advent of 4G networks, primarily LTE, coupled with intuitive and well-supported software for mobile devices such as Apple FaceTime and Skype. These services, as well as their streaming video service cousins such as YouTube and Netflix have led to an explosion in cellular network usage for video applications.

Just take a look around in any area bustling with people during their commute, eating lunch at the local café or spending time at the mall – you’ll see plenty of people enjoying various forms of video content, and seemingly fewer than ever actually having voice conversations. Text-based communication has gone a long way to replacing the need for many voice calls, but its lightweight nature with little required bandwidth and a lack of strict latency requirements rules it out for use as a network quality measuring stick.

Video, however, especially real-time video such as FaceTime, is just the opposite; it requires comparatively high bandwidth, as well as a minimum of packet loss and jitter. Its use of the visual medium also makes it very sensitive to these issues, even more so than an audio voice call; people are used to missing the occasional word on the phone, but notice immediately when the video picture hangs or skips even for a fraction of a second as it is jarring compared to the real world.

User expectations for their user experience with video services, even on mobile devices connected to cellular networks, have also been growing. No longer are people content to treat their mobile device as a second-class citizen; they expect the same experience whether viewing content on their TV at home, or on their smartphone during their train commute in the morning.

These factors combine to make video the ideal way to measure network quality today – for cellular networks, but also for others as well, fixed or mobile. But what does this mean for network operators?

The change to video being the measuring stick for network quality means more attention needs to be paid to it as a primary use case today, which means increased scrutiny in many areas:

1. Testing

During network acceptance testing, the use of video is no longer optional to confirm the quality of the infrastructure that is being deployed. Although traditional Bit Error Rate (BER) testing is still very relevant and provides a quantifiable set of figures that represent network performance, it is equally as important today to consider the subjective testing of video quality. BER testing may reveal a number of lost packets per million, for example, but is often difficult without subjective data to understand how that may impact video performance, and therefore user perception of the network.

2. Localised capacity

Certain areas within a network coverage area are likely to be hotspots for video usage, such as a train station or an area containing many popular local cafes and coffee shops. By targeting these areas for localised increases in capacity, it is possible for the network operator to greatly improve the video experience for many users without the level of investment required to do so over the entire network coverage area.

3. Video-specific optimisation

From new data transmission protocols to caching and intelligent handling of video content during transmission, many possibilities lie in the near future for improving the performance of video applications with some investment from the network operator. These approaches vary in value and effectiveness, but many look promising to improve the user’s perception of the network even further than is possible today.

Those who choose not to invest in any of these areas will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with their rivals who are prepared to identify true, relevant user needs and find increasingly innovative ways to satisfy them. Whether the problem is financial, technical or a matter of process, those who ceaselessly aim to improve the user experience with video applications will reap the rewards as users become ever more focused on it – and, looking to the future, any work done in these areas will continue to pay off as 4K and other video technologies see widespread adoption as well.

For the network operator, one thing is clear: video is no longer optional, or an added luxury for those with the best connections. It is now the lifeblood of the internet, even by many measures the most popular application whether users are fixed or mobile, and it is only going to continue to grow in importance. Investment in improving the user experience with video will pay off handsomely in the years to come as competition hots up and user expectations continue to grow.