This is a quick guide on how to broadcast on the Internet. Specifically, I’ll be dealing with video broadcasting, though there are many other forms of broadcasting as well.
In this part we’ll define what broadcasting on the Internet means and involves. Don’t sail blind into Internet streaming.
Defining the experience
You get back home after a busy and tiring day. You slump down into your cozy couch and pick up your television remote.
Press the first button, and the television is switched on. Don’t like the show? Press another button, and the channel changes to something you like. How much time does it take to change a channel? Almost instantaneous.
You scan through the options in your menu. Maybe you have favorites saved in your menu for quick reference. Maybe you are just in time to catch your favorite show. Maybe you’ve recorded something and want to watch it right now.
This is television. No waiting, cheap and with world-class content available 24/7.
Can you guarantee the same experience over the Internet? Short answer: No. Long answer: Sometimes, but rarely.
The key word is ‘guarantee’. There are certain conditions when a broadcast on the Internet works flawlessly – but it is only available to a very small percentage of the population. Some countries have it better than others, but it’s nowhere near the television experience.
Why is it popular, then? Let’s see what it can deliver that television can’t.
Kinds of Internet broadcasting
Here are the different types of Internet broadcasts possible:
- Live streaming – the broadcast of a live event as it happens.
- Recorded streaming – the ‘fixed-schedule’ broadcast of a recorded video (like television).
- Video On Demand (VOD) – the availability of video at watch at our leisure (Youtube, Vimeo, and some forms of recorded television, etc.).
- Webcasting – streaming of computer screen, graphics, presentations, video and audio.
- Podcasting – streaming of audio, usually voice only.
- Internet radio – streaming of music and voice, just like a normal radio station.
Similar experiences are available on television, DVD, Blu-ray and radio. Four unique features that make Internet broadcasts special are:
- You can deliver it worldwide without any licensing or government regulation issues.
- You can reach any size of display or internet bandwidth requirement.
- You can make it interactive!
- You can directly connect with your audience, without middlemen.
With so much opportunity, it’s no wonder that everyone is excited by Internet streaming. Yet, very few are actually entering this space. What’s stopping you or me from it?
What are the present day limitations to broadcasting on the Internet?
There are some inconveniences, some deal breakers, and then some deal shatterers. Let’s look at them head-on:
- Internet speeds are abysmal.
- Too many technologies and platforms like Flash vs DASH vs HLS, etc.
- It is as difficult to run an Internet Broadcast station as it is to run a television station.
- You still need to produce content that is equal in quality to or better than what is available via televsision, radio, DVD or Blu-ray.
- Too many data rate requirements, display and aspect ratio sizes.
What’s a good data rate for video on the Internet? Here are my recommendations (All are 8-bit 4:2:0 Rec. 709 in the H.264 codec):
- 1080p – 8 Mbps
- 720p – 5 Mbps
- SD – 1-2 Mbps
- 4K – Ideally should be 32 Mbps, but with H.265 it could be about 20 Mbps.
This is by far the biggest bottleneck for your audience. They simply don’t have the Internet speeds to watch your content even in its heavily compressed ‘okay-ish’ form. You, on the other hand, have an even bigger problem.
The speeds mentioned above are usually download speeds. A content producer and broadcaster must have an Internet upload connection that matches these speeds. Consumer-level Internet connections rarely are 8 Mbps or more, so you’re most likely looking at a business Internet line if you want to stream HD content. You’ll need one just for reliability.
As I’ve written here, there are conflicting and non-compatible technologies like MPEG-DASH, HLS, Flash, etc., that make it hard for an individual broadcaster. You have to reach all of these platforms, or miss out on a big chunk of your audience.
The next thing you have to tackle is adaptive streaming, which is the option of providing multiple data rates at the same time so your audience can choose what is most convenient. Some modern systems have become so advanced that they can select the data rate for the consumer automatically.
You’ll also need to consider the prospect of your material being watched and heard on many kinds of platforms, most of which are still restricted to stereo or mono sound. The color gamuts of these display devices, and the technologies they support, are as varied as there are leaves on a tree.
Finally, just because it is easy to get into broadcasting on the Internet (like taking a dive into the deep blue sea), it doesn’t mean it is easy to broadcast. You still have to commit time and money consistently, or your audience will never return. And, you have to produce or syndicate content that is of exceptional quality. Even if you had unlimited funding, finding the best content is not easy.
Ultimately, broadcasting on the Internet is a long-term commitment, a lifestyle and a business. Sure, it’s easy to live stream with nothing but a smartphone and an Internet connection, but try making money out of it, or building a fan following. That’s what broadcasting is all about.
When you want more, your problems increase.
How to find the ideal platform for broadcasting
It’s a trick question, really. There isn’t one. Those who have the most money have their fingers in every pie – and all the pies taste like meh.
As an independent broadcaster, you’ll be choosing a provider, technology or range of services that gets the job done for the cheapest price. The challenge is having to scrap everything and start from scratch when it’s time to grow or scale, because that’s just the way technology is currently. It’s too hard to pick a winner. Heck, we don’t even know if the champion is playing yet.
In general terms, though, I can outline the following steps:
- Find out who your audience is, and what devices they use. Use Driving Miss Digital to estimate what the best quality would be for these devices.
- Find out what their average and low internet speeds are. At the very least, their Internet connections and speeds should be consistent. If all you have is 1 Mbps, at least hope it stays at 1 Mbps.
- Find out what media players, codecs or technologies work best with these devices. Sometimes, one group of technologies is all you have to deliver to.
- Make a list of specifications. E.g., your color bit depth, color space, codec, etc., are mostly predefined. The most important of these, the data rate, is fixed from what you’ve discovered about your audience. The resolution and frame rate is derived from this. Ultimately, you’ll realize that you don’t really have any control. You’re restricted by technology.
What information are we really after?
- What is the data rate per hour of your video? E.g., if you’re planning to broadcast at 8 Mbps, that’s about 3.6 GB per hour (Just to keep it simple I’m going with 1 GB = 1000 MB). This is T.
- Find out how many people might tune in to each broadcast. This number is A. At the beginning, you won’t know for sure what this number is, but you’ll need to look at similar channels or producers and see what their numbers were at the beginning. You’ll also look at how many people you can reach via marketing or other efforts. Even with the best people and technology money can buy, and decades of experience, major networks or studios still cannot accurately predict this number, so don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s better to estimate higher than lower. Be optimistic!
- How many broadcasts are you planning to make a month? This is N.
- For how long will the average audience member tune in to your content ? You won’t know for sure unless you’ve done it, so make an educated guess. This is V, in hours (E.g., 10 minutes is 0.17 hours). When making initial calculations, it isn’t dumb to start off by assuming everyone will watch the entire show. At least, this is the highest it can go – it’s sort of like your credit limit.
- The total duration of your broadcasts over the entire month is D, in hours.
Don’t forget, you’ll be paying for your own stream, and all the streams your viewers watch. That’s how it works. Your audience will only pay for their Internet connections and individual downloads. It’s your job to collect money from the audience, or find advertisers who’ll cover the difference. That’s how broadcasting has always worked. No free lunch for anybody.
Let me show you how to make your calculations.
First, you’ll need to see how many hours is being ‘consumed’ – by you, and by every person in your audience.
Total number of hours consumed (H) = V x A x N
E.g., if you’re planning to broadcast 15 times a month, and you have 100 people who will tune-in per broadcast, and you think they’ll watch for an average of 30 minutes (0.5 hours), the total number of hours consumed, H = 100 x 0.5 x 15 = 750 hours. Don’t forget to add yourself and other ‘testing’ download streams in A!
Next, you’ll need to estimate how much space you’re clogging on the Internet. This is called Bandwidth, and it’s what you’re paying for. You divide that into two parts – your share, and your audience’s share.
Audience Bandwidth (B1) = T x H
Let’s assume your data rate is 1 Mbps. That’s 450 MB/hr, which is T. B1 = 450 MB/hr x 750 hours = 337.5 GB per month.
What about your share? If the average duration of your broadcast is two hours, and you have 15 such broadcasts, you’ll be consuming 30 hours. This is D. Your bandwidth is:
Your Upload Bandwidth (B2) = T x D
In our case, B2 = 450 x 30 = 13.5 GB. Now, we can find out the total bandwidth, which is B1 + B2, or:
Total Bandwidth per month = T x (H + D)
In our case, Total Bandwidth consumed per month = 337.5 + 13.5 = 351 GB.
Why make these calculations? It’s because your monthly bill is directly proportional to it. Some companies charge by the total number of hours consumed (like Ustream), but they limit your data rate. In effect, it’s just another way of saying ‘bandwidth’. You are always paying per GB of bandwidth. The general rule of thumb (don’t hold me to it) is $1 per GB.
If that’s the case, then for 15 2-hour standard definition 1 Mbps broadcasts a month, with a modest loyal viewership of 100 people per broadcast, you’ll be paying somewhere in the region of $350 per month just for the bandwidth consumed. Not so bad, right?
But, what if you wanted to do the same for 24 hours a day 7 days a week for 1,000 viewers per day at 8 Mbps? That’s about $85,000 or so per month. Ouch.
So, how do you find the best platform for your needs? Find the one that you can afford, then see if they can deliver what they promise, at least in the short term (3-5 years).
In Part Two we’ll look at the technologies and options available so you can broadcast on the Internet.