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Live Streaming

Mar 15, 2012 11:39 AM, By Jan Ozer

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).


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BROADCASTING

There are several concepts to understand when it comes to how to broadcast your live events, and how to choose an LSSP based upon broadcast-related features. First, all LSSPs offer simple, easy-to-use browser-based encoding tools that are built around the Flash Player. However, because the Flash Player uses an older codec called VP6, as opposed to H.264, the quality output by the browser-based encoder is usually subpar. That’s why you see the faint blocky pattern in Figure 4, because I produced this clip using Bambuser’s browser-based encoder.

Second, all LSSPs can use third-party tools for encoding, like Adobe’s free Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder and Telestream’s popular Wirecast, which offers TV-studio-like features like multiple camera switching and the ability to create titles and display disk-based video files and graphics, and costs $500 or more. To ensure seamless communication between these third-party applications and their service, most LSSPs let you download XML configuration files that contain your server address and credentials. You import this into your third-party tool and your connection is set.

Third, if you want to access features like multiple file streaming, which presents multiple files for the viewer to select between à la YouTube, you may need to use a different tool. For example, Livestream currently offers user-switchable streams and will soon transition over to fully adaptive streaming, where the system automatically switches streams to match the viewer’s bandwidth and playback horsepower. However, you can’t use Livestream’s browser-based encoder to deliver multiple streams, you have to use its desktop encoder Procaster, which is free and available on both Windows and Mac platforms.

Finally, most LSSPs offer mobile apps that let you broadcast from your mobile phone or webcam-equipped tablet. Some of these are free; some cost $10 or less in the relevant app store.

Looking at these broadcast-related features, it’s clear that the ability to distribute multiple streams is a critical feature for many organizations, particularly houses of worship, which have to serve streams to viewers across a range of connection speeds. So one issue to discover early in the process is whether the LSSP that you’re considering can produce multiple streams. All of the services that I interacted with, save Justin.tv, were either currently producing multiple streams or would implement this capability in 2012. Which encoder do you have to use to produce these streams? Most should be able to use Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder, but it has a limit of three simultaneous streams, which may not be sufficient.

To a degree, the ability to use third-party tools like the Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder and Wirecast does level the LSSP playing field, but there are some highlights to mention on the broadcasting side. First, Ustream offers a limited-feature but free version of Wirecast to its customers, as well as paid versions with a more robust feature set. If you’re looking to polish up your videos, these are worth a look. Also, Livestream’s free Procaster has the ability to stream both video and computers screens, making it a great option for producers wanting to share their desktop view.

COST

All LSSPs offer free, advertising-supported versions of their services, though there may be some limitations. For example, Livestream doesn’t support HD broadcasting with its free service, and limits the monthly data transfer to 10GB. Beyond that, all LSSPs present their various plans on their websites; compare the cost per viewer hour, which varies substantially.

For example, Ustream’s lowest cost plan is $99/month for 100 viewer hours, about a $1.00 an hour. In contrast, Livestream’s cheapest plan is $350/month, but includes 3,000 viewer hours, for a cost per hour of less than 12 cents. Obviously, you’re not going to pay $350/month if all you need is 100 hours, but as your stream counts increase, you’ll find cost per hour a convenient metric with which to compare services.

GETTING STARTED

From here, the best course is to narrow your focus to two or three LSSPs and then try their free services. The more time you invest up front identifying your unique requirements, the smoother these trials will proceed, and the more effective they will be in helping you select the best service. This includes determining if you hope to monetize your videos, how you need to protect the content, whether you want a single or multiple streams, whether you care more about the channel page or embedded page, and which playback platforms are critical to your live streaming offering.



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