My own fan experience of streaming The FIFA World Cup™

The FIFA World Cup™ is like no other sporting event. It attracted around 5 billion users across all platforms and devices. This is according to the association, which claims that there were 1.5 billion viewers for the final.

In the UK, the BBC indicated that the tournament was streamed a record 104.7 million times on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website. For the final alone, it brought in a peak TV audience of 14.9 million on BBC One and was also streamed 7.1 million times on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport Online. Sharing the rights with ITV, its coverage was watched by an average of 2.9m, with the match viewed by an average of 3.7m and a peak audience of 4.8m across TV and streaming. While, ITV’s World Cup coverage, was streamed 146 million times across the tournament on the ITVX and ITV Hub services – encouragingly this was over 100 million more than the previous tournament in 2018.

Football’s popularity around the world is showing no signs of easing up. Other broadcasters cited similar record levels of viewing. Significantly, and as predicted, the growth and adoption of streaming matches to connected devices continues to proliferate. In India, the final drew 32 million viewers on the JioCinema streaming service. This streaming audience exceeded that of broadcast TV numbers for the first time for a global sports event. Unfortunately, many fans were left frustrated with technical issues for the early group matches. Around 40 billion minutes were viewed across its Sports18 channel and streaming service. The huge audiences flocking to the streaming service may have contributed to the constant lag in the streaming experience.

Before the tournament, I was concerned with the overall streaming experience over the Internet. To the disappointment of my family, I decided to convert my living room into an experience centre with three TVs, a mixture of smartphones and tablets, and a few other devices to compare the difference between matches broadcast over satellite vs. streaming on the Internet:

  • One TV connected to Tivùsat for RAI’s coverage in Ultra HD (UHD) 4K and HDR (RAI 4K)
  • One TV connected to Sky Q
  • One TV which solely streams; Sky Glass
  • At least two smartphones connected via 4G
  • At least two smartphones connected via 5G
fan experience world cup fifa
Home set-up

 

For Sky Glass and access to BBC iPlayer’s UHD 4K HDR service, the Wi-Fi connection was provided by BT Full Fibre 900 package. I tested different set-ups as well as the broadcaster’s own streaming services including ITV X (revamped from ITV Hub), BBC iPlayer via the app or BBC Sport website as well as Sky Go (to access BBC One HD or ITV 1 HD). In some instances, Freeview was also tested but results were broadly consistent with the overall outcome.

Latency was by far the biggest issue. For my set-up, RAI 4K coverage was the benchmark, with Sky Q approximately 3-5 seconds behind the same match in HD on either BBC or ITV. Whereas, the stream on Sky Glass was typically a further 30-45 seconds behind Sky Q. Sure, the latency on smartphones over cellular networks varied between 50 seconds to 1 minute and 30 seconds (depending on the provider) behind RAI 4K coverage. Worth noting that this was pretty much consistent throughout the tournament.

Disappointingly, there were no noticeable differences between 4G and 5G at home. Despite, the merits of 5G with faster throughput, lower latency, and more robust connections, streams over 4G performed as good in most cases. There are some reasons to explain why this is the case and will vary by location, spectrum, close proximity to the cell site, whether it was true 5G and not a marketing ploy, and so forth. In my situation, most people are probably watching matches via direct-to-home (DTH) services and relying on cellular connectivity for messaging, freeing up capacity.

Conversely, the experience while out and about in central London varied considerably between the cellular networks and by match. For example, during England’s opening match against Iran, numerous issues were encountered during the streams. Again, following a similar set-up to home, four smartphones with two connected to 4G and the other two to 5G. Some issues included:

  • One network was 6 minutes behind the live coverage
  • One network froze when England scored the first goal on the live broadcast
  • At one point three smartphones had a different score
  • Picture and audio quality differed between the streams
  • End-of-match notifications coming in before streams had finished

This match took place around lunchtime UK time, which highlighted other issues including capacity and scale across the entire end-to-end chain. This was something I had anticipated and more evident when watching matches out and about on cellular networks. The network 6 minutes behind the live coverage was continuously buffering with poor-quality pictures.

 

fan experience world cup fifa
England X Iran match

Furthermore, two smartphones could not connect to iPlayer for the entire first half of this match. This was not a network-related issue. The BBC stopped authenticating new users due to a technical issue with its streaming service.

An area that sometimes gets overlooked is the device used to stream content. The experience can differ significantly based on codecs and an integrated player of a device for watching videos. Noticeably, Apple devices were slightly lagging behind others during the entire tournament. Also, BBC UHD on Sky Glass continuously froze with the stream restarting from the beginning, in turn, minutes behind live coverage.

This was in stark contrast to the same stream delivered via Sky Q using the same Wi-Fi connection to the fixed-line router. Unfortunately, this appeared to be a common problem for users who took to social media. However, I’m aware of a limited number of those who did not experience any problems at all. Overall, the BBC UHD stream was up to a couple of minutes behind the RAI 4K HDR satellite feed.

fan experience world cup fifa QoE

Streaming world cup
BBC UHD Stream on Sky Glass Freezes vs. satellite

Despite the amazing picture quality, this was extremely disappointing. More so considering the lag over cellular networks was far less on the broadcaster’s streaming services; albeit in lower picture quality than BBC UHD.

Interestingly, Sky is now acknowledging the lag in live sports broadcasts in UHD 4K HDR for streaming on Sky Glass by notifying subscribers ahead of a sporting event (in this case pay per view).

Fortunately, I (and with some assistance from peers) was able to test networks in other countries which generated some fascinating findings. The Spanish network operators all kindly provided me with a SIM card for a trip to Madrid. During this time I was able to extensively test all three cellular networks (Orange, Telefonica, and Vodafone) to stream matches over 4G and 5G via the local rights holder app (RTVE); free to download and register.

world cup how to stream
Wales v England on Spanish networks

There was hardly any difference between all three networks (irrespective of bearer). Significantly and more importantly, the lag to the live broadcast on the big TV was only 15 seconds (irrespective of location). This was far better than expected considering my experience in the UK. Furthermore, one of the matches I watched included the Spanish national team against Japan. There were no technical issues as experienced for England’s match against Iran.

how to stream world cup
Japan v Spain in bar and hotel

Telefonica also allowed access for me to compare a 4K, HDR and Dolby Atmos broadcast on the Movistar platform. Unfortunately in the UK, none of the matches were available in Dolby Atmos and only selected matches were streamed in UHD 4K, HDR on BBC iPlayer. Again, the lag between the Gol Mundial 4K coverage on the big TV compared to smartphones was only around 15 seconds. This again is a huge contrast to the UK where the streams on the cellular networks were ahead of the BBC UHD one.

LIVE SPORT STREAM
At Movistar Offices

Bizarrely, World Cup match notifications from the UK news and sports sites that I typically receive, were received long after the matches had ended on Spanish TV and RTVE streams (delivered via the Spanish SIMs); typically up to two minutes. In the UK, these were consistently received immediately at the end of the match airing on broadcast TV (this was noticeable).

LIVE SPORTS STREAMING
Notifications received in the UK
Notifications received in Spain a few minutes after the match
Notifications received in Spain a few minutes after the match

Also, some peers managed to assess the consumer experience in France. In a nutshell, there were no striking quality issues with latency of around 30 seconds for mobile devices.

CONCLUSION

Overall, it was a fascinating piece of work to conduct throughout the tournament. Understanding what the consumer experience is like; the journey of accessing different services across networks and devices; which ones perform better than others. This blog piece only provides a top-level view of my experiences.

However, I am very conscious that there are numerous factors impacting my own (and others) experiences. This includes but is not limited to spectrum, close proximity to the cell site, how many users are connected to the same site and using the same network as well as content provider, CDN, and device capability, connection and speed to the home, Wi-Fi range to the device and much more.

Arguably, the differences between countries are more striking. While there may be numerous reasons to explain this difference (between the UK and Spain), it certainly did feel that the quality and robustness of the Spanish networks is far superior to the UK ones; at least from a consumer perspective when streaming. In part, this could be explained by telco investment in the network (which might include CDNs) that would improve the overall experience for streaming live sports.

In fact, DAZN experienced some technical issues with its La Liga coverage causing frustration among users of the Spanish mobile networks. In response, the Spanish telcos have used their own infrastructure (at their own cost) to avoid similar problems. This in itself opens up an interesting debate around net neutrality, which requires deeper insight and analysis for a later date. In a nutshell, telcos have long called for action to be taken as they continue to invest billions in acquiring costly spectrum and rolling out next-generation networks. Margins have been squeezed as users have flocked to embrace services provided by the big tech and streaming services in preference over telcos. Video services are driving exponential growth in data traffic. The simple argument is that telcos want to be duly compensated for providing this access and growth in traffic. It is apparent that telcos should focus on connectivity and broadcasters, and streamers on content.

In the context of this piece, the main issue experienced from a consumer perspective is latency. Is this something that they’re prepared to deal with? For some, maybe yes, others no. All providers along the value chain are responsible for delivering a stream that has not deployed a zero-latency solution into their workflows. Therefore there will always be a lag and annoying notion of when a neighbour cheers before you see the action.

However, if a user has paid for a premium TV with the best connection, then they will demand to watch as near-to-live as possible (for a 4K, HDR) stream; not for it to be minutes behind the actual live coverage. Irrespective of picture quality (with few 4K programming available for this year’s FIFA World Cup), lag needs to be addressed when considering other new ways of interacting with fans such as offering real-time info and betting services. There are some important lessons here for FIFA who may well want to go full steam ahead towards making all matches in the future available solely on its streaming service FIFA+.

I acknowledge that this requires serious investment at a time when there has always been a trade-off between cost versus latency/capacity and other key factors. With more live programming moving towards a streaming future then the broadcast, telcos and sports industries need to work more closely together with solution providers to help fund the best experience for users. For now, it seems that satellite is not dead.

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