Cast your mind back to the Sept. 5, 1995. You probably don’t remember what you were doing on that day, but it was nonetheless an important one. Why? On that day, the world’s first live streaming event over the internet took place. It was an ESPN SportsZone radio broadcast of a Major League baseball game, and the cutting-edge technology that underpinned that world first would propel us into the digital era we’re in today – one of on-demand, want-it-now content consumption.

Fast forward to today, and video streaming has proved to be the ‘killer app’ for 4G. Where 3G struggled to handle bandwidth intensive activity, 4G made it possible to stream or broadcast live events over cellular networks. Suddenly, we see a plethora of OTT platforms vying for consumer attention with fantastic original content, delivered immediately to hungry recipients across the globe regardless of their device or location. With 5G on the horizon, how will this technology further transform video streaming? What new content heights will we reach?

5G and streaming – a match made in heaven

As the hype around 5G settles, the technology’s immediate benefits around standard performance improvements, such as faster data speeds, are now a reality. However, 5G will really come into its own as a transformational technology in the context of latency reduction, heralding new horizons for near real-time content delivery. The deployment of next-generation networks will bring unprecedented support in terms of higher bandwidth and reduced lag between device and server. This means more people will be able to simultaneously stream video content at a higher quality (like 4K and 8K).

5G deployment is the next frontier in mobile data tech
5G deployment is the next frontier in mobile data tech AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI

As 4K and 8K become the new normal, network operators will be hard pressed to deliver – and exceed – the quality of experience we’ve come to expect today. With 4K, as an example, a single video will grow 3-5 times in size in comparison to a HD video. 8K videos will grow another 3-5 times from 4K video, according to Sandvine. This spells more volume and a quicker rate of consumption, which will put pressure on the viewing experience during peak times as each server needs to process at even greater speeds.

On the edge of viewing glory

If we all want to watch the latest binge-worthy series in glorious 8K on our mobile devices, then 5G alone won’t be our savior. For the technology’s promises to be truly realized, 5G networks need to be built out with caching at the edge of the network.

The general rule of thumb when delivering content to users is the closer you are to those users, the quicker you can deliver the content. And the quicker you can deliver the content, the happier your customers will be. CDNs have played a crucial role in distributing data over the traditional Internet. It’s these same CDNs that will face significant pressure to keep up with 5G, as true real-time content distribution requires storage of content at the edge of the network itself.

However, a new breed of CDN, powered by caching technology, enables network operators and streaming platforms to speed up the delivery of your favorite shows, movies and games while protecting the core network from excessive demand – demand that ultimately sees you frantically clicking refresh on your browser when your mobile stops streaming the latest episode of The Stranger.

Caching refers to a device requesting and fetching packets of data from a particular video stream. Through a technique called ‘request coalescing,' similar streaming requests can be handled together, meaning the origin server (i.e., your favorite streaming platform) only sees one request, rather than multiple, and can therefore process surges in demand more quickly and efficiently.

These new breed CDNs can be placed at the edge of a network in regional points of presence, connected to the core network, with the ability to move content closer to users to improve performance, while reducing backhaul load. It can also be clustered between 5G base stations to minimize latency, offering sub-millisecond cache response times.

Endless possibilities

Netflix, Disney+, Apple, Universal, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Discovery – where you choose to get your video streaming kicks comes down to personal preference. However, the popularity of these platforms in the years to come will be dictated by operators’ investment in transformational technologies such as 5G, and their ability to build out a robust underlying network edge. As we move into a 5G-enabled era, the potential for true, live and interactive experiences is more of a possibility than a pipe dream. Think the Pope streaming his blessings and even live footage from space – we’re on the edge of ultra-low latency, high capacity, instant and on-demand streaming glory.

(Lars Larsson is the CEO of Varnish Software.)