By Espie Angelica A. de Leon
One year after its bold announcement that it would expand outside of the US, online streaming provider Netflix is changing the local entertainment scene and viewing habits of Filipinos.
Launched worldwide including the Philippines on Jan. 6, 2016, Netflix now boasts more than 93 million subscribers in over 190 countries, streaming more than 125 million hours of videos a day. In the last quarter of 2016 alone, Netflix registered over 7 million new subscribers.
“Consumers globally for the first time have instant, affordable access to high-quality storytelling from around the world, suitable for every age, taste, and culture,” according to the company. “They can enjoy these stories at home and on-the-go, when and how they want, on their favorite devices.”
Now, Netflix is set to push the envelope even further.
“We’ve committed to launching all our original content to over 190 markets all at the same time,” the Internet firm reveals. “Consumers in the Philippines will find they never have to wait again to be the first to watch their favorite shows or to suffer endless buffering.”
To make this happen, Netflix in recent years has poured $1 billion into top-flight innovations that will make users’ viewing experience even more seamless – with better quality images and faster access.
Developed in 2011, Open Connect is Netflix’s own globally distributed content delivery network (CDN). Netflix partnered with Internet service providers (ISPs) around the world for this initiative, including PLDT and Globe Telecom in the Philippines.
Open Connect devices which are custom-build caching servers, are placed in data centers of these ISPs. This way, content is served from the data center of an ISP either in the subscriber’s native country or in a country within the region. This means Netflix users in, say India, won’t have to watch a movie served upstream or streamed all the way from a server in the US.
Instead, it will be streamed from a more closely situated server hosting a copy of the movie. This eliminates buffering, speeds up distribution of files and lessens additional traffic even though the content is streamlined simultaneously to 190 countries. It also has the added benefit of reducing the ISP’s operating costs.
These devices are now available in almost 1,000 locations – from major cities like New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo, to more remote areas such as Greenland, Tromsø in Norway, Puerto Montt in Chile, Hobart in Tasmania, Macapá and Manaus in the Amazon rainforest.
Open Connect can also cache content which Netflix, using its algorithms, has predicted to be potential viewing fare among subscribers in a specific location based on their “watching behavior.”
Thus, Netflix is able to recommend shows and movies to a particular subscriber based on his preferences and binging habits. With 15- to 60-second video clips – instead of mere images – available to subscribers to preview these recommendations on their smart TVs, they can decide faster which to watch.
“It tries to know its audience. That’s where the hook of Netflix lies,” says Netflix user Emil Karlo dela Cruz of Globe Telecom. “It is no different from a curator showing you art pieces you may like, and then giving you ample room to enjoy and breathe it in.”
Per Title Encoding
As opposed to the one-size-fits-all “Fixed Bitrate Ladder” scheme, “Per-Title Encoding” allows delivery of higher quality video to locations with low bandwidths, whether the video has “simple” or a more “complex” content.
Simple content is characterized by video frames with mostly flat regions, sparse motion between these frames, and absence of camera or film grain noise, among others. In this case, there is very little data for the computer to reproduce.
“BoJack Horseman”, for example, has simple content. The sky in the animated series has the same shade of blue, while its pony merely stands around talking, etc. On the other hand, “Marvel’s Daredevil” and “Orange is the New Black” have more complex content.
Both feature fast-paced action, quick scene changes, different settings, and lots of spatial texture and visual details like explosions, smoke, and splashing. Thus, both shows require more bits to capture these multiple details and transmit crisper images to mobile screens.
With Per Title Encoding, each video content — simple or complex — therefore has its own unique bitrate ladder, tailored to its level of complexity.
The Netflix encoding team selects the total number of quality levels and the bitrate-resolution pair for each quality level to come up with the optimal Per-Title Bitrate ladder.
Selection for both resolution and bitrate are limited to a finite set. For the former, the set is limited to 1920×1080, 1280×720, 720×480, 512×384, 384×288 and 320×240. Adjacent bitrates, meanwhile, have an increment of around 5%.
Netflix’s adaptive streaming technology selects from a set of encoded videos at different bitrates to transmit the highest quality image possible regardless of download speed.
The result: If connectivity is weak, the user may not be able to watch in super HD quality. However, buffering is eliminated, allowing him to watch without these disappointing and time-consuming interruptions.
Netflix recently launched its “Downloads” feature so users may resume their binge as often as they want anywhere, anytime, even during commute (even on an airplane) and when Internet connection is either expensive or limited. For this, Netflix extended SD card support to compatible Android mobile devices.
Among those now available for downloads are “Orange is the New Black,” “The Crown,” “Narcos,” and many others.
“It does not consume any space in your device because it is saved through cloud,” says government employee Alan Mauro Marfal who watches “Narcos” and “iRobot.” “Plus you can save time downloading each episode. Usually, it takes three to four hours.”
Sound engineer Andrew Milallos also approves of Netflix’s sound and video quality, and convenience.
“These tech innovations made the viewing more fun and dynamic, aside from the fact that they made the cinema viewing experience very accessible as you can still watch your movie though you’re offline,” says Andrew who watches “Stranger Things” and “Breaking Bad.”
According to Netflix, it is now looking into ways to create more efficient mobile encodes for downloading to increase quality in a more data efficient way for areas with low bandwidths.
One year since its local launch, Netflix and its new innovations have grabbed people’s attention, getting more of them to subscribe along the way. One year is such a short time to notch up these many positive developments – as if they happened with just a flick of the finger. Indeed, “faster” and along with that, “better” may as well be Netflix’s mantra for its efforts to improve its service.
“It’s not just about having various titles to choose from. It’s about getting to know your user on a deeper level,” notes Globe’s Emil dela Cruz. “That’s the future of TV on demand.”