ABR, Low Latency CMAF, CTE, and Optimised Video Playback

Demand for live streaming video is growing, along with consumer aversion to high  latency. To enable the delivery of HTTP-based video within nearly 3 seconds, below  that of standard IPTV, service providers can look to a proven set of technologies that  include multicast ABR, the Common Media Application Format (CMAF) in its low latency mode, HTTP 1.1’s Chunked Transfer Encoding (CTE) mechanism, and video  players that have been optimized for low latency. This solution involves trade-offs and  limits, yet fits predominant use cases in the live streaming video market.

ABR, Low Latency CMAF-CTE and Optimised Video Playback Whitepaper


The rise of live online video has made latency  a hot topic in the streaming video world.  Defined as the interval between live video  being captured on a camera and displayed on  a screen, latency results from various factors,  depending upon video delivery scheme.  

Real-time communication technologies, not  surprisingly, deliver the lowest levels of  latency. Among TV services, IPTV often has  the least delay, with video arriving within  about 4 seconds. Typical broadcast latency in  the U.S. is slightly higher. For live online video, standard implementations of Adaptive Bit  Rate (ABR) streaming, also known as HTTP  Adaptive Streaming (HAS), can range between  30 and 45 seconds. 

One reason latency has become such an issue  today is that consumers are tapping into different technologies at once. As a result,  they can compare performance. In a commonly invoked scenario, consumers are  using an over-the-top (OTT) live streaming  service to watch an athletic event while  communicating on social media with  spectators who are either at the game or  watching it on a screen with much less delay.  Being half a minute or more behind the live  action is more than annoying; it leads viewers  to question the value of their video service.  

While high latency can lead subscribers to  churn, low latency can boost usage. Global  research presented by Limelight Networks indicates that 65 percent of respondents aged  26-45 would stream more sports if events  were not delayed beyond the broadcast.1 

Latency is not the only challenge facing  streaming video. Buffering, start-up time and  synchronization issues also impact quality of  experience (QoE). Given how easy it is to lose  online viewers, streaming video service  providers should take these impairments  seriously. The good news on latency is that a  combination of existing technologies can  enable live ABR streaming or HAS to perform  extremely well, even better than IPTV. 

Enabling live ABR to arrive in less than 4  seconds involves several steps. A service  provider needs to replace unicast with  multicast transmission; implement the low latency (LL) or chunked flavor of the Common  Media Application Format (CMAF); leverage  Chunked Transfer Encoding (CTE); and  optimize video playback. To see how this adds  up, let’s first look at the sources of latency.

IPTV vs. Unicast ABR

Standard IPTV and unicast ABR video delivery  differ in their components and latency budget.  In a managed IPTV network that uses the  MPEG Transport Stream (TS) digital container  format, encoded video traverses the network  and reaches the player, where it is decoded  and buffered for playback and fast channel  change (FCC). According to data and test  measurements compiled by video delivery for such systems averages 4.6 seconds.

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Figure 1 – Latency Sources in Video Delivery Systems: IPTV vs. Unicast ABR

By contrast, in unicast ABR delivery, video is  encoded and then packaged in HTTP Live  Streaming (HLS) or Dynamic Adaptive  Streaming over HTTP (DASH) formats. These  packaged segments travel across the open  internet and reach the video player, which  decodes and adds them to a buffer. 

Let’s compare timing. The standard segment  length recommended by Apple is 6 seconds  (down from 10 previously). Buffering usually  involves three segments, one of which is being  encoded and packaged at any given time.  Then there are a few seconds of static  overhead. The result is that the average delay  for HTTP-based adaptive streaming is more  than five times as long as IPTV, or 25.6  seconds, as seen in Figure 1. (Longer  segments will increase latency at the  packaging and player levels.) 

Packaging is the new element in unicast ABR  delivery of HLS and DASH, adding 6 seconds  to the timeline. While the lack of FCC buffering  saves 2 seconds, player buffering increases  from 1 to 18 seconds in ABR, accounting for  70 percent of total latency in this scenario. 

Reducing Latency

Packaging and buffering (the two large orange  blocks in Figure 1) are obvious targets for  latency reduction. Players are the first place  one might want to start.  

“It is crucial you upgrade your player to  support low latency streaming, as more than  50 percent of latency is often due to buffers  within the player.” said Pieter-Jan Speelmans,  CTO of THEO Technologies, developer of the  THEOplayer video player. “However, low  latency is an end-to-end story. If one  component is not configured properly, the  advantages won’t be as big as they could be.” 

There is more to say about players and  buffering. As for packaging, CMAF’s low  latency mode combined with CTE also  delivers results, as we will describe below.  But a root cause of high latency is the best effort HTTP traffic of unmanaged networks. 

Multicast ABR

In unmanaged networks, absent sufficient  buffering, video playout is consistently  interrupted for re-buffering. This is where  multicast ABR can change the picture: it transforms a series of irregular, unicast  bandwidth peaks into a relatively jitter-free,  smoothed and prioritized traffic flow  requiring no more buffering in the player than  traditional IPTV. 

Pioneered by Broadpeak, multicast ABR  requires a transcasting device in a headend or  central office to convert unicast into multicast,  and a multicast-to-unicast agent embedded  within a home gateway or set-top box. A  protocol built on top of and adapted to  simplify the NACK-Oriented Reliable Multicast  (NORM) standard drives these conversions.  

In contrast with a unicast best-effort  environment, this solution leverages two  transport-layer technologies: the more  persistent but loosely managed User Data  Protocol (UDP) and the more tightly  controlled Transport Control Protocol (TCP).  “Multicast ABR also makes use of UDP but in a  managed environment where there is no  competition between UDP and TCP, and that  ensures that there are no issues, for instance,  with firewalls,” said Nivedita Nouvel,  Broadpeak VP Marketing.  

The performance boost is substantial.  Enabling 2-second segments and 1-second  buffering, multicast ABR can reduce delay  from 26 to 7 seconds, a 73 percent gain. The  potential bandwidth savings are also a big  draw. Instead of massive numbers of  subscribers making individual unicast  requests to origin servers, the embedded  agent makes a request to join a multicast  stream that can reach a host of endpoints.  

Along with less buffering and bandwidth,  multicast ABR can boost QoE because the  home network, not the more contentious  service provider network, determines which bit rate to use.  

Multicast ABR has drawn the attention of  industry organizations. In 2016, a year after Broadpeak launched its own solution,  CableLabs issued a related Technical Report;  and DVB released a reference architecture in  2018.3 Transcasting and multicast technology is well out of the lab. According to analyst firm  Rethink Technology Research, the market is  poised for growth. Reporting that Comcast  and two major French operators have been  using multicast ABR “in stealth,” the firm  predicts revenues of $852 million by 2023.

CMAF and Low Latency

Even with a greatly reduced latency of about 7  seconds, multicast ABR combined with a  small-buffer player is still 3 seconds over  what traditional IPTV can deliver. The  application of chunked CMAF can reduce that  amount by half. Let’s first review CMAF, then  its low-latency mode. 

The main driver behind CMAF was efficiency.  In place of two separate media formats, the  CMAF initiative achieved a significant, if  incomplete, unification of DASH and HLS.  Included in the specification is usage of the  standard fragmented MPEG 4 (MP4)  container; usage of Common Encryption  (CENC); support of AAC, AVC and HEVC  codecs; and more. What it does not specify is  which of two manifest formats or block cipher  modes to use.  

On the plus side regarding manifests, both  .mpd (DASH) and .m3u8 (HLS) are compliant  with server-side ad insertion (SSAI) systems,  thus safeguarding existing monetization  models. As for counter mode (CM) and cipher  block chaining (CBC) encryption, DRMs may  align on their own. PlayReady and Widevine,  for instance, are beginning to support CBC (in  addition to CM) on more platforms. 

What CMAF did unify is significant. The  common format delivers a twofold increase in  CDN efficiency and similar reduction in  packaging/production costs. Of more  particular interest here, however, is CMAF’s  low-latency mode. 

At a high level, CMAF is a series of fragments,  or segments. Simply making them smaller  would not lead to reduced latency, but instead  would incur a bandwidth tax – with no  attendant boost to quality. That is because of the need for relatively large Instantaneous  Decoder Refresh (IDR) frames at the start of  each fragment. CMAF’s low-latency mode,  however, allows you to split these fragments  into smaller chunks. These are the smallest  encoded and addressable entities in CMAF,  composed of a header (typically a movie  fragment box or “moof”) and media samples  (media data box or mdat). (See figure 2.) 

Low Latency with Chunked CMAFFigure 2: CMAF Fragment and Low-Latency  Support

By itself, however, chunked CMAF does not  move the latency dial. That requires the  addition of CTE, the well-established  streaming data transfer mechanism specific to  HTTP 1.1. 

CTE, Players, Other Components

To maintain a HTTP persistent connection for  dynamically generated content, CTE enables  the transfer of an object or file, on the fly,  piece by piece (i.e. chunk by chunk). It is the  combination of the CMAF chunks with the CTE  mechanism of transferring that positions the  stream for lower latency. It also requires a  player that can configure latency from the  start, learn how to estimate bandwidth and  maintain a correct minimum buffer size.  

When playing media at low latency, players  need to keep in mind network jitter. This is  especially the case with unicast, rather than multicast over a managed network, as  explained above. When there is no guarantee  on delivery and frames can arrive late, the  player's buffering algorithms remain essential for a smooth low-latency experience. Having a  small buffer, and as a result a lower latency,  could cause buffer underflow. Having a buffer  which is too big, however, would introduce  additional unwanted latency. If players fail to  modify their buffering behavior, unstable  connections will have a significant impact on  the user's QoE. 

One important qualification to chunked CMAF is that HLS does not yet have a real low latency mode, while DASH does. There is the low latency HLS solution that Twitter’s Periscope implemented and discussed in a well-known article;5 but so far, nothing has been standardized. Another point is that all components in the chunked CMAF video delivery chain must support   HTTP CTE delivery. That said, this approach is  gaining momentum. 

“We see more and more vendors picking this  up and making available the first pipelines  that can handle chunked CMAF end-to-end,  including encoders, packagers, CDNs and  players,” said Speelmans. “For some  components, there are more alternatives than  others. I expect new announcements around  this going forward.”

How Low Can You Go?

The upshot is that multicast ABR, chunked  CMAF and CTE, together with the right  playback technology, can lower latency by  another 4.5 seconds. According to Broadpeak,  this combination further reduces packaging  and multicast ABR transmission latency from  2 seconds to 250 milliseconds each. That’s a  combined reduction of 3.5 seconds. Chunked  CMAF, incidentally, decouples latency from  segment size, making segment duration less  relevant; but the relatively jitter-free  multicast link helps assure QoE. On the player  side, algorithms cut buffering to 1 second,  with end-to-end latency reaching 3.1 seconds,  vs. 4.6 seconds for IPTV. (See Figure 3.) 

Multicast ABR, Low-Latency CMAF, CTE, and Optimized Video Playback 

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Figure 3 – Latency Comparison: IPTV TS vs. Unicast ABR vs. Multicast ABR (Chunked CMAF)

Can it go further? It can, at least another  second, according to Limelight Networks,  which tested chunked CMAF over its CDN.  “We have seen CMAF work really well at two seconds latency,” said Limelight VP Product  Strategy Steve Miller Jones, in a Videonet  webinar.6 Below 1 second, however, he said  that chunked CMAF’s client-and-server  chatter leads into “file not found” errors, with QoE beginning to deteriorate.

Tradeoffs and Options 
Startup Time, Synchronization

As noted with respect to buffer size, latency  involves tradeoffs. Low latency and startup  time are also in competition. Lowering latency  requires waiting for a segment that has not  yet been received, which increases startup  time. A short startup time requires using what is already available in the buffer; with such  content being older, latency increases. Device synchronization is another area of  contention. In a standard OTT system, two  users switching to the same channel at a  different moment may experience desynchronization up to the size of a segment. Different operators, or broadcast vs. OTT from  the same operator. Sound desynchronization can cause an annoying echo effect if several  people are watching the same content on  different devices next to each other. Multicast ABR with low latency can counter  desynchronization, but as noted, it will have a  negative impact on startup time. One best  practice is to configure individual channels for  low latency (such as sports) and others  according to what needs to be optimized.

Other Technologies

Apple’s deprecation of Flash in 2010  accelerated interest in alternatives to the  related Real-time Media Protocol (RTMP).  Other approaches soon emerged. Underlying  transport protocols have also evolved.

WebSocket, while not a streaming protocol, is  worth mentioning in this context. A TCP oriented socket (i.e. IP address and port  number combo) WebSocket was standardized  in 2011 and provides full-duplex communication. It was designed to support  video calling, but several companies have  added proprietary layers and leveraged it for  some broadcasting use cases. 

Open-source WebRTC is another option.  Promoted by Google and first implemented in  2011, it uses APIs to enable real-time  communication on Web browsers and mobile  apps. Apple lent official support in 2017, and  Limelight Networks is one CDN that has  embraced it. Supported by most browsers,  WebRTC operations yet face interoperability  challenges due to multiple stacks. 

At the transport layer, buffering delays  inherent to TCP have fueled interest in UDP.  WebRTC defaults to UDP, although it can also  use TCP when faced with corporate firewalls.  Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) developed by  video streaming solutions company Haivision  and supported by a 170-member alliance also  takes advantage of UDP.  

A similar evolution is underway with HTTP.  Early on, HTTP 1.1’s CTE enabled a persistent  server connection; HTTP/2 implements  several other latency-decreasing techniques;  and the proposed HTTP/3 may simply  become the new label for Quick UPD Internet  Connections (QUIC), a Google-led protocol  focused on correcting the inefficiencies of  TCP’s congestion control and boosting the  performance of web applications.  

Whatever upper-layer technology is involved  needs to address UDP’s lack of flow control, consumption of shared bandwidth when  coexisting with TCP, and need for special  techniques to traverse Network Address  Translation (NAT)-based firewalls. As noted,  multicast ABR leverages UDP, but within a  contention-free managed framework.  

Fitting Tech and Use Case

Which technology works best, and where?  Some low-latency solutions, such as SRT, may  be suited for ingest or contribution, but not elsewhere. “WebRTC is great technology, but  it was designed for P2P communication,” said  Oliver Lietz, Founder and CEO of nanocosmos,  in a Streaming Media webinar.7 “It is hard to  scale well and get it to all devices.” 

The solution that Lietz himself developed  relies in part upon WebSocket, which raises a similar question. “Yes, you can scale WebRTC  and WebSocket,” said Speelmans. “But there is  a cost associated with doing it.” Another  objection is vendor lock-in. Application  developers (gambling, auction, quiz, etc.) may  be happy working with any vendor option,  provided latency is low enough, but video  service providers tend to avoid solutions  controlled by a single company. 

What matters, according to Speelmans, is the  use case, scale and target audience. “Are you  trying to achieve something like broadcast  latency, 5-8 seconds ballpark?” he asked. “Or  are you going for sub-second real interactivity  where people are interacting with each other  and need close feedback?” In the first case, or  even where latencies as low as 2-3 seconds  are required, the standards-based, multi vendor approach discussed in this paper is a  strong candidate. 

The Live Streaming Future

The vast majority of HTTP-based adaptive  streaming involves on-demand video, but  consumer appetite for live events, especially  sports, is strong. According to Cisco’s Visual  Networking Index, live streaming will grow  15-fold from 2017 to 2022.

To support this growth, minimize viewer  frustration and drive usage, video service  providers are exploring low-latency  technologies. The test results for multicast  ABR, chunked CMAF and optimized video  playback are impressive. Replacing unicast  with multicast ABR leads to a 73 percent  reduction in latency. Using chunked CMAF  with CTE can further reduce that amount by  more than half, below what IPTV can deliver  today. This overall approach can lower  latency from 26 to 3 seconds. 

As always, there are limits and trade-offs. But  industry support for multicast ABR and  chunked CMAF is growing, smart playback technology supports it, and demonstrated  results make this combination a promising  catalyst for the future of live streaming. - JT 

About the author 

Jonathan Tombes is a technology and business  writer who has served as a consultant and  freelance writer for numerous companies,  organizations and publications. He has  extensive experience covering the cable,  telecommunications and IT industries. For  more information, visit

This paper was sponsored by Broadpeak, a  designer and manufacturer of video delivery  components for content providers and  network service providers; and THEO  Technologies, developer of THEOplayer, a  cross-platform, universal video player.

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