Live streaming pushes the IT infrastructure to its absolute limits

Like Davey Winder, who takes notes regularly, I have my hobbies. He occasionally writes about his dislike of the slow evolution of “hacking” from being complimented by an industry insider to being a mass media warning sign. For me, 2021 was the year that streaming took a turn for the worse.

From the start it was something of a misnomer, loosely covering all delivery of media (audio as well as video) without an initial download to local storage. Most often, people toss the term around when a sporting event, royal wedding/birth/defenestration, or record-breaking volcanic eruption sparked interest in unfolding events. Streaming was a sign that you were at the forefront of the home multimedia revolution.

Then things started to get a lot more complicated. Both Facebook and YouTube took the video captured by their phone apps and streamed it to a website with potentially millions of viewers, either “live” or on-demand. This concept has been strangely slow to catch on and seemed to have many fans in the upper echelons of the IT product design business, with almost zero support in the more diversely connected lives of everyday consumers. Too much nonsense; kills the battery; You’ll have to change your phone twice a year to keep up with the software, they said.

A phone used to live stream an event

Protesters use Facebook Live to gain both exposure and new followers for their cause

I personally have a legitimate interest in this game as my partner regularly visited both Parliament Square and Speakers’ Corner as part of her permitted practice route during COVID-19. It turns out she’s pretty good at talking to the various tribes that tend to show up in these places, regardless of their affiliation or, in my opinion, how crazy some of them might be. That was all well and good until a YouTube video was shown to me: Of course it shows Sandra surrounded by many guys, almost all of whom are holding smartphones.

My concern is if something goes wrong in this huge flashpoint of global protests, how can I guarantee to keep in touch? Your new buddies will say “Telegram” right away, but in my opinion, watching this video, the main obstacle to asking when tea would be wouldn’t be the government sniffing around the data packets; it’s all these guys live connected to YouTube or whatever uploading about a MB per second of streamed video. Not forgetting all her buddies who are in the crowd watching rather than streaming. Telegram is no use to me in a small area occupied by 10,000 people all trying to update their social media no matter how unbreakable their encryption is. Encrypted or not, secret or not, worthy or not – all data packets look the same and are shattered the same when the bandwidth meter hits 100%.

Pump raw material into the Internet

The main problem here is the dispute. Almost everyone forgets when they’re measuring their internet speeds and roaring over 5G signals that they’re not making an instant, single-hop over-the-air connection. No matter how fast the radio signal portion of the link might look in your benchmarking software of choice, it connects to a backhaul: a length of fiber that often has much less capacity than the radio side of the cellular link. Keep in mind that quite a lot of the earlier backhauls, from the days before 2G or 3G were even considered, were done over ISDN copper lines. That’s an absolute maximum of 128 Kbps per cell tower.

Still, nobody noticed. People like me, whose lives are ruled by an influx of messages, may have occasionally noticed a delay or two, but it was on the order of a few seconds and rarely several hours. People don’t think about how this achievement comes about and what it means to them. In the case of the modern-day protest march in central London, led by the Pied Piper-like figure Piers Corbyn, “strife” hardly does justice to technology. Corbyn’s favorite protest trick is to literally blow fire: when he spits out a ten-foot fireball, people nearby do two things. First, they elegantly step back, and second, they snap a photo or stream a video. As they do this, the local infrastructure gives each phone a share of the actual underlying bandwidth, which is shared among all users in range. Tens of thousands of them, sometimes.

Piers Corbyn breathes fire

Arsonist Piers Corbyn knows how to ignite passers-by’ cellphones

Streaming is probably the most wasteful bandwidth consumer in modern times and worse than we dared to imagine because the whole vlogger/streamer culture is itself controversial. Streaming comes with a certain guarantee of validity: no editing, no picking, just the rawness of an uninterrupted feed. This appeals to those with a slightly paranoid attitude as viewers – and the string of protests in central London, which are attracting coverage from streaming vloggers, are also from the playbook of modern conspiracy theory. In fact, they are so paranoia-driven that the petrified copies left behind by their livestream sessions are deleted from mainstream social media platforms within hours of the end – be it by the site managers trying to bowing to the demands of public order, or by the originators, convinced that the “living believers” are their only true friends, it doesn’t matter. The evidence will disappear by itself.

Which, for techies plagued by overly adventurous partners, really doesn’t help me find the best solution for our ongoing communication needs. I wouldn’t mind something like Telegram, yet not quite as politicized: something that lets me run a message window on my PC that tells me the round-trip delay (if any) for each of my contacts, and optionally includes links from there to the part of google that shows you their location and travel history if they have this stuff turned on.

An influx of 5G-enabled smartphones

I recall an unlikely Scottish business unit of Spanish phone company Telefónica demonstrating something very similar – but not exactly the same – as this: The bandwidth requirements for something like this are apparently pretty low, although I expect the battery life might not be one big winner. I’d love to see how these features would work on a modern phone like the Nokia X20, which amazed me with its staying power in pre-Christmas sat nav service, for example. As for our need to stay in touch, we’ve found that short text messages are still the most predictable platform at large meetings or events.

I spoke to an older colleague about the whole streaming thing and he was surprisingly negative on the subject. “Give him a few months and everyone will do it,” he said. I didn’t see why he was right for some time afterwards when strange twists of fate left me with a small bucket of 5G-enabled phones. After just a few weeks of not very diligent fumbling, I get his point – one of those big benefits of the long delays caused by the lockdown and lack of truck drivers is that phone makers have sat back and thought carefully about which ones Features they may have and what software they can wait to be written before releasing their new models.

Live streaming of Marjorie Taylor Greene

You’ve been streamed: will we all be doing this in a few years?

With at least a year lag in all sorts of sectors from COVID-19 or simply trying to restart post-pandemic, there was plenty of free developer time to tackle the more difficult and time-consuming features. Suddenly, in 2022, even the cheapest 5G phones have both the power and the code to support much more compute- and communications-intensive features. Barriers to being live online were a big part of why this was only of interest to – to be polite – fanatical guys. With these actual new generation devices in the hands of virtually everyone, the more controversial and fame-hungry vloggers will likely disappear behind the sheer volume of mainstream interests and times gone by.

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