While mobile device screens represent an outstanding opportunity for faith-based organizations to communicate their message to more people more effectively, they also pose multiple technical challenges.
At the most basic level, these challenges arise from the sheer number and variety of devices that are available. Devices that use different encoding profiles and transport protocols rely on different operating system platforms, connect to different networks, and have different hardware and player capabilities.
The result of all this complexity used to be that only organizations with lots of money and a high degree of in-house technical expertise could set up the infrastructures to stream media to the multitude of devices in the marketplace and in people’s pockets.
Happily, a new software-based solution, the unified media server, today makes it possible for many more organizations, even small houses of worship, to broadcast to a variety of mobile device screens cost-effectively.
Outlining the Problem
To understand the solution, it’s important first to understand at least the broad outlines of the problem. First is encoding. Most current-generation smart phones and tablet devices are capable of playing video streams encoded in H.264 format and AAC or MP3 encoded audio. Yet even devices manufactured by the same company may require content to be encoded differently.
For example, the Apple® iPhone® can only play an H.264 baseline 3.0 or lower encoding profile, while its sister the iPad® tablet can support higher profiles. Second, the device’s operating system may only be compatible with one particular video streaming transport protocol. Apple iOS devices, for example, use Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) protocol, whereas 3GPP smart phones such as Android™ and BlackBerry™ require the RTSP/RTP protocol. The new Windows® Phone 7-based devices rely on yet another protocol – Silverlight® Smooth Streaming (HTTP).
A third example of variation is the streaming bit rate; in other words how much data is being pushed into the device at a time. Mobile devices can be connected over mobile 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi networks. The quality of the network and its type of connection together determine the optimal bit rate. The device’s decoding capabilities may also limit maximum usable bit rate.
Today, there are technology solutions available that mitigate bit rate issues. For example, Apple HLS, Silverlight Smooth Streaming, and Flash® RTMP and HTTP all support what is known as adaptive bit rate streaming. This approach enables self-adjustment for bandwidth and line quality, helping the mobile device to obtain the bit rate most suitable for its connection.
Another technology improvement is that the latest smart phones and tablets were designed purposefully to serve as video playback devices. As a result, most are capable of automatically adjusting screen resolution to suit the media stream.
The Unified Media Server Solution
So far, we have focused on the technical challenges of delivering streaming media to various mobile platforms. Now let’s talk about what solutions are available. For content delivery, unified media server software goes a long way toward making simultaneous streaming to multiple devices both technically feasible and affordable. The basic idea behind such software is that it “speaks” many transport protocols, thus allowing the user to reach any mobile platform.
Live and on-demand streaming are, typically, the two types of programming that churches want to broadcast. Live, obviously, means a sermon or service streamed as it happens, while on-demand could be that same sermon or service anytime after the fact. For live streaming, the video is first encoded then pushed to a server for streaming. For on-demand viewing, the video is encoded into a file and stored for streaming on request.
Even with the transport protocol flexibility afforded by a unified media server, the house of worship has other decisions to make. Knowing what devices and viewers are being targeted helps the user reach a decision on how to encode content. Even though some devices can play higher profile encoding that delivers better image quality, the house of worship may choose a “lower common denominator” encoding profile – one that works for multiple devices – in order both to save money and communicate the message more broadly.
Accessing the Right Solution
Precisely how an organization chooses to take advantage of unified streaming will depend largely on three things: its size, capitalization, and level of technological sophistication. For example, a house of worship that is already using Windows Media® streaming probably has the technology infrastructure and staff in place to deploy a unified media server solution in-house. In fact, for such an organization, acquiring and deploying media server software is a natural progression that will enable greatly expanded reach.
Smaller houses of worship, on the other hand, might choose to partner with a CDN (Content Delivery Network) or a streaming service provider that offers unified media server based streaming. Some of these providers specifically serve the worship market and offer a lot of service for very reasonable monthly fees.
Another option is to take advantage of the “cloud” with a service like Amazon’s EC2. The cloud enables a facility to push high volumes of video at a reasonable cost with dynamic scaling based on viewership. However, it does require a reasonably high level of technical expertise to set up and operate.
Any house of worship wants to bring its message to the widest possible audience, and streaming media can play an important role in achieving that goal. While technology is often blamed for alienating people from one another, this is a case where technology has the potential to keep people connected to their church and more engaged in their spiritual life. Unified streaming enables even small faith-based organizations cost-effectively to overcome the technical complexities of delivering media to multiple devices.
As a result, the faith-based organization can take full advantage of streaming media’s power.