Rogers says they can offer way-reduced latency for Sportsnet Now this fall, even less than conventional broadcast latency.

One of the biggest issues with streaming services for sports broadcasts is the latency delay between when things happen on the field and when the television audience sees them. This exists even for conventional TV broadcasts delivered via cable or satellite, with most signals there getting to the TV six to seven seconds after their origination, meaning that you’re seeing a play not right as it happens in the stadium but a short time later. However, six seconds is only rarely long enough for sports spoilers (from tweets, push notifications, or anything else).

The lag is much more prominent when it comes to streaming (internet-delivered) signals. A May article from Brian Ring at FierceVideo projects the delay there as “thirty, forty-five or even up to sixty seconds behind real-time. ” That’s enough lag to lead to a lot of spoiler issues, whether from app notifications, tweets, or even just a neighbor with conventional TV celebrating a play you haven’t seen yet. As per an article published Thursday by Anthony Crupi of Sportico, though, Canada’s Rogers Sportsnet (which launched full over-the-top streaming service Sportsnet Now in March 2016; unlike the U.S. sports streaming options so far, that gives you everything on their conventional channels) and their technology partner Firstlight Media are claiming they’ve cracked the streaming code and will be able to provide a level of latency half that of conventional broadcasts.

Canada’s Sportsnet will begin overhauling its SN NOW streaming service this fall, kicking off a series of adjustments designed to improve the quality and reliability of its video offerings while providing a more personalized viewing experience.

…Key among the coming improvements to SN NOW is an architectural advancement that will allow for a quantum leap in packet-transfer rates. Without getting lost in the tech-spec weeds, the new scheme involves what is known as “chunked transfer encoding,” which reduces latency by transmitting video via a series of infinitesimally small data packets.

According to Juan Martin, chief technology officer and co-founder of Sportsnet tech partner Firstlight Media, the glow-up will help SN NOW “achieve three seconds of latency, well below broadcast.” Martin said that’s about half the lag time of a standard linear TV production, a reduction in latency that will not only make for an optimal viewing experience—no longer will fans have to contend with the twin furies of buffering and pixelation—but should prove to be a godsend for in-game wagering.

On one hand, it seems hard to believe that there’s a near-future solution that would take the vast delays on streaming services not only down towards the level of conventional broadcasts, and not only to that level, but to half that level. Even if current streaming lag was pegged at 30 seconds (the lowest of Ring’s estimates), a cut to three seconds would be a 90 percent decrease. We rarely see 90 percent decreases all at once, especially for a problem that countless people have been trying to solve for a while. But if they can actually deliver on that, that’s incredible, and it could lead to a revolutionary improvement in sports streaming.

It’s worth mentioning that there are some important factors to consider when it comes to internet data transmission speeds in particular, though. The six- to seven-second figure for conventional cable or satellite is relatively standard across providers and homes, because the end-user connections are similar (cables to a house or a satellite dish on that house, to a control box, to a TV). But that’s not the case for internet-connected TVs. There, there are questions of if the TV is hardwired to the home’s internet or accessing it via Wi-Fi (slower), what that internet connection is, what its speeds are at the time in question (this often changes quite a bit day to day or even at different times on one day, with variables including the number of other devices on the home network and the number of users accessing the same internet service provider), and more.

As anyone who’s tried speed-test websites (speedtest.net is one free one) knows, those numbers change a lot, and they’re often not close to the ones your ISP quotes for your plan. The quoted numbers are often best-case scenarios; there’s a reason those plans tend to be marketed as “up to X speed,” not “X speed.” None of that is Rogers’ fault (unless they’re also the ISP for the user in question), but it does mean that even a great broadcast latency improvement for Sportsnet Now may not hit the stated times for all end viewers.

Another factor to consider is video quality. Higher video quality usually means more data, and more data usually means less speed. So there’s a trade-off there. Compression algorithms that allow files to be transmitted at a smaller size and then reassembled into bigger files help with this, which is why finding better and better compression approaches is important (Silicon Valley famously used the “middle out” idea as a fictional plot device/dick joke, but people have actually used some of what’s described there), but there’s still a balance to find between quality and speed. And especially for a streaming TV service, the video needs to be good enough to look okay on a big-screen TV, but also fast enough (when it comes to sports) that the information isn’t outdated. And, as Crupi’s and Ring’s articles both note, that’s only going to get more important as in-game betting rises.

At any rate, if Firstlight and Sportsnet Now actually can get sports streaming video latency down to three seconds, or even down to the six or seven seconds seen on other broadcasts, that could be a huge step forward in further accelerating cord-cutting. And it’s worth noting that that isn’t as bad of a thing for Rogers as it might be for, say, ESPN. Rogers is in an interesting place given all the different areas they hit the sports market; they run TV channels (and other radio and digital media), but also are a cable provider and an internet service provider (to say nothing of their team ownership), which is part of why they (and rival Bell, which is also in all of those categories) went to a full OTT service five years ago (four years ago, in Bell’s case) when U.S. sports networks still haven’t made that leap. And a direct-to-consumer offering like Sportsnet Now is pretty good for Rogers margin-wise, so making it better seems appealing.

As per how much streaming latency matters, it isn’t a huge deal for all fans. Ring’s piece cited a survey of “live sports and news fans” that found that only 26.8 percent were aware and annoyed by streaming latency relative to conventional broadcasts. But it definitely matters to a significant portion of fans, and it definitely matters to younger demographics (also more likely to see spoilers on Twitter or from app notifications), and to bettors in particular. If Firstlight and Sportsnet Now can find a way to eliminate that latency (relative to conventional broadcasts), that takes away one of the big drawbacks of streaming TV. And it seems likely that if this approach actually works and produces those kinds of low-latency numbers without huge quality drops, we’ll likely be seeing it from many other companies down the road.

[Sportico, FierceVideo; photo from Sportsnet Now]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.