Tuluntulu: streaming video for Africa’s broadband-starved masses

While developed markets around the world are racing to saturate their territories with high-speed broadband connections, African nations are lagging behind. In South Africa, a consortium funded by the TIA (Technology Innovation Agency) consisting of the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), UCT (University of Cape Town) and ECA (East Coast Access) has emerged with a mobile streaming platform called Tuluntulu (meaning “stream” in Zulu), that allows for video streaming on GSM/EDGE networks that operate at speeds below 50kbps.

As the speeds at which people connect to the internet increases, online video content becomes more elaborate as it proliferates. The world’s largest video platform, YouTube, streams six billion hours of video each month, but a large part of the developing world is missing out.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that fixed broadband penetration is less than 1% in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to about 27.2% in developed nations.

The real story of course, is about mobile. The ITU reports that per 100 inhabitants, Africa has around 63.5 mobile subscriptions — not bad when you consider Asian regions sit at 88.7, Europe at 126.5 and the Americas at 109.4 mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

In fact, Africa shows the highest growth rates over the past three years — mobile-broadband penetration has increased from 2% in 2010 to 11% in 2013. Africa’s high-speed future is mobile, but while we wait for that promise to be realised, 89% of the continent’s mobile subscribers remain with their noses pressed up against the broadband window.

The ITU defines broadband speeds as equal to, or greater than, 256 kbps. Vast spaces in Africa are covered by GSM/EDGE connectivity of less than 100 kbps. YouTube uses adaptive streaming to offer 144p mobile videos at around 75kbps. Still, Tuluntulu’s main financial backer and “serial entrepreneur”, Pierre van der Hoven, believes Tuluntulu can deliver better quality video — seamless, smooth streams that adapts to throughput rates as low as 24kpbs, without disruption.

Van der Hoven’s career started in finance and strategy at the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). Later, he was involved in setting up media companies including eTV, YFM, Yarona FM — a regional radio station in Botswana — as well as wildlife production company, SANHU and SA Direct — a company marketing Southern Africa using television (SKY in the UK), and online.

The consortium funded by the TIA, started development in 2007 and later approached Van der Hoven who is now raising capital for Tuluntulu and commercialising the intellectual property behind the platform’s ARTIST (Adaptive Real-Time Internet Streaming Technology) technology. The technology claims to broadcast minimum-delay, live video streams over the mobile internet with better perceived picture quality than is currently possible with ‘off the shelf’ solutions — think Adobe Dynamic Streaming for Flash used by YouTube.

“The ARTIST technology can deliver unbroken video at ±30kbps. Current competing technologies do not perform well in low rate internet infrastructures between 30kbps and 300kbps and, more particularly, where the throughput rate is rapidly varying within this range from one second to the next — as is common in all mobile cellular networks,” says Van der Hoven.

Tuluntulu claims that its offering is unrivalled.

“Tuluntulu’s research has revealed no other company globally who claims to be able to deliver unbroken video streams at below 100kbps. These companies have technology that only work on 3G networks, often at 400kbps or more. As a result they simply do not work in most developing countries,” says Van der Hoven.

That’s not entirely accurate. Although streaming platforms are arguably focused on pursuing the glamour of high-speed networks and the next wave of 4K video, in 2008, the RealNetworks platform documented the deployment of videos at speeds as low as 28.8kbps.

It is however, accurate to say that while there are a number of competitors in the space, none stand out as a solution provider focusing specifically on delivering unbroken video streams in low-bandwidth environments.

The ARTIST technology has been patented — registered in five regions globally for parts of the ARTIST technology — and includes social media interactivity.

“The solution covers the entire media value chain from video content ingestion to a fully adaptive and scalable service and mobile device applications,” says Van der Hoven.

The key competitive features of the ARTIST platform include its use as a mobile IPTV platform, adaptive streaming functionality, messaging and advertising integration, and scalability — ARTIST is “massively scalable” for large numbers of simultaneous viewers even with individual adapting video streaming, says Tuluntulu. The solution also includes bandwidth management and analytics.

Watch van der Hoven explain Tuluntulu:

Tuluntulu hopes to target the “lower segment of the mobile IPTV market pyramid,” delivering video and advertising at a lower cost to widen the access for both the public viewing user base and small enterprises with less disposable income. Revenue models could include licence and management fees for content owners of a 24/7 channel on the platform, advertising, subscriptions and product sales.

The challenge

At this stage Tuluntulu is a promising, yet beta product. The Tuluntulu app can be downloaded from the Google Play Store to any Android device running version 4.0 or later to test the service, but the startup has no clearly defined commercial offering as yet.

What will that offering be? Will it aim to be a YouTube for broadband-starved regions? Maybe — van der Hoven says that he is currently focusing on attracting quality content to the platform — or is there an opportunity to market the platform as an end-to-end alternative for bandwidth friendly, adaptive video streaming? A RealNetworks for sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle probably, especially considering Africa’s mobile broadband growth. What happens when GSM/EDGE becomes a rarity? Having a solid, localised content offering as well as a mature, competitive streaming solution for businesses could be a good fail-safe.

In the meanwhile, ARTIST seems to be off to a good start, having been successfully piloted by broadcast radio stations YFM, and the Voice of Wits campus radio.

Tuluntulu has also started talking to partners in West Africa, Philippines and India to set up local operations — whatever they may be.



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