Sling TV Outage During Final Four Exposes Web Streaming Weakness

Next Test: The Return of 'Game of Thrones'

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Some Sling TV subscribers received error messages for a few minutes during the Duke-Michigan State game on Saturday.
Some Sling TV subscribers received error messages for a few minutes during the Duke-Michigan State game on Saturday. Credit: NCAA

The brief weekend outage that prevented some Sling TV subscribers from watching college basketball's Final Four highlighted the Achilles heel of cable cord-cutting: reliability.

Dish Network's new online-TV service, which offers about 20 channels for $20 a month, is one of a growing number of web services that offer a few popular channels at a lower price. Such internet-based bundles are giving consumers more options to watch TV without paying for traditional cable packages.

However, these web services rely on a foundation that is more fragile than television. They're vulnerable to buffering or crashing during traffic spikes caused by popular TV shows or sporting events like the national men's college basketball tournament. Sling TV, which announced last week it was adding an online version of HBO to its package, will be tested again April 12 during the season premiere of HBO's hit show "Game of Thrones."

"The problem with the internet is you have so many different pieces in the ecosystem and all it takes is one of these pieces to go down and it impacts quality," said Dan Rayburn, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan who writes for the blog "There are a lot of potential places where things can go wrong."

Sling TV apologized Saturday on Twitter after some subscribers weren't able to watch the the NCAA National Semifinal basketball game between Duke and Michigan State.

About 1,000 to 2,000 users received error messages for a few minutes during the game, a "very small fraction" of Sling TV's subscribers, CEO Roger Lynch said. He declined to say how many subscribers the service has in total.

The errors, caused by a high volume of people watching the game at the same time, were fixed after a network engineer moved some traffic to a different network provider, Lynch said.

Internet congestion
Sling TV is updating software "to better handle these situations where you get lots of concurrent usage and congestion over the Internet," Mr. Lynch said in an interview.

Online TV services rely on third-party network providers to rent their infrastructure for live streaming. To avoid outages, web services should get a backup provider they can switch to at a moment's notice, Mr. Rayburn said. They also should have software that can spot potential crashes before they happen, and test their service ahead of big TV events, he said.

Sling TV is working to automatically switch to a backup provider during traffic spikes, Mr. Lynch said.

To be sure, traditional cable-TV service can also suffer outages, typically during major storms. And the quality of streaming video can be affected by the speed of a subscriber's internet service, which is out of Sling TV's control.

Yet web TV service outages have become increasingly common. HBO's online video site, HBO Go, crashed last April during the "Game of Thrones" premiere. In June, ESPN's online stream of the World Cup match also crashed. Both networks attributed the problems to excessive volume.

As consumers decide between paying for cable TV and a growing number of online replacements, many are looking for a service they can trust, and some have started keeping score.

"Looks like I'm not the only one 'Buffering' on @Sling during Final 4," one Twitter user wrote on Saturday. "One point for cable."

~ Bloomberg News ~

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