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HLS vs. WebRTC: Which Protocol to Choose

One of the most significant advances in recent years has been the ability to transfer video across the internet using streaming protocols.

Broadcast Operator , Content Distribution
The Zype Team05.10.233 min read

One of the most significant advances in recent years has been the ability to transfer video across the internet using streaming protocols. Better still, the technology is so readily available that even those with minimal video experience can now send high-quality content with ease and at increasing speeds. Two of the most prominent video protocols currently are HTTPS Live Streaming (HLS) and  Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC). Each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

A streaming protocol is a standardized method for electronically moving video and audio content between devices. It does so by breaking the large content files into smaller pieces. During transportation, there are various stops controlled by multiple protocols.

HLS vs. WebRTC

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that two of the most popular video streaming protocols come from two of the largest companies in the world. 

HLS was developed by Apple and uses an HTML5 video player to move content from one place to another. WebRTC comes from Google and was initially developed to support web conferencing and VoIP. Later on, WebRTC added peer-to-peer streaming among its many tricks. HLS is client-server-oriented. Where HLS is proprietary, WebRTC is open source.

What is HLS Video Streaming?

HTML5 is a universally compatible video player, making it ideal for broadcasters. In addition, HLS is highly secure and produces high-quality video streaming. Perhaps most importantly, it's also dynamic. Its adaptive-bitrate capability makes it possible to deliver content optimally while minimizing buffering. In other words, it can quality adjust the video content to match the user's device and connection.

Today, the HLS video streaming protocol is used in software for Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad. It's also an essential component in many internet browsers, including Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge.

Latency is a big issue with HLS, which wasn't designed to deliver video quickly. Instead, it focused on producing high video quality. Additionally, HLS only supports playing streams. By contrast, WebRTC also allows publishing from a browser. HLS is also subscriber-only.

What is WebRTC?

Technically, WebRTC isn't a protocol as much as an open-source project. And yet, it acts very much like a streaming protocol. WebRTC's biggest strength is being able to stream with real-time latency. Not surprisingly, this makes it a terrific tool for live video streaming. It's also why some of the biggest names in social media use WebRTC, including Whatsapp, Snapchat, Slack, Discord, and many more. 

Like HLS, WebRTC is also highly secure and supports adaptive bitrate streaming. Because it's open-source, unlike HLS, WebRTC is highly customizable and adaptable. One obvious knock against WebRTC is its relative newness. It's a communication standard that's still under development and one that's not widely supported by most encoders. WebRTC video quality also doesn't stack up well versus other solutions such as HLS.

What about HLS Low Latency?

Because of the increased need for live video streaming, Apple in 2019 introduced an HLS low-latency mode. When in use, it can reduce latency from 15 to 30 seconds to only three while maintaining scalability. It remains to be seen just how well HLS low latency stands up to WebRTC.

Moving Forward

Broadcasts are almost certainly using HLS for video and audio delivery. In time, however, they might also embrace WebRTC, a newer kid on the block with some impressive options. The HLS vs. WebRTC choice will continue to be a topic of debate in the years ahead. Most likely, broadcasters will need to use both protocols, perhaps one for everyday streaming and another for live events.

For more information on video streaming and what the Zype Streaming Platform can do for your organization, request a demo. Zype supports all the latest protocols and other streaming tools. 


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