6.3 Making the Best of the Best-Effort Service:
An Internet Phone Example

The Internet's network layer protocol, IP, provides a best-effort service. That is to say that the Internet makes its best effort to move each datagram from source to destination as quickly as possible. However, the best-effort service does not make any promises whatsoever on the extent of the end-to-end delay for an individual packet, or on the extent of packet jitter and packet loss within the packet stream.

Real-time interactive multimedia applications, such as Internet phone and real-time video conferencing, are acutely senstive to packet delay, jitter and loss. Fortunately, designers of these applications can introduce several useful mechanisms that can preserve good audio and video quality as long as delay, jitter and loss are not excessive. In this section we examine some of these mechanisms. To keep the discussion concrete, we discuss these mechanisms in the context of an Internet phone application, described in the paragraph below. The situation is similar for real-time video conferencing applications [Bolot 1994].

The speaker in our Internet phone application generates an audio signal consisting of alternating talk spurts and silent periods. In order to conserve bandwidth, our Internet phone application only generates packets during talk spurts. During a talk spurt the sender generates bytes at a rate of 8 Kbytes per second, and every 20 milliseconds the sender gathers bytes into chunks. Thus the number of bytes in a chunk is (20 msecs)*(8 Kbytes/sec) = 160 bytes. A special header is attached to each chunk, the contents of which is discussed below. The chunk along with its header are encapsulated in a UDP segment, and then the UDP datagram is sent into the socket interface. Thus, during a talk spurt a UDP segment is sent every 20 msec.

If each packet makes it to the receiver (i.e., no loss) and has a small constant end-to-end delay, then packets arrive at the receiver periodically every 20 msec during a talk spurt. In these ideal conditions, the receiver can simply play back each chunk as soon as it arrives. But, unfortunately, some packets can be lost and most packets will not have a fixed end-to-end delay, in even a lightly congested Internet. For this reason, the receiver must take more care in (i) determining when to play back a chunk, and (ii) determining what to do with a missing chunk.

6.3.1 The Limitations of a Best-Effort Service

We mentioned that the best-effort service can lead to packet loss, excessive end-to-end delay, and delay jitter. Let's examine now these issues in more detail.

Packet Loss

Consider one of the UDP datagrams generated by our Internet phone application. The UDP segment is encapsulated in an IP datagram, and the IP datagram makes it way through the network towards the receiver. As the datagram wanders through the network, it passes through buffers (i.e., queues) in the routers in order to access outbound links. It is possible that one or more of the buffers in the route from sender to receiver is full and cannot admit the IP datagram. In this case, the IP datagram is discarded and becomes a lost packet. It never arrives to the receiving application.

Loss could be eliminated by sending the packets over TCP rather than over UDP. Recall that TCP retransmits packets that do not arrive at the destination. However, retransmission mechanisms are generally not acceptable for interactive real-time audio applications, such as Internet phone, because they increase end-to-end delay [Bolot 1996]. Furthermore, due to TCP congestion control, after packet loss the transmission rate at the sender can be reduced to a rate that is lower than the drain rate at the receiver. This can have a severe impact on voice intelligibility at the receiver. For these reasons, almost all existing Internet phone applications run over UDP and do not bother to retransmit lost packets.

But losing packets is not necessarily as grave as one might think. Indeed, packet loss rates between 1% and 20% can be tolerated, depending on how the voice is encoded and transmitted, and on how the loss is concealed at the receiver. For example, forward error correction (FEC) can help conceal packet loss. As we shall see below, with FEC redundant information is transmitted along with the original information so that some of the lost original data can be recovered from the redundant information. Nevertheless, if one or more of the links between sender and receiver is severely congested, and packet loss exceeds 10-20%, then there is really nothing that can be done to achieve acceptable sound quality. The best-effort service has its limitations.

End-to-End Delay

End-to-end delay is the accumulation of processing and queueing delays in routers, propagation delays, and end-system processing delays. For highly interactive audio applications, like Internet phone, end-to-end delays smaller than 150 milliseconds are not perceived by a human listener; delays between 150 and 400 milliseconds can be acceptable but not ideal; and delays exceeding 400 milliseconds result in unintilligible voice conversations. The receiver in an Internet phone application will typically disregard any packets that are delayed more than a certain threshold, e.g., more than 400 milliseconds. Thus, packets that are delayed by more than the threshold are effectively lost.

Delay Jitter

One of the components of end-to-end delay is the random queueing delays in the routers. Because of these random queueing delays within the network, the time from when a packet is generated at the source until it is received at the receiver can fluctuate from packet to packet. This phenonemom is called jitter.

As an example, consider two consecutive packets within a talk spurt in our Internet phone application. The sender sends the second packet 20 msec after sending the first packet. But at the receiver the spacing between these packets can become greater than 20 msec. To see this, suppose the first packet arrives to a nearly empty queue at a router, but just before the second packet arrives to the queue a large number of packets from other sources arrive to the same queue. Because the second packet suffers a large queueing delay, the first and second packets become spaced apart by more than 20 milliseconds. (In fact, the spacing between two consecutive packets can become one second or more.) The spacing between consecutive packets can also become less than 20 milliseconds. To see this, again consider two consecutive packets within a talk spurt. Suppose the first packet joins the end of a queue with a large number of packets, and the second packet arrives to the queue before packets from other sources arrive to the queue. Thus, our two packets find themselves right behind each other in the queue. If the time it takes to transmit a packet on the router's onbound link is less than 20 milliseconds, then the first and second packets become spaced apart by less than 20 milliseconds.

The situation is analogous to driving cars on roads. Suppose you and your friend are each driving in your own cars from San Diego to Phoenix. Suppose you and your friend have similar driving styles, and that you both drive at 100 km/hour, traffic permitting. Finally, suppose your friend starts out one hour before you. Then, depending on intervening traffic, you may arrive at Phoenix more or less than one hour after your friend.

If the receiver ignores the presence of jitter, and plays out chunks as soon as they arrive, then the resulting audio quality can easily become unintelligible at the receiver. Fortunately, jitter can be often be removed by using sequence numbers, timestamps and a playout delay, as we discuss below.

6.3.2 Removing Jitter at the Receiver for Audio

For a voice application such as Internet phone or audio-on-demand, the receiver should attempt to provide synchronous playout of voice chunks in the presence of random network jitter. This is typically done by combining the following three mechanisms:

The sequence number and timestamp occupy fields in the header of the audio chunk. A standardized format for the header of the audio chunks is described in the next section.

We now discuss how these three mechanisms, when combined, can alleviate or even eliminate the effects of jitter. We examine two playback strategies: fixed playout delay and adaptive playout delay.

Fixed Playout Delay

With the fixed delay strategy, the receiver attempts to playout each chunk exactly q milliseconds after the chunk is generated. So if a chunk is timestamped at time t, the receiver plays out the chunk at time t+q, assuming the chunk has arrived by the scheduled playout time t+q. Packets that arrive after their scheduled playout times are discarded and considered lost.

Note that sequence numbers are not necessary for this fixed delay strategy. Also note that even in the presence of occassional packet loss, we can continue to operate the fixed delay strategy.

What is a good choice of q? Internet telephone can support delays up to about 400 milliseconds, although a more satisfying interactive experience is achieved with smaller values of q. On the otherhand, if q is made much smaller than 400 milliseconds, then many packets may miss their scheduled playback times due to the network-induced delay jitter. Roughly speaking, if large variations in end-to-end delay are typical, it is preferable to use a large q; on the other hand, if delay is small and variations in delay are also small, it is preferable to use a small q, perhaps less than 150 milliseconds.

The tradeoff between the playback delay and packet loss is illustrated in Figure 6.3-1. The figure shows the times at which packets are generated and played out for a single talkspurt. Two distinct initial playout delays are considered. As shown by the left-most staircase, the sender generates packets at regular intervals -- specifically, every 20 msec. The first packet in this talkspurt is received at time r. As shown in the figure, the arrivals of subsequent packets are not evenly spaced due to the network jitter.

For the first playout schedule, the fixed inital playout delay is set to p−r. With this schedule, the fourth packet does not arrive by its scheduled playout time, and the receiever considers it lost. For the second playout schedule, the fixed initial playout delay is set to p'−r. For this schedule all of the packets arrive before their scheduled playout times, and there is therefore no loss.

Packet loss for different fixed playout delays
Figure 6.3-1: Packet loss for different fixed playout delays

Adaptive Playout Delay

The above example demonstrates an important delay-loss tradeoff that arises when designing a playout strategy with fixed playout delays. By making the initial playout delay large, most packets will make their deadlines and there will therefore be negligible loss; however, for interactive services such as Internet phone, long delays can become bothersome if not intolerable. Ideally, we would like the playout delay to be minimized subject to the constraint that the loss be below a few percent.

The natural way to deal with this tradeoff is to estimate the network delay and the variance of the network delay, and to accordingly adjust the playout delay at the beginning of each talkspurt. This adaptive adjustment of the playout delays at the beginning of the talkspurts will cause the the sender's silent periods to be compressed and elongated; however, compression and elongation of silence by a small amount is not noticeable in speech.

Following the paper [Ramjee 1994], we now describe a generic algorithm that the receiver can use to adaptively adjust its playout delays. To this end, let

The end-to-end network delay of the ith packet is ri − ti. Due to network jitter, this delay will vary from packet to packet. Let di denote an estimate of the average network delay upon reception of the ith packet. This estimate is constructed from the timestamps as follows:

di = (1−u) di-1 + u (ri − ti)

where u is a fixed constant (e.g., u = .01). Thus di is a smoothed average of the observed network delays r1 − t1,..., ri − ti; the estimate places more weight on the recently observed network delays than on the observed network delays of the distant past. This form of estimate should not be completely unfamiliar; a similar idea is used to estimate round-trip times, as discussed in Chapter 3. Let vi denote an estimate of the average deviation of the delay from the estimated average delay. This estimate is also constructed from the timestamps:

vi = (1−u) vi-1 + u | ri − ti − di | .

The estimates di and vi are calculated for every packet received, although they are only used to determine the playout point for the first packet in any talkspurt.

Once having calculated these estimates, the receiver employs the following algorithm for the playout of packets. If packet i is the first packet of a talkspurt, its playout time, pi, is computed as:

pi = ti + di + Kvi,

where K is a positive constant (e.g., K = 4). The purpose of the K vi term is to set the playout time far enough into the future so that only a small fraction of the arriving packets in the talk spurt will be lost due to late arrivals. The playout point for any subsequent packet in a talkspurt is computed as an offset from the point in time when the first packet in the talkspurt was played out. In particular, let

qi = pi − ti ,

be length of time from when the first packet in the talk spurt is generated until it is played out. If packet j also belongs to this talk spurt, it is played out at time

pj = tj + qi .

The algorithm just described makes perfect sense assuming that the receiver can tell whether a packet is the first packet in the talk spurt. If there is no packet loss, then the receiver can determine whether packet i is the first packet of the talk spurt by comparing the timestamp of the ith packet with the timestamp of the (i−1)st packet. Indeed, if ti − ti−1 > 20 msec, then the receiver knows that ith packet starts a new talkspurt. But now suppose there is occassional packet loss. In this case two successive packets received at the destination may have timestamps that differ by more than 20 msec when the two packets belong to the same talkspurt. So here is where the sequence numbers become useful. The receiver can use the sequence numbers to determine whether the > 20 msec difference in timestamps is due to a new talkspurt or to lost packets.

6.3.3 Recovering from Packet Loss

We have discussed in some detail how an Internet phone application can deal with packet jitter. We now briefly describe a few schemes that attempt to preserve acceptable audio quality in the presence of packet loss. Such schemes are called loss recovery schemes. Here we define packet loss in a broad sense: a packet is lost if either it never arrives at the receiver or if it arrives after its scheduled playout time. Our Internet phone example will again serve as a context for describing the loss recovery schemes.

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, retransmitting lost packets is not appropriate in an interactive real-time application such as Internet phone. Indeed, retransmitting a packet that missed its playout deadline serves absolutely no purpose. And retransmitting a packet that overflowed a router queue can not normally be accomplished quickly enough. Because retransmissions are inappropriate, Internet phone applications often use some type of loss anticipation scheme. Two types of loss-anticipiation schemes are forward-error correction (FEC) and interleaving.

Forward-Error Correction (FEC)

The basic idea of FEC is to add redundant information to the original packet stream. For the cost of marginally increasing the transmission rate of the audio of the stream, the redundant information can be used to reconstruct "approximations" or exact versions of some of the lost packets. Following [Bolot 1996] and [Perkins 1998], we now outline two FEC mechanisms. The first mechanism sends a redundant encoded chunk after every n chunks. The redundant chunk is obtained by exclusive OR-ing the n original chunks [Shacham 1990] . In this manner if any one packet of the group of n+1 packets is lost, the receiver can fully reconstruct the lost packet. But if two or more packets in a group are lost, ther receiver cannot reconstuct the lost packets. By keeping n+1, the group size, small, a large fraction of the lost packets can be recovered when loss is not excessive. However, the smaller the group size, the greater the relative increase of the transmission rate of the audio stream. In particular, the transmission rate increases by a factor of 1/n; for example, if n=3, then the transmission rate increases by 33%. Furthermore, this simple scheme increases the playout delay because the receiver must receive the entire group of packets before it can playout a group. (During a talkspurt, the receiver schedules periodic playback of the chunks based on the worst-case scenario - namely, the first packet in a group is lost within some group. This requires the receiver to delay playback of each packet for the time it takes to receive an entire group.)

The second FEC mechanism to send a lower quality audio stream as the redundant information. For example, the sender creates a nominal audio stream and a corresponding low-bit rate audio stream. (The nominal stream could be a PCM encoding at 64 Kbps and the lower-quality stream could be a GSM encoding at 13 Kbps.) The low-bit rate stream is referred to as the redundant stream. As shown in Figure 6.3-2, the sender constructs the nth packet by taking the nth chunk from the nominal stream and appending to it the (n−1)st chunk from the redundant stream. In this manner, whenever there is non-consecutive packet loss, the receiver can conceal the loss by playing out the low-bit-rate encoded chunk that arrives with the subsequent packet. Of course, low-bit-rate chunks give lower quality than the nominal chunks; but a stream of mostly high-quality chunks, occasional low-quality chunks and no missing chunks gives good overall audio quality. Note that in this scheme, the receiver only has to receive two packets before playback, so that the increased playout delay is small. Furthermore, if the low-bit-rate encoding is much less than the nominal encoding, then the marginal increase in the transmission rate is small.

Piggybacking lower-quality redundant information
Figure 6.3-2: Piggybacking lower-quality redundant information

In order to cope with non-consecutive loss, a simple variation can be employed. Instead of appending just the (n−1)st low-bit-rate chunk to the nth nominal chunk, the sender can append the (n−1)st and (n−2)nd low-bit-rate chunk, or append the (n−1)st and (n−3)rd low-bit-rate chunk, etc. By appending more low-bit-rate chunks to each nominal chunk, the audio quality at the receiver becomes acceptable for a wider variety of harsh best-effort environments. On the otherhand, the additional chunks increase the transmission bandwidth and the playout delay.

Free Phone and RAT are well-documented Internet phone application that uses FEC. They can transmit lower-quality audio streams along with the nominal audio stream, as described above.


As an alternative to redundant transmission, an Internet phone application can send interleaved audio. As shown in Figure 6.3-3, the sender resequences units of audio data before transmission, so that originally adjacent units are separated by a certain distance in the transmitted stream. Interleaving reduces the effect of packet losses. If, for example, units are 5 ms in length and chunks are 20 ms (i.e., 4 units per chunk), then the first chunk could contain units 1, 5, 9, 13; the second chunk could contain units 2, 6, 10, 14; and so on. Figure 6.3-3 shows that the loss of a single packet from an interleaved stream results in multiple small gaps in the reconstructed stream, as opposed to the single large gap which would occur in a non-interleaved stream.

Sending interleaved audio
Figure 6.3-3: Sending interleaved audio

Interleaving can significantly improve the perceived quality of an audio stream [Perkins 1998]. The obvious disadvantage of interleaving is that it increases latency. This limits its use for interactive applications such as Internet phone, although it can perform well for streaming stored audio. The major advantage of interleaving is that it does not increase the bandwidth requirements of a stream.

Receiver-based repair of damaged audio streams

Receiver-based recovery schemes attempt to produce a replacement for a lost packet that is similar to the original. As discussed in [Perkins 1998], this is possible since audio signals, and in particular speech, exhibit large amounts of short-term self similarity. As such, these techniques work for relatively small loss rates (less than 15%), and for small packets (4-40ms). When the loss length approaches the length of a phoneme (5-100ms) these techniques breakdown, since whole phonemes may be missed by the listener.

A simple form of receiver-based recovery is packet repetition. Packet repetition replaces lost packets with copies of the packets that arrived immediately before the loss. It has low computational complexity and performs reasonably well. Another form of receiver-based recovery is interpolation, which uses audio before and after the loss to interpolate a suitable packet to cover the loss. It performs somewhat better than packet repetition, but is significantly more computationally intensive [Perkins 1998].

6.3.4 Streaming Stored Audio and Video

We conclude this section with a few words about streaming stored audio and video. Streaming stored audio/video can also use sequence numbers, timestamps, and playout delay to alleviate or even eliminate the effects of network jitter. However, there is an important difference between real-time interactive audio/video and streaming stored audio/video . Specifically, streaming of stored audio/video can tolerate significantly larger delays. Indeed, when a user requests an audio/video clip, the user may find it acceptable to wait five seconds or more before playback begins. And most users can tolerate similar delays after interactive actions such as a temporal jump to the future. This greater tolerance for delay gives the application developer greater flexibility when designing an stored media applications.


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Copyright 1996–2000 James F. Kurose and Keith W. Ross