In recent years, access to —what is more or less—affordable high-speed internet has become widespread enough to allow a wide variety of over-the-top services such as voice calling, video calling, music streaming, live video streaming and even broadcast television to become increasingly easier to access online. Now when we look at the last one of these, traditional broadcast television has a lot of glaring shortcomings which do not need to be imported together with it onto the internet, chief among these being the viewer’s inability to choose when, where and what to watch. The massive popularity of services which solve this problem by giving their viewers unbridled access to large libraries of TV or movie content demonstrates the huge commercial potential of such video on demand (VOD) services which has led to the rise of the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others.

Now as ever-increasing numbers of Zimbabweans are beginning to subscribe to these services, perhaps it is time that enterprising locals start mulling the possibility of homegrown alternatives. Of course, this has already been tried before through services such as Telone’s DEOD and Econet’s Kwese iFlix. The mere fact that only one of those services (which also happen to be both the offerings of major telecommunication companies) is still operational shows that starting a successful VOD service in Zimbabwe will never be a walk in the park. Let us look at some of the most important factors which may influence the success or failure of such VOD services in Zimbabwe.

Users’ internet access

Local online-based businesses do not typically preoccupy themselves with issues surrounding their users’ ability to access the internet. A video-on-demand service would not have that luxury—video gobbles up a lot of data which costs the kind of money that many of its potential users can already barely afford to part with.

Dealing with unreliable connections

In Zimbabwe, even the best internet service providers are notoriously unreliable. While VOD content is primarily delivered over the internet, all reasonable attempts must be made to try to ensure that the service does not overly rely on a constantly available internet connection especially for playing back content.  Be it a smartphone, a computer or a set-top box, the ability to easily store content for later offline viewing (as opposed to streaming) should be a key feature on users’ devices that will ensure that even those with spotty or intermittent connections to the internet can become users.

Dealing with varying internet speeds and costs

Most video streaming applications use HLS or Http Live Streaming. HLS is a protocol which serves each video file (for example a TV episode) in a different picture quality depending on the viewer’s connection speed. Since higher quality video files are generally larger in size than the low-quality ones, HLS will by default, automatically choose the quality of the video being streamed video based on the viewer’s connection speed to keep the video playback as smoothly as possible even when the internet speeds are fluctuating. This generally means that a faster internet connection will result in better picture quality when streaming while a slow one will result in the opposite.

In Zimbabwe there is another variable which must be considered: the higher quality videos on faster connections also consume more data and hence cost users who are not on uncapped internet plans (who are likely to be the vast majority) a whole lot more. Therefore while the default behaviour of HLS is elegant when it only has to strike a balance between the connection speed and video quality, Zimbabwean applications need to be able to address users on limited data plans e.g. users on limited internet plans can conserve data by only watching their content in lower quality settings.

The reluctance to pay “double”

Depending on its business model (more on that below), a VOD service will commonly add its own fee on top of that already being used by its users to access the internet. While this sounds straightforward enough, significant numbers of Zimbabweans are still having difficulty separating the monies they pay to access the internet and those they need to pay to gain access to certain online services and products—you will be surprised to discover just how many people believe that part of the money they use to go online and access social media sites actually ends up on the hands of the likes of Facebook and Twitter. This means that at the end of the day many Zimbabweans will baulk at the prospect of having to pay “double” for access to a VOD service especially if they feel that an alternative such as satellite television is cheaper or offers more value for their money.

Devices used by users

A Zimbabwean VOD service must be able to accommodate as wide a range of devices as possible. While devices such as smartphones, computers and even smart TVs can easily access any internet-based service right out of the box, provisions must also be made for those who wish to access the VOD service via conventional non-smart TVs and yes—even old school CRT  ones. This last part is important because home entertainment still holds the greatest market potential for any kind of video on demand or streaming service.

Home users’ access would usually involve the use of an appropriate set-top box. Again, it must be ensured that the chosen set-top boxes can also support older TV models since these are still far much more common than many people would like to think. Smaller businesses which are just starting and do not have the funds to order customised and branded set-top boxes can partner up with local electronics retailers to facilitate that their clients get the generic ones which run the Android operating system.

The content

The content that is offered to customers is perhaps the most important aspect of any VOD service. It also often happens to be these services’ biggest expense. The offered content must accommodate as wide a variety of tastes and age groups as possible. Zimbabwe is too small a market for any VOD service to be genre or age group specific, the net must be cast as widely as possible.

Because of the cost of content, some upstarts might be tempted to save money by offering their users the cheapest content that they can find but they end up shooting themselves in the foot since expensive content is usually costly for a good reason—usually because of its popularity—and vice versa.

The streaming licenses for older and local content might be the cheapest and easiest to acquire. It is also easier to negotiate more favourable deals with the owners of the latter. Local content has the added advantage that it is unlikely to require as much foreign currency as the more mainstream international kind.

The pricing and business model

While the question of how much a VOD service can charge is already challenging enough, there is also the other one of how and for what it should charge. While the subscription business model tends to be the most common, such services also usually have to find ways of snaring customers without first demanding that they pay the standard fee before they can gain access. A freemium model can be adopted towards this end and can take any number of forms such as that of only offering access to lower picture quality videos or giving free access to only a limited number of shows or their episodes. Alternatively, new users can be offered a free trial period after which they must pay to continue having access. Advertising can also be used on its own or in combination with user fees to earn revenue.

I mentioned before that some people may be resistant to their apparently paying “twice” for material accessed over the internet. This makes it all the more important that when a VOD service comes up with its subscription plans or packages, the value being offered is as clear as possible. A VOD service’s prices and offerings will also always be compared to those of its alternatives—which in Zimbabwe is almost exclusively those of paid satellite services such as DSTV. This means that when coming up with prices, local VOD services must also take into account their typical users’ internet costs and check how these combined with their service’s fees compare to satellite TV packages. This will not always be necessary as VOD has several clear advantages over the broadcast television being offered by satellite services but new users will not discover this if they shy away from a distance because of your pricing.