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Cable Congress interviews: Asanga Gunatillaka, Com Hem

Asanga Gunatillaka

Asanga Gunatillaka

Cable Congress speaker Asanga Gunatillaka, chief product officer at Com Hem, talks to DTVE’s Andy McDonald about product innovation and the impact of OTT. 

Sweden’s number one cable provider Com Hem has supplied TV, telephone, and high-speed internet access to Swedish homes and businesses for more than 30 years, adding its TiVo advanced television offering to the mix a little over a year ago.

According to chief product officer Asanga Gunatillaka the TiVo offering has seen rapid take up since launch and will remain the focus of its innovation efforts for the foreseeable future.

Com Hem launched TiVo in October 2013 and in just over a year has seen more than a quarter of its TV customer base adopt the next-generation service. A handful of European operators – namely Ono in Spain and Virgin Media in the UK – have launched similar services based on the TiVo DVR platform. However, Gunatillaka, who was previously commercial director at Virgin Media and worked there when it launched its TiVo offering, claims that Com Hem has had the “fastest TiVo growth” of all its European peers.

According to Com Hem’s recently announced fourth quarter 2014 numbers, over the three months ending December 31 it added 32,000 TiVo customers. This gave it a total of 164,000 advanced TV customers, accounting for 27% of its overall TV customer base.

Discussing the success Com Hem has seen to date, Gunatillaka says, “I think the key thing for us is that we launched the product with multiscreen in mind. When we launched TiVo, we launched it not only on a set-top box format, but we launched it on Apple, iOS and Android and on the web and that’s been really, really important to us.”

Multiscreen approach

With what he describes as “near-universal” household access to broadband in Sweden, and high tablet device penetration, Gunatillaka says that it has been “really important to position TiVo as a multiscreen service” – rather than evolve it over time to incorporate more than the main TV screen.

According to the European Commission’s recently published Digital Economy and Society Index, Sweden ranked as the second most digital country in Europe, based on a number of indicators including connectivity and digital skills, integration of digital technology accounts by the business sector, and overall internet usage. According to the research, fixed broadband is available to 99% of Swedish homes and high-speed broadband is available to 71%, with some 91% of Swedes found to use the internet.

“Swedish Internet users engage in a broad range of online activities. They read news online (88%), listen to music, watch films and play games online (57%), use the internet to communicate via video calls (52%) or through social networks (70%), and obtain video content using their broadband connections (mostly though video-on-demand – 44%),” according to the research.

Mass market proposition

Gunatillaka says that its TiVo offering has reached “the mass market very quickly” and claims that the 27% figure shows that it is “not a niche product”, with further growth likely to follow as Com Hem continues to develop the product.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve been pleased with the take-up of TiVo and I suppose in a way we’re happy that it’s grown rapidly, because I think it reflects the fact that TiVo was addressing a need, specifically in the Swedish market, which is for there to be a one-stop shop for entertainment,” says Gunatillaka. “I think TiVo provides that, because obviously it’s able to aggregate many content sources together into one environment, which is one of the key benefits of TiVo.”

One of the main content sources to be added into the service at an early date was Netflix. Com Hem integrated the SVoD service into its platform in January 2014, becoming one of the first operators to do so. While some may have considered it a risky strategy to invite a disruptive OTT player onto a closed content platform, for Gunatillaka it was a simple case of trying to establish Com Hem as a “one-stop shop” for content.

“We [have] worked very hard with our content partners to provide a really comprehensive content line-up; the packages which our subscribers have access to have a really good content line-up on multiple screens. So we were confident to bring Netflix onto our service, because we saw it as being complementary to our offering,” he says.

Com Hem allows customers to log in to a current Netflix account or subscribe direct through their TiVo box. It has also integrated Netflix with Com Hem’s TiVo search function, so that any search instigated by TiVo users will include content from Netflix.

By not forcing users to change HDMI inputs, and by placing the content together in one ecosystem, Com Hem is aiming for ease of use and a better customer experience – and it is not just Netflix that is available on the platform.

Cirkus, a subscription online service focused around ‘the best of British’ TV content, is also available via Com Hem, having launched on the platform in December 2013. Cirkus has deals with ITV Studios, BBC Worldwide and All3Media among others, giving it shows including Sherlock, Midsomer Murders and Poirot.

Gunatillaka says that Com Hem is “looking for great titles and stuff that will excite customers; it’s not a volume game for us”. For the Swedish operator, the key is quality, not quantity. “In our view we’ve combined taking content from content providers that are trusted in the Swedish market and our strategy is to complement those core content packages with selected services, like Cirkus and Netflix,” says Gunatillaka. “It’s about careful curation.”

For the time being, this curation rests around video content – not on providing other internet-powered services like music streaming or gaming. “We’re obviously always open to other applications and services on the platform, but our focus should be on providing great content,” says Gunatillaka.

Innovation and convergence

An area of innovation that Com Hem has focused on is around improving the customer experience – specifically work on user navigation. Gunatillaka says the aim is “to make it even easier to find the content we love” – something that Com Hem will continue to work on “in the coming months.”

“I think our task is to continue making content discovery even easier for customers,” says Gunatillaka. “We’re going to continue to innovate and tweak the interface, continue to editorialise the content we have better and better. We are not going to sit still. We will continue to look at ways of bringing content to life for our customers.”

“What I’m keen to do is to address customer needs, which is to find and consume great content. I’m not interested in technology for technology’s sake,” he adds.

Providing content to users across multiple different screens is important for Com Hem. However, with the main platforms of iOS, Android and the web already supported, Gunatillaka says that its philosophy is to focus on improving the experience there rather than working to extend the offering to connected TVs and other platforms.

One way that Com Hem has worked to improve its multiscreen experience is by investing heavily in broadband – something that is important as TV and broadband increasingly converge.

“You need the best broadband service to consume content delivered over the internet,” says Gunatillaka. “I think the key focus is for us to build on our current position of being the fastest network in Sweden, reaching speeds of over 500Mbps to over 1.6 million households.”

One aspect of this will be based around further network investment; the other will be around improving the in-home experience.

At the beginning of the year Com Hem demonstrated its commitment to the latter by launching a next-generation modem router, designed to offer a latest generation WiFi experience to customers – a move designed to help customers with multiple devices “get the most out of their broadband.”

Looking ahead, Gunatillaka stresses that Com Hem is focused squarely on “delivering a great customer experience”. The firm has been single-minded in its focus on TiVo, he says, because it provides the best of both worlds of DVR capabilities and internet-powered apps. “We want to deliver a market-leading customer experience across all of our products, and that’s what we’re focusing on right now.”

Asanga Gunatillaka spoke day three of Cable Congress 2015 on a panel session titled “OTT – New Game, New Rules for Operators and Content Providers?”

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