Interview: Thomas Helbo, CTO, Com Hem

Thomas Helbo

Thomas Helbo

Com Hem’s chief technology officer, Thomas Helbo, discusses innovation in the internet age. Andrew McDonald reports.

Swedish operator Com Hem has a history of innovation. Back in 2013 it was one of the first operators in the European cable market to embrace Netflix and welcome the SVOD service onto its platform – a strategy that has now taken root within the industry as Netflix’s power, influence and original content budget continues to rise. The firm is now looking forward to a world where internet delivery is ubiquitous as an important guide for its strategic direction.

Speaking at this week’s Cable Congress, CEO Anders Nilsson explained that Com Hem is moving towards an app-focused future where Com Hem Play, rather than its set-top box, will be the focus of it TV offering. He predicted that within a couple of years users will have total choice over where to access Com Hem’s linear and on-demand offering, with the set-top box an optional gateway for users to plug into the TV.

In the meantime, work is underway on a new box that will provide more functionality to Com Hem’s non-TiVo base, providing a seamless experience whether users access TV over IP, digital or cable. This is particularly important following Com Hem’s acquisition of digital-terrestrial pay TV service Boxer last year – something that has moved the company from the MDU (multi-dwelling unit) market also into the SDU (single dwelling unit) market.

Speaking to DTVE ahead of the Brussels trade event, Com Hem’s chief technology officer Thomas Helbo says that the current direction of travel is clearly towards internet delivery and while this is taking longer than he had initially expected, he still believes that we are only 10 years out from an all-IP world.

“We have a huge part of the customers who are being provided with fibre-to-the-home and fibre-to-the-building. They don’t have any coaxial cable within their households, so we are providing the services to different infrastructures today,” he says. “That will continue to grow and maybe in  five to 10 years from now, we will merge into IP.”

Cable’s internet age

IP has won against “any technology it’s been fighting against” and eventually will also sweep aside DVB-C, according to Helbo. “Today DVB-C is by far the most effective way of distributing broadcast TV, but in the future, when things go more and more interactive, we will need to provide more unicast to the consumer and then things will merge into IP.”

For this to happen, the set-top boxes that Com Hem provides will have to change to keep pace to adapt to all-internet delivery. Helbo explains that majority of the set-top boxes that Com Hem has in the marketplace today are one-way set-tops that only have a DVB-C tuner, with only some 40% of its digital TV footprint on the TiVo platform – its advanced television solution that is IP-capable.

“We need to have the devices within the household replaced and then we’ll do things in steps, I think. We’ll start migrating the interactive services, then we’ll take some of the niche content on the linear TVs and migrate to IP. Then eventually when we feel comfortable doing it, we’ll be able to migrate the top 10 TV services,” explains Helbo.

“We see a need for doing something for the additional 60% not having a TiVo. We are in the phase of looking into how to do that and how to provide a solution that will enable us. We have the Com Hem Play service, which is a multi-screen solution, which allows you to do things interactively, even though you don’t have a TiVo box. But it’s still relatively early, and not that many customers are using the services yet.”

Asked what kind of solution Com Hem is looking to migrate its older-box customers to, Helbo says the idea is to have a solution available to customers this year. However he adds that the operator is “yet to decide how aggressive we can be in migrating the legacy customers”. He also says Com Hem hasn’t taken a decision yet on whether this offering will be based on the TiVo platform. “The main focus is to give something to the 60% that is not having a TiVo box today.”

In terms of functionality, Ultra HD is high on Com Hem’s agenda. “The next generation set-top box, that will be launched hopefully this year, will have the capabilities of Ultra HD and HDR,” says Helbo, who predicts that the 2018 Winter Olympics will help it to “kickstart” UHD in the country. “It’s my experience that you often need some kind of an event, which can trigger people to actually see the difference and see the quality and the services and then more and more services will come.”

Future times

Com Hem pushed the envelope in 2013 when it allowed Netflix onto its TiVo platform. Liberty Global’s broad international deal with the SVOD giant late last year clearly showed that these deals are becoming more popular as operators seek to cater to all their customers’ viewing needs without having them leave their platform. Helbo believes that Com Hem’s early embrace of Netflix was definitely the right approach and he can foresee even more innovation in the company’s role as content aggregator – both in terms of categories of content and the way it offers that to viewers.

“Looking forwards, I think that some of that content will be available from sources that are not really common within the pay TV industry to date. Today we usually get things from the broadcasters, from the MTG Group, from Discovery, from the local broadcasters, but we need to have a platform that is so flexible we can actually maintain having different sources, which is not necessarily broadcast-like. So it could be adding more archive services directly, or it could be something like for instance Twitch TV or things like that. We need to find a business model where it makes sense to include services like that.”

Amazon’s blockbuster US$970 million investment in video-game video site Twitch in 2014 well and truly put eSports on the map. MTG’s investments in eSports firms Turtle Entertainment and DreamHack are just another example of the growing interest that broadcasters are taking in this space. While a wealth of videogame content is available free to the end-consumer on platforms like YouTube and Twitch, Helbo believes that there will be a demand for premium content – for example the eSports equivalent of English Premier League football. This is content Com Hem will be keen to offer – no matter who is delivering it.

“It may not be the broadcasters as you know them today – it may be someone else popping up saying ‘well we have a premium service, do you want to buy it?’ To us it’s important to be the aggregator, not necessarily who are the providers of the content.”

As for further steps into the gaming market, Helbo can also foresee the set-top box becoming a casual gaming device in the future, though he cautions that “we don’t intend to compete with PlayStation”.

He also strikes a cautious tone when discussing Com Hem’s first steps into the virtual reality space, which it made last year when it experimented with developing a VR-based environment for online service Com Hem Play. Helbo describes this as something that Com Hem found “very interesting” and would like to continue working on, but with “one primary concern”.

“We would like to have other operators working with us, because we don’t want to do a huge investment in something that we are the only operator pushing. We don’t necessarily see that we have to be the first mover, but we want to follow and monitor and see if something comes up. Then we’ll be able to follow quite quickly, because we’ve tried to build a back-end set-up which is fairly flexible, so we can easily migrate to the services. We are looking into doing some more trials currently.”

Helbo says that Com Hem would be interested in working with both rival pay TV operators and other media companies in this space – offering both broadcast-style content as well as potentially some kind of gaming service that would promote Com Hem’s broadband services. “We have a high speed and we have a good capacity in the network, so it’s possible to use VR or AR to promote speed on broadband as well. So it’s not necessarily a TV thing.”

Creative connectivity

While Com Hem does not currently have a mobile offering, Helbo predicts that this could be important for the company’s long-term direction. “We don’t have any active plans on mobile, but I think going forwards that we will need to be having a role [in mobile]. So we need to find which role that we want to have and then when we want to do it,” he says.

Asked about the importance of being able to deliver content over 4G and 5G networks, he says: “I think it would be important to make content available anywhere, any time and on any device, so definitely that’s something we need to really consider.”

Acquisitions and consolidation in the European cable market in recent years has clearly shown that scale is important in the industry and Helbo notes that Sweden is quite unique as a European market where giants like Liberty Global and Vodafone do not have a presence. “Within Sweden we have significant scale. We are the biggest ones on TV and we’re probably number two on broadband, behind Telia, the incumbent. Scale is definitely important.”

Since joining Com Hem as chief technology officer last May, Helbo has put together a plan for the Swedish cable operator’s strategic direction, which he explains is focused around four areas: its TV and cable network; coax infrastructure; data usage and machine learning; and its overall core infrastructure.

Com Hem’s hybrid fibre network means its frequency bands can be used for TV, on-demand services or broadband. “It’s very flexible and it’s actually very high capacity.” Com Hem’s future direction will see it move to a converged cable access platform (CCAP) in order to maximise capacity. The company has recently done a proof of concept trial, and plans to roll this out to most of its customers by the end of 2017. Helbo says that Com Hem also aims to plans to move to DOCSIS 3.1 this year – “as soon as we’ve done two or three upgrades of the CCAP platform”.

“I think DOCSIS 3.1 is the next natural step that we can do without replacing anything but headend equipment,” says Helbo. However he adds that there has been some discussion internally about whether Com Hem should then upgrade the coax infrastructure or take fibre directly to the building and then use the existing infrastructure to move to full-duplex DOCSIS – which he describes as “the next step after DOCSIS 3.1”

Com Hem today offers top speeds of 1Gbps downstream and 100Mbps upstream. While the operator does not have a committed roadmap on what speeds it will move to in the future, Helbo predicts that it will continue to evolve and offer faster speeds in three to five year’s time. He adds: “The focus of building the full-duplex DOCSIS is to have symmetrical bandwidths, so this will allow us to do 1Gbps up, 1Gbps down.”

“The idea is to build an infrastructure from an access and distribution level that is agnostic to which services are provided, which cables are enabled within the household. The consumers don’t really care if they have a coax cable, if they have a fibre or they have an Ethernet cable into the apartment; they care about the services.”

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