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Service providers are taking tentative steps into the world of home networking. Advances in technology and standards including DLNA are making the process easier but how far are operators willing to go? Graham Pomphrey reports.

Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to home entertainment – everyone’s got an iPod, uploads photos and uses social networking websites, while take-up of DVR and HD services continues apace. According to telecom infrastructure provider Ericsson, French homes have an average of 14 media devices, six of which have screens. Media consumption, however, remains fragmented and service providers are keen to play a leading role in converging devices around the home.
While some have made tentative steps by offering routers to connect multiple PCs within the home, for example, recent developments in technology and standards mean that some operators are seriously considering offering a range of advanced services that utilise the home network. “There have been three issues operators have had to consider,” says set-top box vendor Pace’s chief technologist Paul Entwistle. “The performance of the home network itself, which I think is now largely addressed; content protection, certainly for premium TV content, for which I think there are sufficient cryptographic tools available to allow that to happen, and also how to get different devices to talk to each other, which has been addressed by the DLNA.”

Quality of service

The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) was created with the express aim of developing standards to ensure the interoperability of devices within the home. With over 250 members and the number of certified products surpassing 5,000, it has enabled the possibility of advanced operator-controlled home networking to take greater strides forward. Questions remain about technologies and business models but one thing is for sure: operators are very keen to ‘own the home’ as competition mounts up from content owners, mobile operators, internet TV services and consumer electronic device manufactures, not to mention rival operators.

How far operators go down the route of enabling content to be shared between multiple devices within the home remains to be seen. Service providers might be quick to offer a multiroom DVR-style service, perhaps followed by an over-the-top service via Ethernet connectivity in set-top boxes, but consumers are likely to demand the ability to watch content across a range of devices in the home.

“The set-top box is pretty powerful and we can convert a broadcast stream to IP. Once we’ve got it in that format it’s sufficient to move around the home.”
Paul Entwistle, Pace

Service providers remain unsure how much control they should retain over home networks, wary that customer service departments could be overwhelmed when things go wrong.  Pascal Portelli, Thomson’s vice-president, gateways and connected devices,  says advances in technology mean operators are now able to better control their networks to ensure quality of service. “Software is now available that allows remote monitoring of what goes on in the network, including in the home gateway. It means operators can fix issues that occur, often remotely and even pre-emptively, which makes things less costly. There will always be complexity when it comes to maintaining networks but it’s much easier now than it was a couple of years ago.”

Home networking specialist Motorola offers service assurance solutions in all of its home gateways to help operators ensure quality of service for their customers. According to Chris Kohler, senior director of engineering for Motorola home and networks mobility, once operators start to move video, as opposed to data, around the home, service assurance becomes paramount. “Video content is susceptible to packet loss or bit-error rates. You can’t afford to drop bits and have blocking because customers will complain. If an operator is only moving high-speed data internet traffic around the home, most people consider that it’s a ‘best effort’ approach. You can’t take that attitude with video.”

Services

The complexity involved in managing a home network is likely to mean that operators start with fairly basic applications. Set-top box vendor ADB’s CEO François Pogodalla believes it’s not technology issues that have held operators back, but finding the right services to offer customers. “Various home networking technologies have been presented to the market but no real application that makes excellent use of it,” he says. “We’re starting to see solutions being deployed, or close to deployment, using Ethernet, Powerline, MoCa or WiFi in some cases so its time to start developing useful applications. We’ve been working on applications like multiroom DVR, tuner sharing, follow-me TV, photo album sharing, internet content to the TV and MP3 streaming. These are the types of applications that might eventually make sense for end-users.”

Operators in Europe are already starting to see some success with multiroom TV services – in the UK, DTH operator Sky has nearly two million multiroom customers. The next logical step is to extend the service to network DVRs, allowing the content stored on one to be viewed on TVs throughout the home. Set-top vendor Pace has deployed a multiroom service to French pay-TV outfit Canal Plus for example. Users of Le Cube boxes can stream live TV from one TV to another over a home network. The device has one tuner to play or record on the primary TV set and a second one to enable a content stream via Ethernet to other set-tops within the home. This kind of scenario not only makes sense from a consumer point of view but is also fairly simple for an operator to manage. “The set-top box is pretty powerful and we can convert a broadcast stream to IP. Once we’ve got it in that format it’s sufficient to move around the home,” says Pace’s Entwistle.

One of the issues surrounding the movement of video in the home is the amount of bandwidth required when it comes to HD content, as TV technology company Tandberg Television’s IPTV business development director Alan Delaney explains: “If you reach the point where you want to deliver three HD streams, it’s not just a case of it being encoded to 10Mbps, giving you a total of 30Mbps to move around the network – you also have to look at the increase in capacity you have to ensure from the introduction of trick modes like fast forward and pause. You end up with potentially a lot of bandwidth needed to move it all simultaneously around the home. There’s a general pressure to ensure the technology optimises the bandwidth without compromising the picture quality.”

One thing is clear: operators will have to think carefully about the practicalities of each service or application they deliver over the network. At this year’s IBC, ADB will be demonstrating ways of delivering content from the internet to the TV set, from websites including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter using DLNA and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). “It’s an interesting problem,” says Pogodalla. “It’s far from being as simple as offering an internet browser on the TV set. People don’t use TVs in the same way as computers so content has to be repurposed or reformatted so it fits the screen and works with a remote control. Very quickly you find that lots of things need to be put in place before it becomes a good user experience.”

Operators also have concerns about the fact that content owners could avoid them altogether if they fail to take steps to own the home. “If [operators] don’t own the home, someone else will,” says Thomson’s Portelli. “Some network service providers are starting to get wary of being commoditised by OTT providers, such as Apple or Google who could basically use their pipe while service providers would see a limited part of the value-add. There’s competitive pressure and they realise it’s going to be a must-have feature to keep customers in the long run, and of course it’s a way to differentiate.”

Simply enabling the home network is unlikely to net operators any additional revenue. They might also consider offering value-add services. One obvious way is to charge for additional TVs in the home that are able to receive pay-TV services. “Operators are expanding their reach from the living room to bedrooms. Monetising additional services provided to individuals in a family in addition to the usual services provided to the entire family is one option,” says Philippe Stransky, content security specialist Nagravision’s chief architect. “This might be access to broadcast content on a second screen or an OTT download service for example.”

Other services that could be offered to customers include home surveillance and  secure network back-up for personal content, including photos and music. According to Thomson’s Portelli, operators might opt to bundle additional services into existing features as a means of increasing ARPU rather than charging for additional services. But depending on the market and operator’s strategy, some customers might be prepared to pay a premium for something particularly appealing or useful, he says: “Some customers might be more responsive to certain services. Home security is popular in the US, for example, but the ISP usually has very little to do with it. The popularity of this service will be important in some European countries as well; in others people won’t care so much.”

Technology choices

Even though operator-controlled home networks have been slow off the blocks so far, technology companies have been working to ensure their solutions can handle complex scenarios as and when they are required. Richard Baker, executive vice-president of TV software specialist ANT explains how the company developed its Galio solution with one eye on convergence within the home: “Our core strategy as we developed the Galio platform was to build it as a connected framework architecture. It connects the resources of the embedded device to the applications that want to use them; it was also built with open standards in mind. We saw drivers around UPnP come onto devices and today Galio has the ability to talk across a UPnP network. When DLNA emerged, we architectured Galio to allow extensions to be added to our portability as DLNA player and server capabilities became available.”

Set-top box vendor Amino, like ANT, focuses on IPTV operators, and according to product marketing manager David Groves, operators considering developing home networking solutions are planning for the set-top box to play a major role. “From a telco point of view, the emergence of two content routes – over the top and broadcast – in addition to the usual offering, means we see a lot of interest in the set-top box as part of the home network,” he explains. “Additionally, content destined for the living room can be coming into a house on the PC, in a different room, and that needs passing to the living room. All this has to be managed, for the majority of consumers, in as simple a way as turning on the equipment, without having to download or upgrade software, add drivers or reboot.”

While many telcos now offer broadband, telephony and TV services, many have yet to take the step of consolidating the products into a single home gateway device. “The modem is sold as a retail product. Most people have already got through two or three for reliability reasons, whereas the set-top is a service-provider piece of equipment,” says Groves.
However, for operators wanting to handle home networking themselves, the home gateway model, in which content is stored centrally and distributed around the home to DLNA-compliant devices, is a likely scenario. Thomson produces residential gateways and believes they will play a major role in operators’ digital home strategies. “The gateway gives operators a foothold in the consumer home,” says Portelli. “Now we’re moving from a world where operators needed access points to where they need a service engine capable of offering a range of applications.” He says that while the underlying access technologies differ between cable operators and telcos, Thomson is developing software that works across IP and cable gateways: “We have to use different chipsets but we’re trying to make the software as similar as possible so the same software can run on a cable gateway or an ADSL gateway.”
Motorola is also seeing a lot of interest in cable gateways. According to Kohler, the devices mean cable operators can deliver a range of services via IP within the home, leading to capex and opex savings.  “Today, in a traditional QAM or DVB-C environment, you’re running the whole RF spectrum throughout the home,” he says. “Troubleshooting and supporting that is not particularly easy, especially when customers start adding splitters or changing the cabling. There are all sorts of potential problems that end up with phone calls to customer services. Nine out of ten times it’s an RF problem.” He says that cable gateways can simplify the process and drive down operational costs: “If you terminate the QAM or DVB-C signal at one point in the home and let the gateway manage the home network using a more simple distribution method that’s based on pure IP content, you enable a much simpler home network to support and to troubleshoot if there are problems in the future. That can lead to opex savings.”

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Jungo, owned by NDS, specialises in middleware specifically for home gateways. “The home gateway will play a key role in connecting consumer electronic devices in the home to a wide range of services,” says Eran Rom, CEO of Jungo. “Key to this is the interoperability between consumer devices and the gateway. The home gateway is the hub of the network in the home, connected to the operator and to all of the devices on the home network.”
One of the challenges facing service providers is that they might have multiple gateway models with various middleware platforms, making it difficult to deploy new services quickly and efficiently. Hardware-agnostic middleware for gateways that can be deployed across the service provider’s entire installed base can remove this problem, according to Rom. “It also enables them to streamline broadband deployment and ongoing management, as well as accelerate the introduction of new services while substantially reducing operational costs,” Rom says.
Aside from the issues surrounding managing home networks, interacting with third-party devices and nailing down business models, securing premium content once it leaves the set-top or home gateway remains another hurdle.
Nagravision has developed a solution targeting operators that need content to be protected while stored and when it is being passed on to other devices. The Nagra Media PRM (persistent rights management) provides content protection for on-demand content streaming and downloading, stored content on a DVR, portable media player or PC running Windows and Mac operating systems. “Nagra Media PRM provides the means for the service provider to define the usage rights and usage rules for streamed and stored content,” says Stransky. “It is also a fan-out point towards other content protection eco-systems in the home.” Nagravision has also developed a solution to bring the same content delivered on a set-top box to a portable device. Nagra Media Player integrates a conditional access solution and PRM to extend the reach of consumer content from the living room to other rooms within the homes. According to Stransky, when thinking about security solutions, operators should make sure they choose a system that does not exclude the use of other DRMs, to remain as flexible as possible. Nagravision is working with French pay-TV operator Canal Plus to bridge technology from its PRM content solution to Microsoft DRM. “It’s possible to bridge to any DRM, as long as the robustness rules are complete,” says Stransky.

Different approach

One company taking a different approach to home networking, one that doesn’t require a gateway or additional set-top boxes, is Sling Media, inventors of the Sling Box, a device that uses the internet to deliver live broadcast streams from a user’s set-top box to a computer anywhere in the world with a broadband connection. More recently it launched the Sling Catcher, a similar device based on the same principles but that delivers the content to another TV, in the same building or elsewhere. Set-top vendor EchoStar, whose parent company owns Sling, has integrated the proprietary place-shifting technology into its SlingLoaded set-top boxes. According to Stuart Collingwood, vice-president EMEA, the success of Sling Media is down to the simplicity of using the service. People, he says, will only be interested in home networking-type services if they are easy to use. “Above all of what technology can deliver, people are first and foremost attracted to things that are easy to use.”
According to Collingwood, pay-TV operators support Sling Media’s technology because it solves the problem of subscribers wanting to watch content on other devices without needing a new set-top box or a home networking infrastructure. “We know that large percentages of our customers are allied to particular operators and we know that as long as they’ve got their Sling Box, DVR and other services, they’re not going to cancel [their subscriptions],” he says.
For operators, the key decisions may not come down to which technology to choose for home networking solutions, but rather which business models to exploit, and perhaps of more importance, how quickly they can embrace them. In the face of growing pressure from companies outside the traditional broadcast/telco space wanting to own at least part of the home – the quicker the better. “Service providers who recognise the changes in the market – and who commit to implementing the necessary environment to accommodate them – are best positioned for the future,” says Jungo’s Rom.

Tags: home, networking