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Open all apps: pay TV and hybrid content delivery

Operators such as Com Hem have embraced OTT services including Netflix

Operators such as Com Hem have embraced OTT services including Netflix

Pay TV providers are increasingly embracing hybrid delivery and the inclusion of OTT services such as Netflix. But how far down this route do they want to go and what implications do their technology choices carry? Stuart Thomson reports.

Pay TV operators – at least in Europe – are increasingly being driven by the popularity of services including Netflix to provide IP-based OTT content alongside legacy MPEG broadcast services.

Most advanced pay TV broadcasters are looking to develop hybrid platforms that combine linear broadcast channels with IP-based on-demand and catch-up services. Not everyone is convinced of the merits of providing access to Netflix on their set-top boxes. However, a significant number of cable and telecom service providers are of the opinion that the more popular content they offer to their customers – from whatever source – the better.

The steps being taken towards migration to IP delivery by DVB-based pay TV broadcasters – particularly cable operators – are well documented. Operators are progressively moving towards all-IP headends, and towards delivering video in IP as close as possible to the edge of their networks. However, taking IP-based video, including OTT services, all the way to end users has implications for the design and functionality of set-top boxes. Cable operators such as Liberty Global-owned Virgin Media, and Com Hem with TiVo, have deployed hybrid boxes that allow them to continue to support legacy DVB broadcast delivery alongside new IP-based services, including the likes of Netflix and YouTube.

In setting off on this path, operators have taken steps to migrate from older middlewares that supported limited interactive TV services to more advanced technologies, including the RDK platform promoted by Comcast and Google’s Android TV system, as well as the likes of TiVo.

Perfect platform

According to Asanga Gunatillaka, chief product officer at Swedish cable operator Com Hem, TiVo provides the “perfect platform” for advanced services and “provides both technology and market-leading expertise” that Com Hem, as an operator, can leverage.

“Some of the things operators need to think about include not just technology but what they are getting in terms of product features. A lot of the technologies out there are really operating systems and you have to develop functionality on top,” he says.

Gunatillaka gives the example of mobile multiscreen delivery as an area where the use of TiVo’s platform has enabled it to get services up and running quickly and enabled it to avoid long and costly integration efforts.

“TiVo has integrated mobile multiscreen, allowing customers to set a recording or use their iPad as a virtual remote,” he says.

One of the key questions facing operators that have developed hybrid and IP delivery is how far to open up their platform – whether to form partnerships with a limited number of high-profile providers such as Netflix, or open up to a much wider range of OTT  apps.

For Gunatillaka, developing a hybrid platform is about enabling customers to do additional things. It is not a substitute for cable’s role as an aggregator and packager of content and custodian of the user experience. He stops short of endorsing the view that pay TV providers should simply act as storefronts for others’ content and services.

“We are curators of the customer experience. We make the billing and discovery of content simple and provide a one-stop shop. From a user-experience perspective, it’s important to have a single user interface as a prime point of discovery for content but also have the flexibility to enable them to go into a full screen environment,” he says. “We have an app-enabled platform. We have YouTube on the platform and users can enable a full-screen experience for that. However, we are the curator, and it’s about helping the consumer find the best content. We partner with selected services rather than have a bewildering mass of icons on the screen.”

For Gunatillaka, OTT is “complementary – and that is why we are happy to include it”. In the case of Netflix, he says, the operator has taken the approach of providing access to the full Netflix experience but also integrating Netflix content into its own search tools.
“Netflix is an impressive service not just in terms of content but the elegance of its UI. As a one-stop shop we have integrated that app but the beauty of our search functionality is you can find something from Netflix [on our platform], and then launch the Netflix app,” he says. “Our preference is to focus on our core UI and we will then look at things on a case-by-case basis. Netflix offered a very good discovery experience and we were happy to [icitspot id=”449382″ template=”box-story”]have that on board.”

In general, says Gunatillaka, operators will continue to play the role of content aggregator as well as differentiating their service through the user experience. “We need to bring on the best content but at the same time deliver the best discovery experience,” he says. “Our focus has been on broadband for the last 18 months, which has paid off. The work we have done has given us an all-time high customer base but we have also seen a high rate of TiVo growth – from zero to a third of the base. TV is very much at the heart of the business and underpinned by strong broadband growth. You need to be a leader in both.”

Gunatillaka says that Com Hem’s TiVo box is “not just a box but a multiscreen service – the box is what you have in the home but the experience is also about multiscreen apps. We have the set-top in the home and cloud-based delivery of content to iPads and smartphones”.

He says that the box still has a central role to play. “Consumer premises equipment is a great way of ensuring a robust TV services that customers frankly expect, especially on the main TV,” he says. “Over time more and more things may be app-centric but there is still great relevance in having a media hub in the home. It is all about being pragmatic and making sure that customers can do what they  want to do, and that the navigation tools provided are robust.”

RDK and OTT

While Com Hem, along with Virgin Media in the UK and Vodafone-owned Ono in Spain, opted for TiVo, Virgin Media’s parent company Liberty Global, which earlier launched the Cisco-supplied Horizon TV platform in various western European countries, has turned to RDK for its latest Horizon launch in Poland. (Vodafone-owned Kabel Deutschland has also licensed the RDK software for its own advanced TV plans).

“The RDK platform has a number of benefits because RDK was built [on the initiative of] an operator and not a technology provider. They put in ideas and concepts that they had in mind as an operator,” says Peter Hahn, director of product management, Seachange, which has been closely involved with and aligned to the RDK project. “A lot of these are around three elements – innovation, flexibility and quick time to market, and control. Control is very important for a lot of operators so that they…can make their decisions and define where they want to go in the future. They want to control the UI, because that is very important and going forward will be the part of the service that differentiates the operator most. They also want control over the future of the platform – the way it evolves, which elements will be supported technically and control of the costs that will be associated with these platforms.”

Because RDK only deals with the basic elements, says Hahn, operators are able to retain flexibility and room to innovate at the application layer. Most operator UIs are built using HTML5 and content apps can be deployed on top of this.

“We are also working with app providers that provide apps as part of a store that brings added flexibilty on top of the HTML5 layer. Today it is still a niche, but all the new projects involve app stores. Going forwards the majority of deployments will have some sort of app store,” says Hahn. However, operators are willing to sacrifice the app-rich world of Android for a degree of influence, he suggests. “They want some sort of control over the app store. If you go for Android you are opening up to potential competitors. With operator-controlled app stores you can secure your investment in the set-tops.”

This is an important aspect for operators that are deploying set-tops that sit on their balance sheet, putting money on the table in the expectation that the sale of content will provide a predictable return on investment.

For Hahn, cable’s migration to IP is something that will happen in stages. He points out that, in the case of RDK, DVB technology is used simply to deliver video rather than accompanying metadata.

“Cable operators are thinking of going pure IP – definitely with metadata and as IP delivery becomes more affordable they will go that way for video,” he says.

Open source options

While cable operators started in TV and added broadband and telecom services to their portfolio later, telecom operators see TV as a way of boosting and reinforcing their core offering of broadband. As such, they have been more open to Android and less fearful of giving up too much ground to Google than a cable operator may be. However, not every telecom operator views the world the same way, and some are looking at alternative strategies, with select very large players even looking to RDK as the best option.

Android for TV has two variants – the full-fat Android TV platform, certified by Google, which includes access to the Google Play store and integration with Chromecast and the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), whereby Google makes most (but not all) of the elements of the Android source code available royalty-free to third parties to develop their own proprietary devices and services. In the AOSP approach, Google is not providing its services such as its store, Chromecast and YouTube app. Swisscom, among others, has enthusiastically embraced Android Open Source as the basis of its TV 2.0 platform, believing that it gives enough control to the operator while allowing it to leverage some of the benefits of Android.

Switzerland-based iWedia has been closely involved in developing Android platforms. Marketing director Hervé Creff says that Android’s advantages include its open source nature and app ecosystem. This includes the ability to develop new services via apps, the wide range of existing apps and the existence of an extensive community of app developers.

Creff contrasts this with the “lack of flexibility” of legacy pay TV middlewares, where the time taken to introduce new services no longer “corresponds to the lifecycle of the TV market”. RDK, he says, is too cable-oriented. Creff also admits that going for Android does align operators with Google, which may be uncomfortable for some.

Wyplay has developed hybrid TV platforms for operators including Canal+

Wyplay has developed hybrid TV platforms for operators including Canal+

“Android TV is perhaps more suited to TV service providers who see themselves as content ‘distributors’. This is why it started with telcos – Swisscom, Bouygues Telecom – and has more difficulty convincing legacy sat-cab pay TV operators who have their own consistent policy with respect to content management,” he says. “In that respect Android TV should be very interesting for small-to-medium-sized operators who might find it difficult to build a consistent content offering – which naturally comes together with Android TV.”

Creff says that operators could combine Android TV with their own search and recommendation tools, allowing them to present different sources of content using an alternative approach to ranking findings. “Even though an operator might use Android TV, it could make the choice to use its own search engine and recommendation engine. And these engines could encompass different sources of content including those delivered by Google,” he says. “The other way they could choose [to go] is to use Google’s search and recommendation engines and have those engines encompass other sources of content than Google’s.”

Alternative advanced TV platforms include Frog by Wyplay. This open source operating system from France-based Wyplay has been adopted by players including Sky Italia for the IP-based service it offers in partnership with Telecom Italia. Other key customers include Proximus in Belgium – the former Belgacom – and Canal+.

Dominique Feral, co-founder and general manager of Wyplay, says that the company’s installed base of about 10 million devices is still “small” compared with established pay TV middleware providers. However he argues that Wyplay’s open-source approach, using Linux components that already exist in many devices, along with HTML5, provides flexibility to operators that older systems struggle to achieve. He says Wyplay’s approach is similar to that of RDK, but that the latter provides a ‘toolbox’ that is quite complex and that operators will generally require the services of a system integrator to make sense of it. “We try to provide a pre-integrated solution for operators but we have an open approach,” he says. Regarding Android, he says that Frog is “complementary rather than a direct competitor”.

“Android for me is going to deliver the richest app ecosystem, but it is not going to provide all the stuff a pay TV operator is looking for, such as PVR functionality, Teletext, security and all the DVB-related stuff,” he says. In fact, says Feral, Wyplay has developed a complete Frog for Android version, which it will demonstrate at IBC, with discussions for deployment underway with two large operators.

Wyplay is involved in one project involving the Android Open Source Project and one full Android TV project, according to Feral. “The pro with Android TV is you get access to the Google Store and apps and a short time to market. You have access to Chromecast and Netflix – the service is populated with content on day one,” he says. On the downside, the operator has to have a button on its remote that sends viewers straight to the Google universe with access to apps that might be directly competitive with other services that the operator is trying to promote. With the Android Open Source Project, operators can contract individual Android app developers to create bespoke apps on a case-by-case basis.

Regarding Frog by Wyplay itself, the company provides operators with the capability to create their own app store, as has been done by Proximus in Belgium. Wyplay provides solutions both for the back end and client. The Frog back-end platform can help operators aggregate new content sources and “make them transparent for the set-top box”, according to Feral. The platform aggregates metadata from different sources and presents it in an integrated way.

Combining additional sources of content and providing unified search, together with access to the full user experience of a seasoned OTT provider such as Netflix, can be challenging, particularly if operators are looking to make services available over older generations of set-top boxes with different levels of capability. Proximus is planning to release a new version of its own platform that matches the next-generation user experience of OTT providers such as Netflix, which has its own app on the platform.

In the face of demand for services, operators are embracing OTT, but cautiously. Few want to give up control and reduce themselves to dumb storefronts, leaving all the added value to third party apps. Indeed, their investment in set-top boxes – a strategy that lives on, precisely because it enables operators to better control the user experience – means that they can’t afford to sell the pass to OTT entirely.

Cable and telecom operators may have entered into an alliance with large OTT players, but they remain reluctant to let go of the reins altogether. In the meantime, their traditional content provider partners are themselves experimenting with direct-to-consumer delivery. Both sides are hedging their bets.