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Taking things further

The proliferation of connected devices like tablets and smartphones, combined with the threat from OTT players, means operators are more acutely aware than ever of the need to launch multiscreen services. Graham Pomphrey reports.

Sky Deutschland recently became the latest pay TV operator to launch a multiscreen offering, in a move that CEO Brian Sullivan proclaimed was a  “TV revolution”. Sky Go allows Sky subscribers to use the service via a second set-top box, on their PCs and mobile devices for €12 a month.
There can be no doubt that multiscreen distribution will have a dramatic effect on the pay TV industry, if it hasn’t already. It touches on a number of trends within the pay TV industry – the shift from watching live content to on-demand programming, the popularity of catch-up services, and the ubiquity of smartphones and introduction of tablet devices. Operators are still trying to work out how best to deliver their services across multiple devices, but many are acutely aware that they need to make the move quickly.
The success of services like iPlayer, Hulu and Netflix proves that consumers are willing to watch content on devices other than the TV, and in the case of Netflix in particular are willing to pay for it. So should operators be concerned that customers will jump ship and use these aggregated services instead of paying for a package of premium linear channels?
“Some people will tell you they don’t need their pay TV service and would prefer to pay US$7.99 (€5.50) to Netflix,” says Thierry Fautier, senior director of convergence solutions at Harmonic. “There are 20 million Netflix customers and they could all potentially ditch their pay TV operator – it’s something that can’t be ignored.”
Despite the rising popularity of online services, many believe that people will, for some time at least, still want to consume the majority of their TV on the main screen in the living room. Providing additional services to other devices is likely to be supplementary to this.
“People still want to consume content in their living room without having to make much of an effort,” says Steve Davi, senior vice-president of advanced technology, SeaChange. “Service providers, being aggregators of content, are well positioned to provide that service. But they still have to provide the capabilities for their subscribers to get access to this other content on other devices. They have some work to do but are well placed to do it.”

Evolving strategies

Pay TV operators that made an early move into multiscreen delivery have tended to launch initially to the PC. With the growing popularity of tablets, some are starting to view these devices, along with the latest smartphones, as the key devices to target. “The ubiquity of the tablet has had an extraordinary impact,” says NDS director of segment marketing Jonathan Beavon. “Many operators struggled with the idea of launching some kind of mobile TV service but the tablets seem make things a lot clearer. You have very portable devices with easy-to-use interfaces and long battery lives.”
One benefit of delivering video to PCs is the ubiquity of the Windows operating system, making transcoding content fairly straightforward. If an operator wants to deliver services to multiple connected devices from various manufacturers, things start to look complex.
Technology vendors, however, have developed a range of solutions to make the process of transcoding content for multiple devices more efficient. “Our goal as a technology provider is to give pay TV operators the tools to fight and defend themselves against OTT services,” says Harmonic’s Fautier. “Operators have to do what Netflix does – video-on-demand across multiple screens. They have better assets, and they deliver live programming that can be streamed to other devices.”

“Service providers need to worry about
delivering their content through networks that aren’t necessarily their own to all kinds of different devices”
Steve Davi, SeaChange

Motorola Mobility vice-president, EMEA, Steve McCaffrey points out that any multiscreen back-end system has to cope with ingesting content from a growing number of sources. “The world has changed significantly in terms of the variation of video we bring into our networks. Aside from broadcast, we’ve seen exponential growth in VOD libraries. Add to that OTT video and video from content aggregators. We have to look at how to take all that into the network, manage it and deliver it in a profitable way to consumers.” Motorola Mobility’s Medios suite of products is designed to help operators ingest encode and package content for different devices. “It’s addressing a number of pain points that operators have, some on an end-to-end basis, others on a specific basis,” says McCaffrey.

The key to delivering content to multiple devices, says SeaChange’s Davi, is to automate the whole process. One of its customers, Singaporean operator StarHub, launched a TV everywhere solution that, according to Davi, makes live and on-demand content available to over 400 devices. “We had to provide the ability to take one bit of content and be able to transcode it into all the different formats they need,” he explains. “When you look at all the devices they were targeting, there ended up being 24 different variations of each piece of content. You have to automate it.”
One commonality amongst new smartphone devices is that they all have browsers and a lot of them have support for H.264 or Flash. They also support the other key technology that has emerged to enable the delivery of a consistent video experience to multiple devices over networks delivering varying bandwidth – adaptive bit-rate (ABR) streaming, where a video stream can be switched between higher and lower resolutions depending on the bandwidth available at any one time. “In terms of transcoding we see three main pillars – Microsoft Smooth Streaming, Apple Adaptive Streaming and Flash dynamic streaming. Across those formats, it’s the same codec and so it’s fairly easy for us to encode,” says Harmonic’s Fautier. The company provides Swisscom with a live transcoding infrastructure to encode across multiple formats for the telco’s multiscreen service that delivers approximately 60 channels of live content to PCs, smartphones and tablets. Harmonic’s ProStream 4000 product is a multiscreen transcoder capable of transcoding MPEG-2 or H.264 content to multiple codec’s. One of the key benefits of the product, according to Fautier, is that operators can encode content once and multi-encapsulate it on the same box. “This has a lot of value to operators because they don’t spend too much money for all those different devices,” says Fautier.

There is some debate as to the most efficient place to transcode content before delivering to multiple devices. Some argue that the benefit of encoding in the network is that live content only needs to be transcoded for the devices that are actually being used. “If you transcode on the fly you can see who is watching that channel,” says SeaChange’s Davi. “If no one’s watching it on their iPad then why create that variation?”

Using the cloud

According to French IPTV technology company Netgem’s chief marketing officer Yann Courqueux, content owners are wary of storage in the Cloud. He says digital rights should be stored locally within the DVR. Netgem has developed a new home cloud strategy that uses the set-top as the bridge between an operator’s managed pay TV environment and third party consumer electronic devices in the connected home. “The set-top box is the home hub where optimized or
proprietary data is reformatted to a single standard and redistributed on top of a CE device’s operating system through distributed middleware,” he explains. “By allowing the thick client set-top box to bear the load there is no need for service providers to maintain dedicated service platforms and huge databases, operators only have to integrate their back-end systems with the STB as a proxy server.”
From an end-user perspective, says Courqueux, the home cloud is designed to shield them from the complexity of content origin and home networking: “It provides users with a seamless managed experience across multiple screens via a single media server. This media server will embed functions previously managed in the network and in the operator’s central headend such as live content streaming and encapsulation to devices, the transformation of conditional access into DRM to allow keys to be distributed to trusted devices and the aggregation of metadata to act as a portal server across screens.”

Content delivery networks

If pay TV operators want to deliver a true TV anywhere they must accept a move away from concentrating solely on distributing their own content over their own fully-controlled network to their own end devices, i.e. set-top boxes (and therefore ensuring Quality of Service) to having to deliver their content to a multitude of third-party devices over third-party networks. “It’s shifting because of the ubiquity of networks, consumers getting used to time and place shifting their content and the abundance of internet-connected devices,” says SeaChange’s Davi. “Service providers need to worry about delivering their content through networks that aren’t necessarily their own to all kinds of different devices.”
Some operators, like Telenet (see sidebar) will only offer their services over their own WiFi networks. This restricts the areas that consumers can view content, but according to Motorola’s McCaffrey, we are likely to see operators making major investments in WiFi networks in the coming years, specifically to be able to offer their services to as many connected devices as possible. “WiFi will form a major part of many operators’ spending in the next 12 months to either start a WiFi network or to extend their offerings. This will enable operators to extend their broadband and content delivery capabilities.”

Another way of ensuring Quality of Service is via content delivery networks (CDNs). Generally the preserve of major players such as Akamai, the demand for multiscreen distribution is feeding into interest in the CDN model for service providers, where the latter offer CDN features on a wholesale basis to third-party content providers. This is certainly a model being tracked closely by a number of industry vendors, including Edgeware.
This is feeding into interest in the CDN model for service providers, where the latter offer CDN features on a wholesale basis to third-party content providers. This is certainly a model being tracked closely by a number of industry vendors, including Edgeware.

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“We are focusing on a solution to basically deliver video in a distributed way,” says Joachim Roos, CEO of Edgeware. “You deliver video from multiple sites in the network using caching. We see it becoming increasingly relevant to multiscreen services or over-the-top services in your own network but also in the CDN business.” For service providers, building a CDN-type infrastructure could be a good way to make money from OTT services – something that has remained elusive until now. “Traditional operators’ businesses are under pressure, and you need to find other ways of doing that,” says Roos. The key building blocks are a network that is geared up to deliver video, content management and DRM. Content is likely to be delivered using ABR streaming, with assets cached close to the edge of the network.
Ericsson is another vendor looking to provide technology for the network operator as CDN provider. Ed Allfrey, head of software solutions, EMEA, says that the proliferation of devices to which providers can deliver their wares means that the number of versions of any piece of content is exploding. The introduction of ABR streaming to support delivery of video over the internet to multiple devices means the number of versions expands further. This strengthens the case for CDNs to support the delivery of internet video. “We have seen global CDNs but now operators want to bring that into their own networks,” he says. “ISPs are seeing people deliver stuff over-the-top and see how they can add value to that. They can give a better QoS to the broadcaster and save costs in the network.”

The company recently launched its Media Delivery Network (MDN) platform. “Operators have some advantages compared with global CDNs – you can store local content for example,” says Kjell Wiala, programme manager for MDN at Ericsson. Wiala says Ericsson’s product is designed to provide support for new revenue opportunities as well as cost reduction. As well as providing efficient delivery of VOD to third-party content providers, operators can also reduce peering and transit costs. By offering a wholesale CDN service, including local caching of content, they can enable content providers to save on peering equipment and on the cost of transiting content over other providers’ networks.
Also focusing on the service provider CDN model is Envivio. “Content providers support all the different devices with  different formats,” says Bob Stockwell, director of marketing and communications at Envivio. “Microsoft Smooth Streaming means you have lots of different profiles for each channel. With the average cable company delivering 100 channels that turns into a massive amount of storage. You need to build an internal CDN to get it to the end users.” The approach taken by compression providers including Envivio (via its Halo network media processor product) and Harmonic is to create a so-called mezzanine format, which can be converted to ABR at the edge of the network. “You don’t need to store all of these unique formats and you don’t need mass storage frames and all of that,” says Stockwell. “One key aspect is doing all the formatting and encryption at the edge.”

Harmonic’s Fautier points out that offering a download to own service negates all the problems of using someone else’s network – once a title has been downloaded, it can be watched in high quality without connecting to any network. “Even within a home, the quality of a WiFi network can’t be ensured. The decision is whether to stream for VOD or download and play where the quality is much higher.” This decision is likely to be restricted not by technology but by business decisionsand  the sxtent to which studios allow end users to own content.

User experience

 Aside from delivering content to multiple devices, one of the key challenges for operators in the multiscreen space is achieving a consistent look and experience across those devices. This means operators have to consider not only the requirements of cross-platform branding and the need to ensure consisten EPGs and menus, they must also ensure that authentication is as straightforward as possible across devices.
NDS has developed the Unified Headend, which enables operators to deploy one platform for all devices. It offers cross-platform content management, offer management and domain management meaning that a VOD asset purchased on the set-top can be made available to other devices as the entitlement is registered to the domain rather than the device. “In the Unified Headend, we manage the consumer, the business rules and the domain as one entity,” explains Beavon. “Within a home there might be many members of the family, each with multiple devices but they can be managed as one domain and you can set rules and registration for both managed and unmanaged devices. Underneath that we attach the specifics to every device. If a customer has rights to a piece of content, the operator might decide that if you’ve bought it on one device you can watch it on many, as long as you’ve agreed that with the studio.”
Ultimately, says Matthew Huntington, Nagravision’s vice-president solution marketing, people want multiscreen to be as simple as possible. The winners are whoever can offer the most convenience to consumers,” says Huntingdon. “The traditional service providers are in a very strong position to do that but they still need to work at providing compelling user experiences in order to retain their leading position. Operators need to hide any complexity and ensure that there is consistency in the user experience across the different devices, including the set-top box. There also needs to ne consistency of content across the devices so that you don’t have one lot of content available on one device and a completely different set of content ion another device.”
Social networks

Operators are starting to realise that simply replicating the TV experience on alternative devices is not enough. The way users interact with set-top boxes, PCs and tablets, for example, are each very different. “A PC has a mouse, a TV a remote control and you use your finger to control a smartphone,” says Huntington. “The user experience you provide needs to be slightly different to take advantage of that but you still needs consistency in terms of recommendations being given, the order that content is placed and the menu structure. A lot of that is not necessarily about the software within the device but in providing a single federated headened across devices,” says Huntington.
NDS’s latest middleware, Snowflake, is designed to offer the same look and feel of TV services across multiple devices. It is also designed to simplify navigation, which can be an issue for small screens. For Beavon, making the experience as straight forward as possible f is vitally important. “If its difficult, people just won’t bother,” he says. “You can’t have a difficult sign-up process, and the platform has to be presented in exactly the same way as the set-top. Snowflake was designed to do exactly that – something that you could implement in the TV space but would work equally on tablets and mobile phones giving exactly the same user experience.”

Operators are also starting to look at using connected devices as companion devices. There has been a move away from presenting social networks on the TV screen and moving it onto tablets, for example. Motorola Mobility recently launched a new social TV service targeting operators launching multiscreen services. The SocialTV companion service enables viewers watching video on their primary TV screen to share comments and interact in real time with friends and family via social networks on tablets and mobile devices.

SeaChange is also developing solutions that combine social services with recommendations. “These are personal devices so it’s important to make the whole experience more personal, especially on the linear side,” says Davi. “That means allowing people to create their own channels and to navigate very quickly. Search is a lot easier on a tablet than a TV and recommendation is going to come from combining with social media networks.”
Netgem’s Courqueux says that rather than rushing into multiscreen deployments operators should think carefully about what they want their services to look like on these devices and how portable devices can enhance their service bouquet. “Screen size, capabilities and primary location for use should dictate best practice and we’ve seen a couple of good examples here; smartphones are increasingly being used for advanced remote control functionality but can be used beyond the living room. For instance their use can be extended to remote recording whilst on the move or to order the download of a movie to the set-top box, which can be viewed when the user returns home,” he says. “Tablets offer real flexibility, they can be used as a companion device to search the EPG or carry out contextual actions such as social media and chatting. However they can also be used as a secondary screen for the streaming and side-loading of content within the connected home.”

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