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Working with Google was a positive experience, says Com Hem CTO, after Android TV STB launch

Com Hem shows off its new set-top box, the Com Hem Tv Hub
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“Working with Google has been a positive experience.” So says Thomas Helbo, CTO at the Swedish Pay TV operator Com Hem, whose company introduced a next-generation set-top box in April (the Com Hem Tv Hub) based on Android TV Operator Tier. Asked whether he had a back-up plan so the company could move away from Android TV if Google changed its guidelines in a way that was unacceptable, he revealed that Com Hem does. But he declared: “I think Google sees the benefit of working closely with operators. During the course of our project we saw them become more and more operator-friendly.”

Helbo found Google to be a responsive partner during the implementation, which took a year. “At the start we were worried about how flexible they would be, and if we would get the opportunities and solutions we wanted to build, and get them approved, as they have a certification process and you must be compliant. But there was very interactive cooperation and their people were very responsive. They were good at giving us feedback. They helped us build the best solution possible – one that is capable of being the best in market.”

So what about that exit plan, if things did go wrong? “Yes, we put that together with Technicolor [the set-top box hardware and middleware provider for Com Hem Tv Hub] and have taken precautions to make sure we can replace the Android TV solution if we had to. But the more operators that move in this direction [using Android TV Operator Tier] the more likely it is that Google will want to maintain good relations with operators.”

Helbo believes the use of Android TV Operator Tier will expand significantly and become what he calls a standardised way of working. “We are happy to see that other operators are thinking about, or are in the process, of implementing.”

For its part, Google has made a very clear commitment to the operator market, with Operator Tier widely viewed as a game-changer, giving service providers considerable freedom to build the user experience they want (including near-full UI design freedom). This is a solution that appears to be gaining traction in the television market.

Helbo was speaking on the recent Videonet webcast, ‘Deploying Android TV Operator Tier STBs: A Masterclass from Com Hem’, which you can listen to here. The webcast brought together four people who were deeply involved in the Com Hem project, which is one of the first examples in the world of an Android TV Operator Tier deployment.

Other speakers were: Kai-Christian Borchers, Managing Director at 3 Screen Solutions (which was the lead integration partner and provided the UX/UI layer); Gaëtan Delcroix, Vice President, Video Product Unit at Technicolor; and Petr Peterka, CTO at Verimatrix, whose company provided the CAS/DRM (which harnesses a Trusted Execution Environment inside the SoC and includes security clients for the IPTV and cable networks that Com Hem operates over.)

Kai-Christian Borchers noted the very close collaboration between all parties in the project, including Google. “They were extremely helpful and supportive. They provided the detailed information and in-depth documentation we needed and were really responsive,” he says of the tech giant. “I think this project demonstrated the big commitment that Google has made to working with TV operators.”

Com Hem is using Android TV Operator Tier for a new non-DVR set-top box offering on its Com Hem network, some of which is DVB-C cable and some of which is IPTV. In both cases, the platform blends OTT services into the platform. The operator also owns the Pay TV digital terrestrial service Boxer, and the same STB implementation will be used there, only it is likely to be made available as a PVR as well as zapper box for Boxer homes.

This was a landmark project for Com Hem as the company moved to an open source ‘middleware’ solution, rather than handing over nearly all responsibility to a traditional middleware provider. “This project required a new and very different way of working for us, on the set-top box,” Helbo confirmed.

“This was not a turnkey solution, where we make an order and get a delivery maybe a year later, and then start doing the integration and testing. This was a joint project where we worked very closely with 3SS, Technicolor, Google and Verimatrix, and Netflix [whose app is onboarded and has its own remote-control button] to get everything up-and-running.”

Com Hem took an early architectural decision to use the same backend for the new set-top box as it uses for its multiscreen services, something that made life easier and helped reduce time-to-market for the new platform. However, the biggest contributor to the rapid deployment – which took 12 months – was the use of the SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) project management philosophy.

“SAFe was introduced into the project as part of the plan to get things moving quickly,” Helbo confirms. “One of the benefits we identified was a reduction in waiting time. People [from the different project partners] do not have to wait for each other, waiting on replies or to have different meetings. That had the biggest impact [on the project timeframe].”

Instead, following the SAFe methodologies, there were occasional meetings when everyone involved in the project gathered in a big meeting room and coordinated what they all needed to accomplish over the next 6-8 weeks. Everything relating to the project was dealt with in a single day, with everyone kept in-the-loop, Helbo explains.

“People came away fully aware of what needed to be done and the dependencies [who was relying on who to do something]. In that day of planning we aligned the different parties. People went home, did the work and were in contact daily, but then met again six weeks later to start planning for the next six weeks.”

Borchers at 3SS provided more detail on how SAFe works. You have parallel work streams, but you focus on product increments, which could be six weeks (as seen at Com Hem) or as long as four months. “Everyone defines what should be the outcome of the next product increment. You have all the developers in the room. We have had workshops [with other companies] with more than 100 people and it is still manageable if you do this properly – there is a real outcome.

“When you come out, you know your role and your responsibility for the next product increment, and what other parties are relying on you to deliver. You know your part in the whole game, and that gives you a much higher motivation, as well.”

Borchers notes how much easier it is to make changes in this model than when using a ‘waterfall’ project development, where you create what he calls “a huge project plan” at the outset and a finish target date, with far fewer way-points inbetween. “After the first product increment you can make changes. You can re-prioritise your features, deciding to discontinue Feature A and pursue Feature B instead.”

According to Borchers, SAFe gives you more flexibility, focuses attention on work that delivers real value, and ultimately delivers a better and more suitable product for launch. “SAFe is not just about reducing project run-time; it is about increasing quality,” he told the live webcast audience earlier this month.

Working in product increments also reduces risk, partly by making everything more transparent. “If you are used to longer product increments, like six, eight or 12 months, you are not always sure what the outcome will be after all that time. With product increments, you have a product outcome and know where you stand. You have a deliverable that you can evaluate completely.”

Helbo says the use of SAFe has left an ongoing legacy at Com Hem. “This is something we have adapted within our organisation in general, where we are trying to gain some of the benefits that we saw in this project,” he revealed.

You can listen to the webcast, free, via this link.

The discussion also included:

  • The hardware considerations if you want to maximise the value from an Operator Tier set-top box, the choice of SoCs, whether it is easy to introduce new SoCs later, and the role the middleware plays.
  • The content security considerations when working with Android TV Operator Tier, including isolation of TV services within a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) and the isolation of trusted apps inside the TEE.
  • How to ensure a quality UX across multiple networks and service brands while running the same core STB implementation.
  • Thomas Helbo outlining what it was like working with Netflix for their app onboard (with remote control shortcut).
  • A look at the benefits of Android TV Operator Tier versus other proprietary or open source set-top box solutions.

Related content:

Android TV Operator Tier takes Com Hem closer to being a class-leading operator

Com Hem launches Tv Hub, its next-gen Android TV based platform, commercially

The changing face of project management – why you should play it SAFe

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