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April 11, 2012
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Next steps in multi-screen TV

With Cable Congress and IP&TV World Forum behind us, and NAB starting on Monday, there are no prizes for guessing what the major industry focus is again for 2012. It is…multi-screen TV, albeit with a twist for the new season in the form of off-net OTT extensions to Pay TV. Off-net Pay TV, using OTT broadband delivery, is an extension of the existing multi-screen delivery model and harnesses the infrastructure service providers have already invested in, so it falls firmly within the multi-screen category.

But multi-screen is evolving, especially now the pioneering service providers have been offering services for some time. Based on conversations we have had with vendors this spring, key themes for the rest of 2012 in this all-important segment include: Monetization of multi-screen services beyond loyalty; The role of network PVR in providing access to home recordings on all screens; Migration to more converged IPTV middleware/service delivery platforms; The potential for MPEG-DASH to rationalise the streaming environment; Convergence of STB/multi-screen delivery infrastructure, including headends; Whether classic TV services can migrate to adaptive bit rate delivery as well; Opportunities to optimise and monetize the CDN; and ways to monitor and manage QoE for multi-screen and OTT Pay TV services.

Multi-screen monetization is back on the agenda

The initial multi-screen challenge for service providers was to make content available beyond the television set and then get onto as many devices as necessary to be competitive, but as we reported last week, thoughts are now turning to how they can monetize those efforts. One idea is to create partnerships with marketers who want to provide consumer rewards, like a credit card company giving its customers a VOD entitlement.

Growing interest in multi-screen network PVR

As viewers watch more content on their various multi-screen devices (and tablets seem to be driving consumption, especially for linear TV), they are going to want the same kinds of features in this environment that they already enjoy on the television, including subtitles and closed captioning. PVR is perhaps the most important of these.

Envivio and SeaChange International have both created ways for consumers to access content they record on their PVR on other CE screens by duplicating in the cloud the recordings that consumers choose to make in the home. Later this year, SeaChange will announce what it believes is the first multi-screen PVR deployment of this kind and as Harry Koiter, VP for EMEA Business Development at SeaChange International, points out: “You cannot store lots of content on these [multi-screen] devices so suddenly network PVR has become topical again,”. He thinks there is a tremendous opportunity for nPVR in this market segment, including where Pay TV operators extend their multi-screen offer into an off-net OTT service.

Harmonic Inc. is another company working on network PVR for multi-screen TV services and Thierry Fautier, Senior Director of Convergence Solutions at the company, notes that this will be a necessity if you are using connected TVs as an alternative to set-top boxes [because they do not have storage].  Duncan Potter, Chief Marketing Officer at Edgeware, whose company has a VOD heritage and now provides what it calls Distributed Video Delivery Platforms for on-demand distribution and offers wholesale CDN management services, says network PVR is fairly simple to implement from the content delivery standpoint. The challenge is content licensing but everyone is getting ready for it. “Almost every discussion we have involves CDN, multi-screen TV and nPVR. nPVR is an important part of the forward thinking among operators who have the capability to do this,” he comments.

IPTV to multi-screen migration

Orange on a connected TV. The company has migrated to a middleware that converges classic and multi-screen TV delivery, using Orca Interactive's 'Unified Platform'.

Last September it was announced that Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest telecom operator, was swapping its existing IPTV middleware for a new IPTV platform from Ericsson that includes support for multi-screen services. Ericsson believes this rewards its investment in a next-generation middleware that enables more converged service offerings. It is becoming clear that the desire to ensure that multi-screen TV is part of a unified service offering, rather than a standalone, add-on service, is creating a market for next-generation middleware.

In March, one of Europe’s IPTV pioneers, Orange, announced that it too was migrating from an IPTV platform to an IPTV+multi-screen TV platform, in this case using the Unified Platform from Orca Interactive (full story here)and content security from Viaccess (full story here).

Orange wanted to prepare its infrastructure for the new challenges of OTT video, multiple screens and unlimited content. Its next-generation subscription TV service, “la nouvelle TV d’Orange” boasts a new user interface and includes VOD, catch-up TV, content discovery and recommendations, EPG, PVR, self-developed applications and more. This represents the largest-ever IPTV middleware migration, a process in which three different existing services over ADSL, FTTH and hybrid satellite-IP will be converged onto a single unified platform.

During IP&TV World Forum, Francois Moreau de Saint Martin, CEO of Viaccess, said this is a great example of the migration from first generation to second generation IPTV. Gilles Coullon, Director of TV Solutions, Orange Labs Networks and Carriers, DPS, at Orange, commented: “We have pioneered IPTV since 2003; the system was aging and we needed to replace it. We have made some great savings by merging different platforms into one and it will be future-proofed and opens the way for TV Everywhere services. It was a key decision for us [to migrate] back in 2010.”

Orange has around 5 million customers for TV services in Europe and over 400,000 of them had already migrated to the new platform by March. At Chunghwa Telecom the numbers are smaller but still significant, with 900,000 customers involved in the upgrade. Ericsson believes the reason we are starting to see swap-outs is the fact that most telcos bought IPTV middleware platforms that do not cater for the mobility and multi-client story. IPTV operators are ready to move beyond being cable-like ‘me-too’ services as they become more comfortable with TV innovation.

Multi-screen TV for smaller operators

In a sign that we are now entering the deployment phase for multi-screen TV with smaller operators, who have less internal engineering resources to put together end-to-end systems, there appears to be an increased focus on pre-integration. Content security specialist Conax will launch a multi-vendor, pre-integrated solution at ANGA in June designed to make it easier and less costly to create a multi-screen TV and Pay TV over-the-top offering (including off-net) that encompasses the PC, tablets, phones and other connected devices. The company is working with the Polish STB and multi-device middleware provider Cubiware and Content Management System provider MPS Broadband. The Conax Contego Unite CA and multi-DRM security hub will be at the heart of the ready-made ecosystem. At the outset, this solution will cater for PlayReady DRM with Conax providing security hardening, though Conax is developing its own DRM as well.

Tor Helge Kristiansen, Director Technical Product Management at Conax, points out: “Building the ecosystem needed for a multi-screen, multi-network service is very complex and costly. Our pre-integrated solution is based on the requirements from quite a lot of our customers and is suitable for both large and small Pay TV operators but especially for small operators who cannot do this today. For them it will be a cost-efficient solution. We do see that a lot of customers want to take the next step to multi-screen TV but are unsure how to do it and who to partner with. This solution will help them.”

Thierry Fautier at Harmonic believes hosted services is one route for smaller operators who want to deploy multi-screen services. This can cover everything from content acquisition, preparation and delivery through to OSS/BSS. “We believe there will be a lot of hosted services for smaller customers,” he says. Fautier points to Content Management Systems (CMS) as a place where we could see more hosted services and even VOD transcoding and live transcoding for specialist market segments. “There are some operators who do not want to buy anything,” he says, referring to capital expenditure on multi-screen infrastructure.

Harmonic is a technology partner to Alpha Networks (the Belgian telecom solution provider whose international brand is TurnKey Solutions) and this company provides exactly this kind of hosting capability. Its end-to-end solution for small operators covers linear and non-linear video to multiple devices (more about Alpha Networks here).

The potential for a single ABR standard

The Harmonic Electra 9200, designed for converged broadcast and multi-screen video processing.

MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) is likely to be one of the major topics during the remainder of 2012 and at IP&TV World Forum last month Ericsson gave its first public demonstration of ABR (adaptive bit rate) transcoding using DASH, delivering content to a Samsung tablet. “DASH will enable the market to move beyond the siloed approach we see today,” predicts Simon Frost, Head of TV Marketing at Ericsson.

DASH is an attempt to define a universal ABR delivery format that incorporates the best elements of the proprietary adaptive streaming solutions (the most notable of which are Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), Microsoft Smooth Streaming and Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming, or HDS). The standard was ratified in November and Ericsson is one of 20+ members of the DASH Promoters Group, a new organization dedicated to driving the broad adoption of the standard. Like previous standards efforts, this project is bringing together companies who spend the rest of their day competing. Other members include: Adobe, Akamai, Broadpeak, Cisco, Dolby, EBU, Envivio, Harmonic, Huawei, Intertrust, Microsoft, Nagra, NDS, Netflix, Qualcomm, RGB Networks, Samsung, Thomson Video Networks and Verimatrix. More about MPEG-DASH Promoters Group here.

Thierry Fautier at Harmonic says the multiplicity of streaming formats, DRM solutions and devices are a big challenge when it comes to scaling multi-screen TV but he is hopeful that MPEG-DASH can provide some rationalisation for the market. “It cannot be more fragmented than it is today,” he points out. He thinks connected TV and HbbTV services are where DASH can first establish itself as the defacto standard for ABR. “In two years time there will be no point making a non-DASH television,” he predicts. “Connected TV will be the first place that we get down to one format.”

RGB Networks will be demonstrating a DASH solution at NAB next week and Ramin Farassat, Vice President, Product Marketing & Business Development at the company, thinks it is realistic for the industry to unite around a single ABR protocol. Today, nearly all RGB customers start with Apple HLS and then add Microsoft Smooth Streaming. Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming is usually only required for specific TV devices today. Thomson Video Networks is also using NAB in Las Vegas to demonstrate MPEG-DASH streaming using its ViBE VS7000 encoding/transcoding platform. “We strongly believe this new standard will help to address the dramatic growth of Internet video delivery by defining a universal, standardized delivery format,” the company comments.

There is some natural consolidation in the market already, as the focus around the Apple and Microsoft formats suggests. Matt Smith, VP Internet Television at Envivio, says content providers are reducing the number of mobile handsets they are willing to support, for example. As we reported previously, Envivio demonstrated live streaming of MPEG DASH twice during March, first at the CableLabs Winter Conference in Philadelphia and then at IP&TV World Forum in London where it streamed the standards-based video to a PC and an Android-based Samsung Galaxy tablet. The live video was transcoded using the Envivio Muse real-time encoder/transcoding solution. Boris Felts, VP of Marketing at Envivio, does not expect a DASH-only world, however. He thinks Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) will remain, leaving us with two protocols to manage long-term.

Moving everything to adaptive bit rate streaming

There is still some RTSP streaming video, of course, but the migration towards adaptive bit rate streaming for multi-screen services is well under way. The long-term debate is now about whether cable and IPTV operators will want to migrate their traditional MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC services, which use managed delivery to the set-top box, to ABR streaming so they can converge around a single video delivery infrastructure. Given that ABR can be delivered to STBs this looks like a good long-term bet once bandwidth and Quality of Experience issues are resolved, though that in itself is a major challenge, given that ABR is unicast.

RGB Networks stands out by being especially bullish about the prospects for an all-ABR world. According to Ramin Farassat, the conversations about this migration are now taking place. Clearly this approach requires ABR enabled set-top boxes in the field but he says RGB Networks has a customer that is studying this model in its laboratories today. “We have one large operator and a few Tier 2 operators who have to upgrade their networks and who think it makes more sense to do ABR for everything,” he reveals.

Farassat is convinced that one potential objection to ABR on set-top boxes – namely dips in bit rate as the video stream adapts to network or in-home bandwidth conditions, can be ignored. He believes viewers will accept bit rate adjustments on the main television just as they do in the multi-screen environment, providing the adjustment is small. “You cannot have the bit rate fall from HD to SD but a drop from 6Mbps to 5Mbps would be okay,” he argues.

That is contentious, given how much effort the industry has put into maximising picture quality in a given bit rate since the birth of digital TV but the prize is huge: unification around one delivery infrastructure, using IP, unicast and adaptive bit rate. And of course, if MPEG-DASH comes to dominate the adaptive streaming landscape, there would be a single format as well. Convergence between ‘traditional’ TV infrastructure and multi-screen is certainly starting to happen in other areas, most notably Content Management Systems and video processing headends, even down to the chassis platforms and encoders that the different traditional and multi-screen services are being served from.

“I do not see this [all-ABR approach] as being too far in the future,” Farassat confirms. “I think it is something we will see early this year with some operators.” You can see what RGB Networks said on this subject at IBC last year.

SeaChange International provides the Adrenalin video backoffice and Nitro UI software (illustrated here) for multi-screen TV.

Making it cost-effective to scale multi-screen TV

Regardless of whether there is consolidation around MPEG-DASH for multi-screen services, or whether multi-screen and classic TV converge, there is a pressing need to rationalise how multi-screen content is delivered if operators want to start offering thousands of on-demand assets and hundreds of linear channels. The concept of converged headends is not new but we are now a lot closer to it being a reality.

For Harmonic, the logical progression for an operator with separate broadcast and multi-screen TV headends is to bring the web and mobile video processing into the broadcast infrastructure. The launch last September of the Electra 9000 encoding/transcoding platform was designed to make this seamless. This product family makes it possible to encode every channel for ‘traditional’ broadcast services and online/mobile viewing simultaneously, through the same platform. It supports anything from 1080p60 HD to the big screen to video for the Apple iPhone.

Envivio is also enabling the move towards converged headends, with customers using its 4Caster encoder/transcoder platforms to deliver content across all screens. The introduction of statistical multiplexing support for MPEG-2 and H.264 last September reflects the fact that some customers who bought into this platform for multi-screen delivery are now looking to harness it for traditional TV.

Beyond headend convergence, various technology innovations in the last year will help operators scale multi-screen TV. For example, Ericsson is using hardware transcoding  to increase compression capacity and density with its SPR1200 Multiscreen Stream Processor, a product that will feature at NAB next week. As we reported last November, the aim is that operators can avoid filling entire walls of their headends with transcoder boxes to output the multiple formats and profiles needed to hit different screen types. Simon Frost pointed out then that if you assume that each linear channel needs to be available in ten profiles (and this is a conservative estimate – he thinks it could reach 20-30 profiles), and you want 250 linear channels (around half of a major Pay TV offer, say), you need 2,500 transcoding sessions. He says that by using hardware, Ericsson is achieving a 10-fold increase in capacity per rack unit, which makes the Capex and Opex projections much more attractive.

The generally accepted architecture for delivering multi-screen video is now to separate the encoding/transcoding from the packaging (i.e. the process where you adapt the encoded video into the specific ABR formats needed for the end devices, like Apple HLS and Microsoft Smooth Streaming, and in future, DASH). There are a few reasons for this: first, the encoding/transcoding part of the process is now quite stable in terms of codecs that need to be supported, whereas the packaging process is still dynamic; and second, this approach means you can have transcoding at the centre and packaging at the edge of the network where appropriate, delaying the point at which you have to create multiple versions of the same video and therefore saving on core network bandwidth.

Where a mezzanine format is used, the encoder/transcoder outputs a video stream that exploits the common ground between the various popular ABR protocols and makes it easier to adapt/package downstream (and in some implementations, downstream could be in the same physical location, within the headend). Another potential benefit from separating these processes is that it makes it possible to insert different advertisements for particular devices (so Blackberry users could, in theory, receive a different advertisement to iPad users).

RGB Networks believes it has another important innovation for the market, in the form of just-in-time packaging, a concept it will introduce at NAB 2012. The packaging is only performed on request. This avoids the need to pre-package all video assets in the various ABR formats in anticipation of them being needed. Farassat emphasises that we are talking about packaging on-the-fly, and not transcoding on-the-fly. You can read the full story about his new solution here.

This round-up is not meant to be exhaustive and draws on conversations we have had with some, but certainly not all, vendors with multi-screen solutions this spring. In the near future, we will be looking in more detail at how networks can cope with more multi-screen video and how operators can better monitor and manage Quality of Service.