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January 25, 2016
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Sky makes video home networking a point of competitive differentiation

Sky Q in action. The new platform will use a hybrid of mesh Wi-Fi and wired networking to ensure great multiscreen

Sky UK has revealed more about the motivations and technologies behind the premium home networking that is such an important part of the new Sky Q platform. As you can read elsewhere, the Pay TV operator will launch its next-generation TV service this year, making it easier to access all its content, including DVR recordings, on every screen. The company is going the ‘extra mile’ to ensure the best possible QoE for video on multiscreen devices, introducing a new broadband router, gateway DVR and client set-top boxes that all include mesh Wi-Fi technology (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and can act as Wi-Fi hotspots and stream or receive data via Ethernet or Powerline (PLC). 

As analysts have noted (see previous story) Sky Q shows what can be achieved when a television provider that also offers broadband integrates the two services more closely. Sky UK is ready to make home networking a source of competitive differentiation, partly to make all Internet browsing and video viewing faster and more reliable (making it more fun to be a Sky Broadband customer), but mainly to take us closer to broadcast-grade multiscreen TV (making a Sky TV subscription more valuable).

Sky knows that if they make multiscreen viewing so reliable it feels like broadcast TV, and make all their content available around the home, they will increase customer loyalty. When the pricing for Sky Q is announced we will know whether they think this kind of upgrade can increase ARPU, too.

According to Andrew Olson, Director of New Products at Sky, “First and foremost, as a television provider we want to make sure the television signal is fantastic everywhere in the home whether you are watching on a 60-inch or six inch screen. And yes, because we are a broadband provider we are looking to use our own hardware to deliver a better and stronger signal.”

This is not just about improving the delivery of live channels or recordings that have been streamed over IP from the DVR gateway. The extra investment in home networking will improve the experience for third-party Internet content that is routed direct from the cloud and which is being integrated into the Sky Q user interface. So services like Vevo and YouTube, and new online channels like Barcroft TV, Electus and ‘Funny Or Die’ (announced last weekshould look better than they otherwise would, including on the big television set. 

Sky is using AirTies technology as the basis for its Sky Q home networking. The mesh Wi-Fi solution is powerful in its own right. Because you can harness multiple wireless access points, the wireless signals are stronger, the coverage is greater and you can eliminate dead-spots. AirTies thinks of a mesh configuration as premium Wi-Fi.

AirTies has been marketing its mesh Wi-Fi for a while but what is totally new, seen for the first time at Sky, is the combination of AirTies mesh Wi-Fi with Powerline and Ethernet wired networking. In a Sky home you will be able to route video packets via Powerline sockets or Ethernet if that delivers the best performance for the end device (like a client set-top box or connected TV). 

Video can route directly across the Wi-Fi network or it can be routed first over a wired link (like Powerline) to a Sky client set-top box (acting  as a hotspot) and then as Wi-Fi  to a handheld device like a tablet. This means you can use wired routing between rooms with thick stone walls and then use Wi-Fi for the last few metres within a second room, as an example.

The effect is that total broadband capacity around the home is increased (it becomes an aggregate of the different links, given that you can stream multiple video sessions simultaneously) and in-home broadband becomes faster and more reliable (given that each session is routed via the best link at that moment in time).

Sky is the launch customer for the hybrid mesh Wi-Fi and wired home networking solution from AirTies, which was formerly announced this week. This solution can also be used with MoCA over coax, though this is not being deployed at Sky. AirTies has tested its hybrid mesh solution delivering 10 premium video streams simultaneously from multiple sources (such as live broadcast, PVR recorded, local NAS server and OTT from the Internet).

In all cases, the mesh software maps the home network and decides in near-real-time what the best path is for video. This is determined by various factors including source location, the number of hops required and the best point-to-point link speed. Signal strength is only one consideration. According to AirTies, Powerline performance can vary dramatically between socket pairs, even in the same room, which is one reason this routing flexibility is so important.

Video sessions can switch between paths as required. If a Wi-Fi signal fades, the video can be routed via Powerline instead, ensuring service continuity.

Philippe Alcaras, CEO for AirTies Wireless Networks, says multiple access points that are intelligently linked in this way  are the way forward for home networks. “A flawless home network is becoming the real must-have for premium content providers,” he adds.

Bulent Celebi, Executive Chairman and co-Founder of AirTies, believes Sky is pioneering a new era in video home networking, characterized by service providers investing more to achieve premium experiences. Sky Q points towards closer convergence of broadcast and online experiences, in terms of the content offered, how it is presented and the reliability of the video, he adds.

“Our technology helps to move the industry towards the point where we can stop thinking about multiscreen TV and start talking about just television again,” he continues. “The tablet can become a first screen for some people.” His vision is to remove the differences in picture quality and reliability between broadcast TV and streaming video so that we no longer need to distinguish between them in terms of user experience.