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Stofa, Denmark’s second largest cable operator, has gone further than most Pay TV operators in its public support for distribution models that could potentially eliminate set-top boxes. The company is responding to what it believes are consumer expectations for less wires in the living room and a desire to watch more television on tablet devices rather than TV screens in second and third rooms. Stofa hopes to replicate its entire cable service on tablets and is looking at how Connected TV apps can be used to provide a non-set box offer, complementing its current strategy to deliver interactive DVB-C services without STBs using CI Plus modules.
Stofa introduced its multi-screen TV package last year for mobile phones, tablets and the PC and according to Thomas Helbo, Operations & Development Manager, the company wants to exploit connected TV sets but does not want to have to integrate with 4-5 different manufacturers. The trend towards browser based connected TV solutions could clear the path towards Stofa apps appearing on these CE devices. This will make integration easier and does not require high skill sets, Helbo notes.
Meanwhile, the company is pursuing other ways to reduce its reliance on set-top boxes. Stofa is harnessing the CI Plus standard to enable interactive services including start-over TV and VOD. This uses an IP return path combined with classic cable (DVB-C) delivery for the video content. The beauty of this approach is that the cable operator can integrate with CI Plus and thanks to the support for this standard, the effort will achieve interactive services, without an STB, on a wide range of TV sets that have been in homes for several years. “Hopefully, we will be able to provide the same variety of services via CI Plus as we can on the set-top box,” Helbo comments.
Speaking at the Connected TV Summit in May, Helbo said the main purpose of multi-screen TV is to provide more choice for customers. That seems to be pointing the company away from set-top boxes. “We have seen that customers are not necessarily interested in having a set-top box in the living room and they definitely do not want one in front of the second television set,” he reveals. “Customers do not want boxes or hardware – they want services,” he adds.
According to Helbo, it is hard to push the idea of a set-top box for the living room when customers have a 50 inch wall mounted TV, and he refers to the classic ‘wife factor’ as a reason to avoid wires down the wall where possible. This is leading towards solutions that avoid separate receivers, whether using CI Plus or maybe a connected TV app in future.
Once you move beyond the living room, things get even more interesting. Helbo says that since the company introduced a tablet offer, customers are watching TV on these rather than a second TV set. “In the kids room, they almost only use the PC or tablet, and not the TV,” he reveals. “What we have seen so far is that the tablet replaces the second TV for viewing. I think it is going to substitute the TV set.” This preference for tablet viewing will apply even if viewers could watch Stofa services via a connected TV app in the second room. “For short programmes like news, say 30 minutes long, they will probably prefer the tablet,” he predicts. “We have seen that in what many of our customers are doing.”
If tablets are being used instead of television screens in many rooms, it suggest the cable operator will have to quickly replicate its entire service on those devices. Helbo agrees but content rights are the barrier today. “I think the market has moved in that direction for the last two years [towards better rights for multi-screen viewing] so hopefully we will be able to do that shortly.”
Whether for longer programmes or for use in the main family room, the tablet will also have a role complementing what is being viewed on the television set, according to Helbo. This will include content discovery, like searching for a programme asset and then pushing it to the main television screen. Stofa has already integrated the Apple iPad with its set-top box to enable this discover-and-push functionality and wants to do the same for tablets and its CI Plus offer.
Talking about over-the-top services generally, Helbo says there is no sign of cord cutting in Denmark, but there is clearly no complacency at Stofa. “Cable operators have two ways to react to OTT. You can be an open operator and embrace the potential and integrate with OTT and different devices, offering customers more and more options. Or you can close down the borders. I think the market will probably embrace those with the open network, which is why I think we have to move from a walled garden to a more open platform.”
Helbo believes Pay TV operators can become the gateway portal through which consumers find the rest of the video world they want. “I think most operators need to build portals that provide the most popular and highest rated content and push that content to consumers,” he explains. He says intelligent search and recommendation engines can be used to help people find what they want, with operators making sense of VOD, which for many consumers is still new, complicated and something they do not understand. In the battle against OTT providers, it is the user experience that will help operators win the battle, with ‘TV Everywhere’ another key component, he concludes.