Why Orange prefers set-top boxes to vSTB

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    One of the notable points from Connected TV Summit 2014, which is running this week in London, is the extent to which leading telcos have cooled their interest in the concept of the virtual set-top box (vSTB) as a replacement for the primary STB. This is where the functionality of an STB is integrated directly into a Smart TV as an application (but not an App Store app) that launches a Pay TV service automatically and displays the operator user interface as the default experience for consumers. This is the model already deployed by Elion in Estonia (part of TeliaSonera) on Samsung Smart TVs, a deployment that also delivers the content from the managed multicast (classic) IPTV network into the vSTB (rather than using unicast streaming).

    Last year at this summit, Swisscom used a private briefing to appeal to the TV ecosystem to work towards making the vSTB viable and this year the company made it clear that it is now pursuing a strategy of Android OS set-top boxes instead of vSTB (see separate story). And Erwan Nedellec, Senior Expert on Audio Video Devices at Orange, gave a compelling account of why discussions with CE manufacturers about vSTB cooperation have come to nothing so far.

    He told the London audience that despite the appeal of reducing their own CapEx investments, by removing STBs from the operator inventory, the practical issues of working with television manufacturers were a significant hurdle for Orange. Although there is plenty of goodwill on both sides, he declared that telcos and CE manufacturers “come from the same planetary system but not from the same planet”. The conclusion at Orange, having investigated the vSTB, is that despite the cost, the company must keep providing its own set-top boxes.

    “Of course we want to limit our CapEx [on customer premise equipment] but only if we can do that and deliver a good Quality of Experience from the alternative, and today we want to maintain our relationship with customers on the set-top box. We need improvements in the vSTB approach before we can be confident of a great user experience with it and before we can go any further with this idea.”

    Nedellec pointed out that there is a fundamental divergence in the business aims of television makers and Pay TV operators, with the former looking to sell as many TV sets as possible and the latter hoping to keep their devices in the field as long as possible. One of the practical problems Nedellec outlined was the development schedule for TV makers, who are developing next year’s Smart TV platform during November and December, then qualifying the new platform during January-March, with the new models reaching the market in March/April and engineers switching their attention to next year’s models by July.

    “As a consequence, you get visibility on next year’s model in November and get good support at that point but it is very hard to get samples because they are very expensive and it is hard to develop for the platform without the devices in-house. During January to February, because the team in charge of qualification for the new model TV set is also the team in charge of certification of the new services on the platform, it is not always possible to certify services at this point.

    “During March to June there is good support and the products are available but it is no longer possible to set up co-marketing on the model because the CE manufacturer is launching their new model. By July there is less support for what is now the previous year’s model.”

    The main problem is dealing with regression issues, which means problems thrown up in the operator app due to an update in a television platform. He outlined the worst case scenario where the regression results from a firmware update, where you are the only partner (of the TV maker) impacted by the firmware update and where the firmware update is already deployed and remains the latest version of the software. In order to fix the regression issues, the CE engineers must turn their attention back to what is now the old model, and away from next year’s TV models. “That is a very bad situation to be in,” Nedellec declared.

    Firmware does not always behave the same way between a mid-range television and a high-end television set. And of course, the telco (or other Pay TV operator) has no control over the features that are included in the new firmware and whether the new firmware is mandatory or optional. “Firmware management is a hot topic,” Nedellec pointed out.

    He added that today, Orange customer care teams are able to configure an Orange household, with its different gateways and set-top boxes, and so replicate the customer environment to help reproduce any issues that customers may face. “When you rely on Smart TVs that is not possible because there are 2-3 different platforms from each manufacturer and different firmwares released in the field for each device, which makes it hard for technicians to help our customers.”

    Orange is not anti- Smart TV, it should be noted. The company uses Internet connected televisions and game consoles to deliver its services OTT via an app, but this is the typical use of connected TV devices by Pay TV operators today, designed to extend reach into second or third rooms to complement the managed service to the STB in the main room, rather than to replace that primary set-top box. This is  distinct from the vSTB concept.


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