“There is no doubt that we are now on a level playing field with OTT providers in terms of our ability to innovate quickly to bring new features to market.” That is the bold claim of Pedro Bandeira, Head of Development at NOS, after his company launched its next-generation Pay TV platform last week, which is based on RDK-V 2.1 (the most up-to-date version of the shared source software platform).
Bandeira outlines the reasons why the Portuguese Pay TV operator and quad-play provider, which has 1.5 million video households, can now compete with the OTT giants in terms of service velocity. These include the migration of intelligence from customer premise equipment to the cloud, and the extent to which RDK helps operators bring services to market faster but then change features every couple of weeks – and tweak them if necessary – without touching the underlying set-top box software stack that sits below the user experience.
These are turning out to be game-changing advances. “It enables operators to focus on the business layer [of the software stack]. We will only touch the lower layers twice a year,” Bandeira reveals.
The new NOS platform is a hybrid set-top box with QAM tuners and IP connectivity. It supports 4K television and relies on network DVR for personal recordings. It has the performance of a video gateway but the form factor of a zapper set-top box.
The device is powered by the Espial G4 STB Client, which is based on RDK, and includes an ultra-fast, HTML5 browser-based and cloud-centric user interface. The systems integration was provided by the Espial Elite professional services team. ARRIS supplied the hybrid 4K STB (the ARRIS ZD4500), which uses the Broadcom BCM7251S chipset. NAGRA takes care of content protection with its anyCAST CONNECT solution and Nuance Dragon TV provides the voice recognition used with the user interface. Users can issue commands to change channel or search for content by director or actor, as examples. NOS provides its own back-office.
NOS expects to ship around 130,000 of the new devices over the next year. Uptake of the new platform will accelerate after that, with an expectation for something like 200,000 units in year two.
A number of firsts are being claimed for this launch, namely: The first deployment of the RDK 2.1 environment in Europe; The first 4K set-top box in Portugal; The first RDK-based 4K set-top box deployment in Europe; The first voice-activated television user interface in Portugal.
4K support is a big deal for NOS. This is not an exercise in future-proofing – the company is a major content owner, including in sports, and will be looking to use 4K as a selling point immediately. “We will expose our viewers to the best content, available in the highest resolution,” Bandeira promises.
He hails the benefits of the cloud-centric UI, where the set-top box makes constant calls to the network to display information and navigation options as well as the content. “The navigation in the UI is very fast, and the refresh of information is very fast,” he declares. “There is no TV experience we have seen that has these speeds.”
He praises Espial for their role in delivering this next-generation user experience. “They were focused on getting the speeds that TV customers need. The speed at which things happen is one of the big strengths of our system. They understood the importance of a very responsive UI.”
The new platform supports live, catch-up, on-demand, network DVR and OTT content. Thanks to the use of network DVR, personal recordings are available on multiscreen devices as well. In fact, you get the same complete content experience across every screen. Bandeira says nDVR means there is no limit to how many channels you can record on the set-top box, there are no lost recordings if the STB should fail, and the device is more environmentally friendly, given the absence of a hard-drive.
The UI (which renders in 1080p resolution) supports personal log-ins so that content and recommendations can be tailored to individual household users. Another important feature is the integration of OTT content into the platform, which can be accessed through apps or from within the wider UI, including via a unified search and recommendation system. Onboarding popular Internet SVOD services is on the roadmap, Bandeira reveals. The apps available today include popular video apps and NOS-provided weather and sports applications.
NOS believes it can differentiate itself from OTT services by providing a unified experience that encompasses multiple Internet services as well as linear and on-demand television. “This system lets people quickly identify what they want to watch ,whether it is a broadcast channel or something like YouTube or Netflix. You do not have to watch Internet content on the small screen; you can watch it on the big screen.”
Bandeira adds: “We feel that this set-top box will be the box for the future because we are setting it up as a gateway to consume content that is also on the web. We see providers like Netflix and Hulu the same way we see a broadcast channel. We just need to give our user one easy and personalised way to consume that content in the comfort of their living room.”
This ambition to become the primary gateway to television and OTT is tied in closely with the desire to match web innovation speeds. In a press statement before the launch, Bandeira said: “We saw our true competition was emerging from the Internet and recognised that we needed to work with an industry leading partner to redefine the user experience for Portuguese consumers. After a rigorous selection process, we chose Espial, whose G4 STB Client, based on RDK, is the foundation of our new, game-changing service. They have been an exceptional integration partner and technology partner.”
Jaison Dolvane, CEO at Espial, commented: “NOS defined an ambitious plan with an end-goal measured in months, not years. Working together, we have achieved a new pace of innovation that positions NOS to succeed both today and going forward.” His company is also working with Tele Columbus in Germany on an RDK-based next-generation platform that is currently in field trials, justifying the strategic decision Espial made early on to back RDK and pursue a role as an RDK project integrator with RDK-based user experience software.
Dolvane argues that Pay TV operators need the control that RDK gives them as an open platform, with greater freedom to choose their software and hardware partners. He also hails the impact RDK makes on service velocity. The NOS platform took 12 months to move from conception to field-trials.
Pedro Bandeira returns to the subject of RDK. “It overcomes the lack of standardisation in the cable market. Before, when you needed to do a TV project it was customised from beginning to end because there was no standard modular middleware to use. Now we can integrate new hardware very quickly compared to the past, and we can stay competitive on prices. It gives us an abstraction layer that means we can get to market faster.”
RDK has required a cultural change within the Pay TV organisation, due to the faster software development cycle and the pace at which new features are put into the field. The development, engineering and operations departments have to work more closely together, Bandeira says. His company is also working towards a mindset where you deploy new features quickly, accept small (non-critical) mistakes and change them quickly – the same model seen in the Internet world.