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Android TV Operator Tier takes Com Hem closer to being a class-leading operator

Channel-centric navigation on the new Com Hem Tv Hub
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The launch of Com Hem Tv Hub, the next-generation set-top box based on Android TV Operator Tier, “is another tool for our journey towards being the premium operator we strive to be,” Com Hem’s CTO, Thomas Helbo, told a live Videonet webcast this week. By ‘premium’, he means a class-leader, and the launch of the new non-DVR set-top box to Com Hem customers in April should be viewed in the context of ongoing efforts to increase net promoter scores, something that also includes a strong focus on the whole customer experience.

The biggest value-add to customers from the use of Android TV Operator Tier as the set-top box OS, according to Helbo, is the seamless and technology-agnostic manner in which they can enjoy any kind of content. “It gives them lots of flexibility. Broadcast TV, catch-up TV and VOD have been available [in the same place] for some time but now we have the integration of SVOD providers and new OTT services. With the Android solution, things blend together really well,” he said.

“We have gone beyond being a broadcaster-friendly set-top box to also being an Internet entertainment friendly set-top box. The platform gives us the upgradeability to change with market needs. It is a box that we hope will last for many years.”

Helbo said the four pre-installed streaming apps (YouTube, Netflix, SVT Play (from the Swedish public broadcaster) and TV4 Play (from the leading commercial broadcaster) give access to companies who account for 75% of the OTT consumption in the Swedish market.

Customers have yet to benefit from one of the biggest improvements to the Com Hem service. “The way we work has changed and there will be a very short time-to-market for new features. We built this STB in the way we built our multiscreen solution, where there are two-week release cycles. Once a feature is ready, we can push it to the STB quickly.”

With boxes in homes since April, it is too early to assess the impact of the new platform, but Com Hem reports a very positive experience for early customers during installation and the ‘getting started’ phase. “We can see that installed customers are using the features and functions that are available,” Helbo told the Videonet audience.

The serious work on Com Hem Tv Hub began last April, customer tests began in December, the official beta was in February and the box was generally available (via commercial release) two months later – meaning deployment took a year. Com Hem worked with three main partners:

  • 3SS (3 Screen Solutions), which was the lead integration partner and provided the UX/UI layer that sits on top of the Android TV OS layer. The company used its 3READY Android TV Custom Launcher for the project.
  • Technicolor, which provided the STB hardware and the all-important middleware which, among other things, integrates with 3READY.
  • Verimatrix, which provided the CAS/DRM, which harnesses a Trusted Execution Environment inside the SoC and includes security clients for the IPTV and cable networks that Com Hem operates over.

It is worth recalling the hybrid nature of this deployment. Com Hem is using the new STB for its cable and IPTV systems, with OTT services blended into the mix in both cases. This is a non-DVR deployment (Com Hem provides a TiVo DVR today). Com Hem also owns Boxer, the Pay TV digital terrestrial provider, and this service will use the new STB, except with DTT plus OTT. At Boxer the platform will serve as a non-DVR and, later, a DVR solution.

The same core implementation is used throughout, but with a different ‘broadcast’ stack. One of the smart features of this deployment is how the UI and branding is configured dynamically, depending on whether a customer is with Com Hem or Boxer.

Kai-Christian Borchers, Managing Director at 3SS, notes that Android TV Operator Tier is the first OS from Google that gives operators pre-integrated features they are looking for, speed-to-market but also the control of the UX layer they need. “Operators do not want to be just an app in the Google store. They need a set-top box that boots directly to their UI, service and brand.

“Operator Tier is more of what operators are used to and is a huge step forwards [for Android TV on set-top boxes]. You are now getting a first-class platform that is DVB-ready.”

Borchers gave a list of the freedoms and compliance expectations [from Google] that come with Operator Tier. You must include the Google Play Store, and in a prominent position. “That is not much of a problem because one of the main reasons operators choose Operator Tier is to have that store. There are ‘anchor apps’ that every operator wants on their platform to avoid cord-cutting,” he declared.

“Operators do not have complete control over what is displayed,” he added. “You must display [content] search results in a specific way within the UI. Operator search results are highlighted and placed first, but there is a requirement that other search results are listed.”

One audience questioner asked Helbo whether there was any way to stop consumers watching competitor apps. “Basically, no,” Helbo confirmed. “That was one of the key points we discussed internally before deciding to launch, but we concluded that if we work in an open environment, we ensure customers get access to content they want and which they would probably go to anyway. Here, it is in our environment.”

There are subtle ways to influence consumer behaviour, anyway. He revealed: “We have apps that are pre-installed and highlighted [and Netflix and the TV4 and SVT players get their own remote-control buttons]. We do not promote competitor apps and we can gently put them into a less attractive part of the UI.”

In terms of the UI design and look-and-feel, there is near-total freedom, Borchers stated. There are mandatory Google guidelines, which themselves have been softened over time, but these mainly relate to functional and navigational UI issues, like the maximum number of clicks allowed between Google services and certain other content. “But in terms of design and layout, you are already very flexible,” Borchers emphasised.

Helbo added: “That was one of the concerns we had, as well (referring to a question on UI design freedom from the audience). Google improved even during the process, and we got the flexibility we were hoping for.”

Borchers said of the project as a whole: “There are some specific technical and legal requirements that you must comply with, working with Google, but that is something the integrators like us are very familiar with.”

A live audience poll asked the webcast audience whether they are likely to be involved in an Android TV STB deployment (using either AOSP, Android TV or Android TV Operator Tier) during the next two years. Fifty-nine per cent said ‘definitely’, 32% said ‘probably’ and 9% said ‘unlikely’.

This special webcast, titled ‘Deploying Android TV Operator Tier STBs: A Masterclass from Com Hem’ lasted 75 minutes and you can listen to it on-demand now. Register here (it is free).

The webcast brought together four people who were deeply involved in the Com Hem Tv Hub project, which is one of the first examples in the world of an Android TV Operator Tier deployment. The speakers are:

  • Thomas Helbo, CTO, Com Hem
  • Kai-Christian Borchers, Managing Director, 3 Screen Solutions
  • Gaëtan Delcroix, Vice President, Video Product Unit, Technicolor
  • Petr Peterka, CTO, Verimatrix.

Their discussion also included:

  • Thomas Helbo revealing whether Com Hem has an exit plan, in case Google changes its guidelines in ways that are intolerable.
  • How the project differed to ‘traditional’ STB/middleware launches, including the project management structure, the role of SAFe and where time-to-market savings were made.
  • Thomas Helbo and Kai-Christian Borchers revealing what it is like working with Google, and Google’s involvement on a day-to-day basis.
  • The hardware considerations if you want to maximise the value from an Operator Tier set-top box, the choice of SoCs, whether it is easy to introduce new SoCs later, and the role the middleware plays.
  • A look at the benefits of Android TV Operator Tier versus other proprietary or open source set-top box solutions.
  • What the key integration points are when layering an operator UI/UX onto the Android TV Operator Tier OS and the chosen middleware.
  • The content security considerations when working with Android TV Operator Tier, including isolation of TV services within a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) and the isolation of trusted apps inside the TEE.
  • How to ensure a quality UX across multiple networks and service brands while running the same core STB implementation.
  • Thomas Helbo outlining what it was like working with Netflix for their app onboard (with remote control shortcut).

Listen to the webcast at your convenience, here.

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