New Multi-Screen Platforms Blend OTT with Legacy TV

Mauro Bonomi, president %26 CEO, Minerva NetworksDecember 8, 2010 – Multi-screen service is moving rapidly from strategic speculation to commercial implementation as service providers find they can leverage new IP-based middleware platforms to deliver a fully integrated slate of over-the-top and premium content.

New middleware from the likes of Nokia Siemens Networks and Minerva Networks, long-time IPTV suppliers in the telco space, is now targeted to all classes of service providers, from the smallest telco and cable providers to Tier 1 players. As a result, SPs no longer have to think incrementally in terms of moving to a PC-directed first phase of TV Everywhere and then to more devices while finding a means somewhere along the way to expand the service portfolio to include a branded OTT component.

As evidenced by rollout plans recently announced by KPN, the Netherlands’ primary telecom provider, and Belgacom, the Belgium telecom, it’s possible to jump from a legacy premium TV service to a next-generation blended multi-screen service in one leap, in this case with the help of Nokia Siemens Networks’ new Ubiquity Multiscreen TV Platform. Both these telcos are implementing upgrades of their existing NSN IPTV platforms to bring multi-screen capabilities into play with a new type of interactive TV service that draws from all content sources.

This combination of capabilities is what the market has been waiting for to justify investing in a next-generation platform, says Yoav Schreiber, senior analyst for digital media infrastructure at Current Analysis. “As service providers look to differentiate their multi-screen capabilities, it will become increasingly important for end-to-end solutions to encompass both a common back-end platform to seamlessly share intelligence across resources, as well as a common front-end to enable seamless multi-screen experiences,” Scheiber says. At this point, he adds, NSN “is among the few vendors that can leverage the resources to deliver both parts of a complete multi-screen architecture.”

With release of its xTVFusion 5.0 platform, Minerva says it has joined those ranks. In limited release now and slated for general availability early next year, the middleware will be offered as a free upgrade to existing Minerva iTV Manager customers, says Mauro Bonomi, president and CEO of the firm. “This is a major expansion of our middleware platform,” Bonomi adds. “Being able to source this great experience across multiple devices and networks is the promised land where service providers want to go.”

Significantly, the release marks a breakout for Minerva from the traditional IPTV market, given the usefulness of the platform to cable operators. “We now look on cable as a key market for our platform,” Bonomi says, echoing what many of his competitors are saying. Targets also include satellite and TV broadcasters that want to offer hybrid broadcast/on-demand services using broadband links for the IP component.

“We used to be focused on a business with 50 million subscribers with two TVs per household, which adds up to 100 million devices,” he adds. “This new solution appeals to any broadband connected device. With one half billion broadband connections and five or six devices per subscriber, we’re looking at three billion devices. That’s the opportunity our platform can manage.”

NSN sees the same potential for expansion of its customer base. “We’re developing for existing customers, but we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from cable and other IPTV providers as well,” says Bernd Matejek, head of IPTV at NSN. “There are a lot of swap-out opportunities [for new middleware solutions], because a lot of people are ready to move to a new service paradigm.”

As described by Bonomi, xTVFusion supports adaptive rate streaming of all types of content with a consistent TV navigation experience over managed and unmanaged broadband networks to set-tops, PCs, tablets, smartphones and other connected consumer devices. Where aggregation of OTT content is concerned, the platform goes beyond supporting just licensed OTT content by providing a gateway with open APIs (application program interfaces) to capture metadata from openly available OTT media sources.

The platform proactively searches the Web for metadata information by pulling publicly available information from caching points on content distribution networks (CDNs). “It picks up the metadata that’s around, normalizes it and propagates it through the system to subscribers,” Bonimi explains.

At the same time, he adds, such content, drawn into the navigation system and accessed as standard-definition quality video, can be brought into the premium programming domain and monetized as high-quality HDTV through licensing deals the service provider might negotiate with content suppliers. “This can be an engagement model where you as an operator say, ‘I have this platform that can monetize content, which gives you an opportunity to publish in HD through my system,'” Bonomi says. “Essentially, we’re enabling operators to create tiered packages of OTT content.”

Minerva is in a good position to support delivery of high-quality video for TV consumption over fairly low-bandwidth broadband streams owing to the fact it developed its original IPTV platform with special attention to the DSL limitations of many customers, says Doug Wills, who recently joined Minerva as vice president of marketing and business development. “Minerva has always thought there was a good business for IPTV at the middle and bottom levels of the bandwidth spectrum,” Wills says, noting the firm’s sweet spot is at two to 10 megabits-per-second.

A big factor in the new capabilities Minerva and others can now bring to IPTV is HTML5, the next generation of the Web Hypertext Markup Language that’s optimized for multimedia. “Our back office can present the converted experience (of TV to iPads and other devices) using HTML5,” Bonomi says. “By using this new Web technology, we can touch a lot of devices without much effort and, at the same time, provide an excellent experience on the set-top box.”

When it comes to enhancing the experience on the set-top box, NSN has taken the extraordinary step of working with chip manufacturers to integrate its new client software in such a way that limited processing resources on older set-tops can be used to achieve interactivity and applications richness that would otherwise be impossible. Matejek brings the benefits of this strategy home with a demonstration of the Ubiquity Multiscreen platform running on a four-year-old set-top that is like many deployed in KPN’s network.

“KPN, like many service providers, has hundreds of thousands of old boxes deployed that we want to be able to deliver this new user experience to without having to replace them,” Matejek says. “By working, in this case, with STMicroelectronics we’re able to get a microchip on an old box to do things nobody would think about. The amount of information displayed by the navigation system we’re showing on this set-top normally would stress the processor, but it actually works like it would on a much more recent vintage terminal. You can play widgets as apps you’ve uploaded to the Ubiquity system for display on such set-tops without having to make any changes in the code.”

NSN is in various phases of the integration process with other leading chipmakers, including Broadcom, where integration work is well underway, and Sigma Design, where it has just started. The company is also in discussions with Intel.

Initially KPN will apply the Ubiquity Multiscreen platform to support various enhanced service capabilities essential to growing the telco’s TV subscriber base, including HDTV, video-on-demand and time-shifted TV viewing with pausing, recording and rewinding of live TV programs. With the new Ubiquity client in play, the companies say KPN will be able to pursue faster development of new video streaming-based applications and customization of the user interface.

In the case of Belgacom, the intention is to move immediately into multi-screen service with the new Ubiquity platform, says Michel Georgis, executive vice president and head of the consumer business unit at Belgacom. “It is now time for us to raise the bar on the TV viewing experience,” Georgis says. “With the introduction of multi-screen TV services in the country next year, we aim to place greater control in our viewers’ hands over the choices of TV content and devices on which to access their preferred content.”

The first move in this direction, already launched, involves a TV Everywhere approach to delivering coverage of the country’s Jupiler League soccer game. Employing adaptive streaming, the platform will allow viewers to see the games and highlights on PCs and smart devices. “Considering the popularity of football in the country, we felt that there could be no better content to start with than the Jupiler League football,” Georgis says.

The Ubiquity Multiscreen TV Platform and the new client ensure content is protected across various devices with built-in digital rights management supplied by Verimatrix, Matejek says. In addition, and depending on permissions, the new client can allow users to share video content via its integration with Web apps and social networks. These features are over and above existing digital TV features such as network-based recording, pausing live TV and instant rewind, he stresses.

“We’ve taken an Internet portal approach with a gateway browser with everything managed in the back end,” Matejek notes. “This includes doing the transcoding for different screens and bandwidth levels.”

The client supports various operating systems (OS) to avoid being locked into a specific device type, including mobile OS such as Android, Symbian and others. The client provides fast booting and channel-changing and supports user interface animation through use of 3D graphics acceleration.

“We’re writing all the driver stuff, so you don’t have to use set-top suppliers’ SDKs (software development kits) to create these features,” Matejek says. This includes implementation of media sharing across all devices in the home with the help of Universal Plug and Play and Digital Living Network Alliance protocols. “We’re also working on more intelligent search services that encompass home content as well as what’s on the network,” he adds.

The client, because it’s based on the Nokia-developed Qt framework, is app-developer friendly, he notes. Qt is a cross-platform application and UI framework for developing once and deploying across Windows, Mac, Linux/X11, embedded Linux, Windows CE, Symbian and Maemo without rewriting the source code.

“We’ve had millions of downloads from developers in the last few months,” Matejek says. “Our customers are working with local systems integrators to create local apps. It’s easy for them to create an apps store and then bring in apps from these and outside sources.”

While the Ubiquity middleware has a browser, NSN has designed the platform to facilitate operators’ working with content suppliers in a cooperative environment to create TV-optimized OTT content, Matejek says. “You can use the Qt framework to easily integrate things like Netflix. You can do a plug-in and some skinning to make it more integrated and available with navigational search. Operators need to be able to cooperate in that environment in order to keep subscribers in the operator-branded space.”

Departing from the route taken by Minerva respecting pulling metadata from Web content and making it part of the TV experience, NSN, like many other suppliers, does not believe the raw Web video-to-TV approach is compelling. “You need to work with specific providers to make it compelling,” Matejek says.

Of course, he adds, devices with native clients meant to access such content, including iPads and iPhones, will do so but not as part of the branded operator experience. At the same time, the OTT content that has been integrated into the navigational space for the TV service will also be part of that branded multi-screen navigational experience when it’s accessed through the SP UI on those other devices.