Cisco Says SPs Can Make ‘Pervasive Video’ a Reality

John Chambers, chairman & CEO, Cisco Systems

John Chambers, chairman & CEO, Cisco Systems

January 10, 2011 – Cisco Systems has funneled its knowhow across several product categories, including newly acquired software-based content management capabilities, into a new initiative that aims to greatly simplify service providers’ efforts to mount IP-based multi-device services.

Dubbed “Videoscape,” the endeavor was unveiled by company chairman and CEO John Chambers at the CES show earlier this month. “From Cisco’s perspective, Videoscape represents an opportunity for service providers to re-invent the entire TV experience,” Chambers said.

The move is the latest among several initiatives undertaken by network technology suppliers who are coming at the challenge from different skill sets to help operators who want to avoid conceding the multi-device video services market to over-the-top providers. In addition to leveraging its long-standing clout in network intelligence, content delivery and customer premises equipment, Cisco has been able to add the user authentication, life-cycle content management and publishing capabilities essential to an end-to-end solution through its recent acquisition of Extend Media.

Perhaps most importantly, Cisco has designed the Videoscape architecture to achieve all the managed service goals of service providers in an unmanaged broadband Internet environment, says Dr. Ken Morse, CTO for the company’s service provider technology group. “Our challenge was to make Videoscape viable for the worse-case scenario,” Morse says. “So we architected for unmanaged devices and networks, which allows customers to optimize the consumer experience across all content sources for managed devices on a managed network in accord with their individual service strategies.”

The company buttressed its case for embarking down this path with release of a survey of U.S. pay TV subscribers that showed 56 percent of respondents – 72 percent and 67 percent in the case of those aged under 25 and 25-35, respectively – believe it’s important to watch content on multiple devices. And 54 percent indicated they want to access general Internet content on television, said Doug Webster, Cisco’s director of strategic communications for worldwide service provider marketing.

Reporting on the results in a recent blog, Webster noted that 50 percent of respondents – 57 percent in the 25-35 bracket – would pay for online video service, “especially if it was offered at a low price point and easy to set up.” Some consumers indicated they’d be willing to pay $10-$16 extra per month for such a service, he added.

“We’re clearly seeing a shift in the marketplace that reflects an acknowledgement of the growing market fragmentation,” Webster said. “In an on-demand, personalized world some service providers are already voicing their intent to offer more flexibility in their pay-TV service options and associated pricing.”

But it’s not easy. Chambers made clear the full vision of what he called “pervasive video” will take time to bring to fruition. “Pervasive video will be the next voice over Internet,” he said. Noting “it was a bear with voice,” he said the complexities would be far greater with video, especially to the extent that consumers are shielded from those complexities.

“Video is more art than science,” he continued. “The organizations who will win are those who know how to make it simple.” In essence, Videoscape is a “software architecture announcement” designed to maximize consumer convenience where “75 percent of the initiative is about how that software architecture plays across the Internet.”

This “Medianet” architecture, as Cisco calls it, works in conjunction with the existing portfolio of network products, including the company’s carrier routing system, aggregation services routers, content delivery system (CDS) and cable modem termination systems (CMTS), and with its cloud technologies, including Cisco Unified Computing System and Cisco Nexus. While the migration path to full utilization of the Videoscape adaptation of all these technologies to pervasive video ultimately leads to a new type of media gateway in the home, the steps along that migration path are not about replacing existing set-tops but rather utilizing what’s in place while recreating the consumer experience, Chambers noted.

The new experience is also about more than simply getting content to different devices, he continued. “We have to get the social piece right,” he said. “It’s about how you bring together communities of interest.”

For example, people interacting around a sports event they’re viewing in different places would also be able to view video feeds from friends who are at the event recording it on their web cams. Weaving of the company’s telepresence technology into the social experience surrounding entertainment consumption will be crucial as well.

And, of course, the architecture must tie together the wireline and wireless access networks. “We’re bringing TV, Internet communications and mobility together seamlessly in an architectural play extending from the network core to every device,” he said. “It will require heavy partnerships with service providers for us to pull this off.”

Such partnerships are already taking shape, in many cases with service providers who are beginning the migration with expansion of TV Everywhere strategies, Morse noted. “One of the first steps service providers are taking is to say, ‘I have some real need to be able to start delivering video services to other devices,'” Morse said. “So a lot of people are starting with the Media Suite component of Videoscape to enable TV Everywhere.

“That’s where AT&T and Verizon are already using it today, as is Bell Canada,” he added. “And the other thing that’s interesting is, it’s not just being used by service providers. Content providers are using it to support their own multi-device distribution needs. For example, Disney and Paramount are using Media Suite.”

As previously reported (August 2009, p. 16), Extend Media prior to the acquisition had expanded its content management and video commerce portfolio to encompass all the fulfillment capabilities for TV Everywhere initiatives. Now, as the core to the Videoscape Media Suite, the technology provides operators support for unified ingestion and content management, subscriber and profile management, digital rights management (DRM), billing and transaction management and reporting and analytics. The features include the ability to handle transactions for up-sell, cross-sell and a la carte consumption, to manage dynamic ad insertion and to publish to multiple devices in accord with a variety of business models, including electronic sell through, on-demand streaming and pay-per-view.

Service providers can either import Media Suite to run on their own servers and other headend components, or they can contract with Cisco to operate the platform for them on an outsource basis. “Large Tier 1s can expect to take Media Suite and operate it themselves, putting in their own information and hosting it in their networks,” Morse said. “Among Tier 2s and 3s we’re seeing a lot of interest in the software-as-service model.”

Either way Media Suite can “support content work flows and business rules on a device-by-device basis,” Morse added. “We can control transcoders and insert DRM policies. Then, as we get into the home to address all these devices, we bring the soft clients to run on a range of devices.”

The client architecture builds on Cisco’s experience in the home device market, including set-tops and products like Linksys routers, umi telepresence and Flip video cameras to deliver cloud-based and premium content along with integrated navigation capabilities to any managed or unmanaged device, officials said. So far, the client for unmanaged applications is available for PC and Mac computers as part of the Media Suite assets. The company said it will make it available for Android, iPhone and iPad applications in the future.

According to company documents, with the new software client installed these devices will be able to support multiple content monetization models with an immersive experience using in-browser Flash or Silverlight players and with full trick-play controls, playlist carousel, multiple resolutions, advertising insertion, content security and social media tools. Operators will be able to customize the entire experience with the ability to manage multiple devices and services through the service provider cloud.

Morse made clear the framework will give operators the flexibility to insert high-security DRMs that may not be native to the client streaming protocols. For example, he said, “when you look at the iPad and other Apple devices [which natively run Apple’s FairPlay DRM], you can use other security to deliver content to them. In fact, in our Videoscape demo here at CES we’re showing delivery of content to the iPad using other security mechanisms.”

Such flexibility allows the operator to deal with a multiplicity of streaming and DRM solutions native to different devices, in essence creating a “funnel” through Videoscape that minimizes the complexities of content ingestion and management, he said. “If you took all these things in consort and said all these things have to happen with adaptive bit rate streaming bringing 12 profiles and then multiply by the number of DRMs associated with those profiles, it just breaks,” he noted. “Having dynamic adaptation that reduces the costs of acquisition and storage and touches all these different devices is what moves it ahead.”

As service providers move into the multi-device space with on-demand delivery of TV Everywhere services they are looking to maximize bandwidth efficiency and quality of experience through creation of CDNs optimized to support their modes of distribution and to cache content as closely as possible to end users (see November issue, p. 1). “Fifteen of the top 20 service providers in the world are now using our CDN infrastructure,” Morse said, noting the ability to implement the company’s Advanced Video Services Module (AVSM) on its series 9000 Aggregation Service Routers eliminates the need for standalone content delivery elements at the network edge.

AVSM brings gigabytes of streaming and terabytes of caching capacity to the edge, along with ad insertion, fast-channel change services and bit-error correction capabilities, officials said. Because the ASR-based edge CDN blade leverages CDS intelligence architecture, it integrates seamlessly with any wide-area CDN infrastructure that is powered by CDS-equipped routers.

Binding everything together to provide operators unified control over cloud-based content, the network and clients is the Videoscape cloud-based Conductor. As an XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) -based real-time messaging bus consisting of a common communications platform and control services, the Conductor allows operators to continually add and scale cloud-based services to ever more devices, officials said.

With Media Suite, edge CDNs and other elements of Videoscape in play for TV Everywhere operators will be well positioned to take the next step, Morse said. “You can imagine that as soon as service providers start using Media Suite for the TV Everywhere experience, it will grow to include the linear experience,” he asserted. “That’s definitely the next phase where a lot of SPs are going now.”

Somewhere along the migration path operators will want to break free of legacy set-tops to exploit the full power of IP-based video to bring the blended service experience that’s available on other devices to the TV, especially as cost factors dictate IP-based home delivery for enabling multi-room DVR and tighter integration of unmanaged IP devices into the home networking environment. This is where the media gateway comes into play, which has become a major focus of vendor development over the past year (see November issue, p. 1).

In Cisco’s case, its Videoscape media gateways are in trial with many service providers worldwide, Morse said. In instances where cable operators don’t want to jump to full simulcast of all services in IP mode, they can employ the QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) terminating capabilities of the Cisco gateways, thereby allowing all content to be accessed in IP mode within the home.

“Different customers are doing different proportions of services delivered in IP,” Morse said. “Some have invested heavily to free up bandwidth space for IP by killing or radically reducing their analog channels. Some are applying a lot of switched video technology to free up some bandwidth. A lot of it is driven by the economics of what you do in the way of allocation of capital to network evolution versus CPE. For cable operators, this is where the DOCSIS front end is key.”

Now that chips on the market can support DOCSIS 3.0 bonding across eight channels, with 16-channel bonding in the offing, there’s enough IP video delivery capacity to merit use of media gateways to support a large IP TV services tier over cable networks, Morse noted. Indeed, he said, were operators to reduce the sizes of their fiber nodes to 250 homes, a bonded 16-channel DOCSIS 3.0 platform would be sufficient to providing all linear and on-demand content in IP mode to subscribers, assuming use of H.264 compression and full integration through bandwidth-saving statistical multiplexing of voice and data streams with the video. The same thing could be accomplished with eight-channel bonding on a 100-home node, he added.

Of course, most operators aren’t ready to do the heavy lifting associated with such reductions in node service areas, but the higher channel bonding counts are the trigger to demand for media gateways, given the QAM termination capabilities, no matter what node sizes are in play, Morse said. “This is where we’ll see the big switch to gateways,” he added.

While most service providers are taking the evolutionary path through TV Everywhere to full realization of the Videoscape potential, Australia’s Telstra has leaped ahead with use of the Videoscape technology, including CDNs, to deliver IP linear and on-demand services to multiple devices, including the TV set. “Telstra is a great proof point of how you can avoid being hammered into the ground by the costs and time of constantly adding new devices,” Morse said. “They’re able to bring on new unmanaged devices at a rate of one every two weeks, including connected TVs, gaming consoles and handhelds.”

“We see tremendous opportunity with IP video services that offer consumers interactive, Internet-like experiences using both the TV and the PC,” said Telstra CEO David Thodey. “Our CDN supports the breadth and depth of content that gives our customers choice and reliability to download and access their favorite movies and programs to the TV using our T-Box media player, through direct download to the TV, or via the PC.”