July 1, 2011 – It may be true that for most service providers migration to multi-device services will be an incremental process for some time to come, but recent events point to the likelihood that those incremental steps will be coming at warp speed compared to what’s happened up to now.
One bellwether is Comcast’s launch of its next-generation Xfinity service in Augusta, Ga. It took awhile to get to this point, but from now on the MSO will be able to leverage a cloud-based backend framework, dubbed Xcalibur, to step up the pace of new service iterations as market conditions dictate, whether the new features are accessed through legacy MPEG-2 set-tops or over broadband from connected IP devices.
“We think this is the beginning of the next generation by taking the brains and putting it in the cloud,” said Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts in a demonstration of some of the new Xfinity features at the recent Cable Show in Chicago. “You can pull up our guide and click in and see all sorts of things happening in the cloud that are coming through our traditional MPEG platform.”
Roberts illustrated a multitude of new navigational capabilities and social network features on the new guide, which provides several ways to holistically navigate across all linear, on demand and locally stored TV options, including keyword searches, recommendations and personalized filtering processes. Advanced social networking features include a unique “Friend Trends” function that compiles information about viewing behavior of a subscriber’s Facebook friends.
The Xcalibur framework, leveraging the IP service management infrastructure supplied by Comcast subsidiary thePlatform, frees the MSO from relying on set-top processors to do the heavy lifting to support new features and applications. “I think that is becoming a real story across the world,” says thePlatform’s CEO Ian Blaine.
Moreover, the cloud-based IP operational environment gives service providers a means of migrating to all-IP services in a way that works in tandem with the legacy MPEG-2 environment. “All these companies operating pay TV services have an existing plant and need to extend that to deliver those services to all devices, and the big push is to do that in all IP,” Blaine says. “It has to work with legacy systems, but over time, if this IP stack is put in place properly and touches all the back office systems, you can start using it to power TV itself.”
The mpx platform, a highly integrated multi-featured content management system based on Service-Oriented Architecture, can bring into play all the benefits of IP operations across all access points provided it can communicate with legacy operational components (see February 2010, p. 26), Blaine notes. The Xcalibur initiative made this possible.
“Comcast teams across the company really stepped up to make sure the legacy systems have modern interfaces to them so you can treat them like they’re a Web service,” Blaine says. “So we can talk to the back-office systems very much like you would a cloud-based service. That allows us to talk to the billing systems, the user and entitlement systems and then express that out to new style set-tops or other devices.”
In a move that promises to accelerate the adoption of such capabilities worldwide thePlatform and Alcatel-Lucent have reached agreement on a partnership that allows them to leverage each others’ strengths in joint pursuit of new business. The result is a new multi-screen video platform that serves both to integrate the content management capabilities of mpx with the back-office components A-L has in play and to streamline distribution by combining the mpx content formatting functionalities with A-L’s advanced contend delivery network (CDN) technology.
Both companies also contribute knowhow in the client portion of the joint solution where client applications are designed to support video playback on different types of devices. For example, the clients can seamlessly pre-integrate interactive program guides with search and personalization features, making it easy for users to discover and watch live TV and VOD services on a wide variety of devices in a way that’s intuitively compatible with their TV viewing experience.
“The client ecosystem is moving at a torrid space with third-party developers large and small working on apps for content,” notes Clayton Wagar, leader for cable solutions at A-L. “We want to provide a robust set of tools for developers to use in making sure their apps extend to as many devices as possible.”
While thePlatform has long worked in multiple CDN environments, either allowing customers to use their own contracted suppliers or bringing a select set of options to them, the new affiliation with A-L opens the door to offering advanced capabilities based on A-L’s Velocix Digital Media Delivery Platform that may not be available elsewhere, officials say. For example, rather than operating in the usual hierarchical style of traditional CDNs, they explain, the new system provides mechanisms that allow a caching point directly served from central storage to share content with other local caching points on a peer-to-peer basis rather than requiring all of them to connect to central storage.
“Increasingly we’re seeing a tight integration occurring between the content manager and CDNs,” Wagar notes. “In fact, one of the reasons we have this alliance is that, as we talk to customers they’re saying they realize the first order of strategic priority is to achieve competency with content management and delivery. Our people have gone through training on thePlatform’s system, so they can work with customers to handle the full end-to-end issue of integrating content management and delivery.”
New enhancements to the Velocix CDN platform include implementation of per-stream encryption on the edge cache servers so that the level of protection required under licenses for premium TV content is applied when that same content is delivered to other devices. This allows operators to meet different license requirements for different types of devices, which has become a key industry issue, Wagar says.
“Customers who want to put their entire channel lineup on the iPad want to be able to meet the same legal constructs that are set for the content on set-top boxes,” he explains. “So we’ve made it possible for edge caches to participate in the key management infrastructure to use keys on a per-stream basis to support per-device encryption.”
This was a big challenge, given the cost implications of adding these capabilities for every stream at every edge cache. “We put some smart people on this and leveraged the existing cache technology so that we could deliver encryption on the same economic model as we had without that capability,” Wagar says.
A second recent innovation has to do with state awareness, where the CDN caches are able to sense what’s going on with each device and to report useful metrics back to the operations center to ensure quality of experience is sustained under changing conditions. For example, the cache can let the operator know that an iPad not authorized to receive certain content over the mobile network has moved to that network from its connection to the fixed network, thereby allowing the user to be de-authorized for access to that content until the iPad is re-connected with the fixed network.
Or, if a movie watched from the car is cut off because the car has driven out of cell range, the cache can alert the cloud to ensure the viewers in the car can pick up watching the movie where it was cut off once they come back into cell coverage. “Little stuff like that rounds the edges and makes for a more polished service for operators,” Wagar says.
A-L also brings what it calls “Mobile Smart Loading” into the distribution space, which serves to provide users more valuable applications and content loaded into the device than they might otherwise have. For example, by leveraging the network’s awareness of device state and location, the A-L multimedia system can determine whether the user is connecting their mobile device to a Wi-Fi network, in which case they can be delivered longer form content options that might not be viable on the mobile connection.
A key benefit of the partnership to both companies is the likely impact it will have on their ability to penetrate each others’ markets. “This is deeper than the typical partner engagement where the partners are familiar with what each other does and so benefit by adding the other’s solutions to their customer bases,” says Alex Glass, vice president of global operations at thePlatform, which is well entrenched in North American cable but is seeking greater reach globally. “This is more about sharing the openings of doors and letting everybody in.”
“We think we’re moving in a smart direction, because we’re at the point where cable and telco look a lot like each other,” Wagar adds, noting that A-L is looking for wider engagement of cable operators with its videocasting capabilities. “From the network core to the very edge over time there will be a lot of amazing similarities.”