Dutch Embrace Next-Gen TV In Key Test of 2 Tech Paths

By Todd Marcelle

Michael Fries, president & CEO, Liberty Global

Michael Fries, president & CEO, Liberty Global

September 20, 2012 – European service providers pushing ahead with next-generation multiscreen services provide a useful snapshot of competing technology strategies as well as, in the case of Liberty Global, a hint of what could be a rejuvenation in the pay TV market from consumers hungry for such services.

Liberty’s Dutch UPC, after longer-than-expected ramp up to the first commercial launch of the new Horizon TV service, is reporting demand for the service is so far beyond company expectations that it has had to alter its marketing and installation strategies. As reported by the European press, Peter Dorr, Liberty Global’s managing director for strategic marketing, told an audience at the CTAM Eurosummit in Vienna, “At the moment we try to manage the number of incoming customers. The product is hidden on the website.”

The Horizon service, combining technology from a broad range of vendors, employs a universal navigation system delivered through an advanced media gateway to support personalized viewing and sharing of content on TV sets, computers, tablets and smartphones. Applications include remote control functionality on connected devices, viewing recommendations, whole-home DVR and much else.

Two weeks into the launch the company reported 45,000 people had downloaded the Horizon app offering 80 live channels streamed over the MSO’s broadband channels through the Horizon gateway for viewing on iPads, iPhones and laptops. Dorr said the Web site attracted 100,000 unique viewers and three million page impressions during the first two weeks.

Given the early response, which forced the company to deal with a shortage of installers by offering a self-install option, Liberty Global president and CEO Mike Fries could legitimately claim, “This is what our customers have been waiting for.” Sounding the core marketing theme for the service, Fries said, “Horizon TV brings the power of the Internet and the most popular apps to your TV screen and allows you to ‘connect, discover and be free.’”

Horizon TV, slated for rollouts in Switzerland, German and Ireland over the next three to six months, will eventually be available to 10.8 million subscribing households in the four countries. But it remains to be seen whether the media gateway-centric technology trail blazed by Liberty will become a well-beaten path or other approaches now gaining traction in other rollouts in Europe will prove to be the true bellwethers.

“The UPC initiative is what people are watching in Europe,” said Steve Christian, vice president of marketing for content security provider Verimatrix. “But as a big push strongly dependent on the media gateway one wonders whether its time has passed.”

Christian points to the contrasting approach taken by Ziggo, the Netherlands’ largest cable operator, which is going directly over the top to deliver its premium content to IP-connected devices. “Ziggo is IOS- and Android capable with its multiscreen tablet and smartphone deployment,” Christian notes. “It’s a very advanced operation in this respect.”

Ziggo’s move to supporting multiscreen service to all types of IOS and Android devices dovetails with introduction of a cloud-based service management environment that leverages the ActiveVideo platform to expand the service experience on non-IP set-tops. Rather than employing the usual set-top rental and replacement model for service operations, Ziggo has always relied on off-the-shelf purchases of set-tops, which has limited many customers’ access to VOD and other new services the company has brought to market over the years.

Now legacy customers can access the full range of video services through the ActiveVideo platform, which presently is in beta trial. And by downloading the Ziggo TV multiscreen app, now in commercial operation, they can connect IP devices to the full range of live and on-demand services via a managed Wi-Fi link to their cable modems. The new over-the-top premium TV service uses HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) with security provided through Verimatrix’s ViewRight Web-enabled app, which ties into the vendor’s Video Content Authority System (VCAS) for Internet TV.

Stateside, as elsewhere, there’s a huge debate underway as to how to make the transition to a full slate of next-generation multiscreen service capabilities, including universal navigation, personalization and second-screen app functionalities. Many operators are reluctant to rely on the Internet-optimized adaptive streaming technology, now being standardized under the auspices of the MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) initiative.

Moreover, more restrictive licensing issues in the U.S. create pressure to use a fully managed network rather than the Internet to deliver IP content so as to stay within the bounds of contract terms. This is facilitated through use of advanced gateways to perform processing required to deliver unicast streams to IP devices over the home network.

But the costs of such boxes and the challenges of putting together a holistic service combining legacy and IP delivery capabilities are causing many operators to weigh other options. For example, as reported elsewhere, while Comcast has pegged its next-gen Xfinity service rollout to the media gateway, it is also testing the ActiveVideo cloud system as a possible means of delivering the next-gen experience to legacy set-tops.

Liberty Global CTO Balan Nair told a press gathering at the recent IBC conference in Amsterdam, “This journey has been an emotional rollercoaster for a number of us, for my board as well, because every time I went back and said my project was delayed it was a very painful experience.”

Indeed, the complexities of orchestrating all the functionalities over the existing managed cable network infrastructure can be daunting, noted Abe Peled, previously CEO of Horizon supplier NDS and now a senior executive at Cisco Systems following its takeover of the software firm. “Networks are not as reliable as a broadcast, so part of the challenge was to have the software be much more tolerant of things not showing up,” Peled told the same press meeting. “Some guy you’d never heard of who was in charge of load balancing changed the algorithm without even Balan knowing, because it’s in the network department.”

The amount of vendor collaboration involved in putting such a service together can be mind boggling. Samsung built the multimedia gateway; Intel supplied the Intel Atom CE Media Processor, and NDS supplied the middleware and user interface. Nagravision supplied the NAGRA Media Access encryption system, and ThinkAnalytics was recently announced as supplier of the recommendation engine.

Seachange International provided the VOD back office systems to support seamless content migration between TV and Online devices. KIT Digital and thePlatform collaborated on development of the enterprise service platform and content management system for the online TV service, while the browser and app were designed and developed by Empathy Labs. Several other vendors were involved in various aspects of the DLNA home-networking connectivity.

Ziggo has its collaborators as well, of course, but far fewer. Along with the enhanced HLS security techniques Verimatrix provides to allow ongoing phase-in of new devices, the operator is relying on RGB Networks to transcode and package the video and Edgeware’s Distributed Video Delivery Network technology, a video-optimized platform for private CDNs, to help ensure delivery of a premium-quality service in the OTT streaming mode.

The Ziggo solution is one of the first deployments of the Convoy VDN (Video Delivery Network) software suite, which is one of the main elements of Edgeware’s D-VDN system, noted Edgeware CEO Joachim Roos. “When we launched the Convoy VDN software suite this time last year, we immediately saw great interest from major operators requiring highly flexible, scalable solutions that could be implemented on accelerated timelines,” Roos said.

As explained by Roos, Convoy VDN intuitively integrates core functions, such as request routing, content gateway and reporting, with the central and edge streaming servers, providing the operator with complete integrated management of a distributed VDN. This allows the network service provider to offer operator-owned CDN video delivery capabilities across any network topology and incorporates the required interfaces and management functions to allow the operator to provide both retail and wholesale (CDN) services to content providers, he said.

No matter which approaches are taken, the results enjoyed by UPC at launch should be a major inducement to other operators everywhere to hasten rollout of these types of services. “Customers don’t just want more, they demand more,” said Liberty’s Peter Dorr. “If you don’t deliver, they go elsewhere. Customers have become ‘subject matter experts.’”

Indeed, he added, the demand has disproven Liberty Global’s assumptions about the market profile of such services. The MSO planned to target high-end customers as the first Horizon gateway recipients, to be followed by other existing customer and then non-customers, he said. But with demand running at 500 percent of expectations, such segmenting makes no sense.
And Liberty Global, having got through the long and costly pre-launch phase, now can point to real cost savings that it will enjoy with the gateway strategy compared to costs it would have incurred taking traditional approaches to service upgrades. With the gateway in place the company can introduce low-cost thin-client devices to connect secondary TV sets, which it plans to do in 2013. “The big cost is set-tops,” he said. “That cost has dropped dramatically. Horizon gives you a gateway plus a couple of IP clients and you don’t have to ship out three HD DVRs.”