New Tech Enhances Viability Of Adaptive Streaming for TV

Brian Collie, CEO, SeaWell Networks

Brian Collie, CEO, SeaWell Networks

October 3, 2012 – Start-up SeaWell Networks has introduced a multiscreen session-level management platform which could become a significant force for breaking barriers to achieving the personalization and monetization potential of IP-streamed TV services.
According to SeaWell officials, the company’s technology has gained traction with two major, unnamed network operating companies in Canada and the U.S. and is helping Avail-TVN serve over 200 operators through its new AnyView TV Everywhere service. Adding to the momentum, three leading providers of advanced advertising support systems have partnered with SeaWell to facilitate personalized advertising in the multiscreen domain.

Time Warner Cable Media president Joan Gillman, who recently joined SeaWell’s board, says the company is “positioned to provide innovative solutions for IP delivered content and advanced advertising.” Avail-TVN CTO Michael Kazmier agrees and spells out why.

“Service providers need new and innovative ways to deliver content securely and efficiently,” Kazmier says. “SeaWell’s solution enables us to deliver to any device, without the overhead of building and maintaining multiple infrastructures and client applications.”

Such comments reflect the fact that prior to SeaWell’s introduction of its Spectrum platform earlier this year service providers had not found a cost-effective way to manage IP-streamed content on a per-session basis, asserts SeaWell CEO Brian Collie. “The response we’re getting from MSOs is, this is something we need to be able to do,” Collie says.

Essentially, Spectrum is a software system that enables managed delivery of IP streamed services by performing multiple functions at the network edge, thereby alleviating the bandwidth and processing load between central transcoding locations and CDN caches as well as the need for specialized client software on user devices. By handling requests for video, querying the appropriate back office authentication servers and taking control of the adaptive streaming manifest process Spectrum creates a personalized, DRM-secured session based on the device and the business rules set by the network operator, explains Brian Stevenson, director of product management at SeaWell.

“People have been looking for a way to handle session management and management of QoS,” Stevenson says. “HTTP adaptive streaming is a fantastic mechanism as far as it goes, but it doesn’t have a state for managing sessions. By taking over the stream and manifest process we manage the session setup and all the content delivered in real time to make sure end users are getting a cable-like experience.”

This approach represents a big change in how adaptive streaming (AS) works, because it means the device is no longer in control. In unmanaged AS, at the initiation of a video streaming session by any user on any device, the HTTP server sends the device a live manifest file that defines each of the available bit rate profiles for the chosen content.

Throughout the session the device signals which profile should be streamed every few seconds based on what the available access data rate is on the network and how much processing power is available on the device to handle the video stream. Other information can be included in the manifest as well, such as type and source of application the client can expect to see in any given stream fragment or “chunk.”

By assuring the stream adjusts every few seconds to bandwidth conditions AS offers a powerful way to maintain continuity amid fluctuations which otherwise might cause buffering breaks in the stream. But it leaves providers in the dark as to what’s going on at the user end and makes it very difficult to deliver a managed service if every stream has to be tailored to each recipient device as it leaves the transcoder, especially if devices have to be sent special clients to accommodate specific apps such as advertising.

Concerns over quality control, personalization and costs have limited the usefulness of multiscreen service, allowing certain types of devices targeted by the transcoders to receive a non-personalized stream of content and making it hard to bring new devices with variant AS and DRM formats into the service mix without spending huge amounts on more processing power at the headend. The SeaWell Spectrum solution has emerged amid internal debates within industry tech circles as to how to address the multiscreen premium service and personalization issues, possibly with cable-specific versions of AS tied to PacketCable Multimedia policy servers or by avoiding AS streaming over the network altogether by relying on home media gateways to perform transcoding and IP formatting on standard MPEG-2 content for distribution to connected devices in the home.

SeaWell claims its solution deals with all these issues at minimum costs, especially if the operator has cache or other edge servers at hand which can be used to run the Spectrum software program. “We can coordinate Spectrum with a lot of the caching infrastructure that’s out there,” Stevenson says. “So in most cases you don’t need to buy a second box.”

Spectrum is manipulating the manifest on the network, creating a personalized session with the device, and reacting to new conditions as they occur. “We take a stream delivered in a single format from the transcoder and on the fly tailor each piece of content to the device and specific user characteristics as it’s delivered,” he says.

Content protection is delivered to individual streams, whether files are stored in the clear or encrypted form, through the Spectrum interface with DRM servers. “We interact with all the different DRMs and formats used with Microsoft, Android and Apple formats, as well as different flavors of MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP),” Collie notes. “It’s all done on the fly.”

Where bandwidth management is concerned, the platform allows operators to go beyond the usual approaches to AS where all subscribers are treated alike to allow preferences to be accorded to premium users when congestion starts to impact bitrates. “If you’re a VIP subscriber, you may get a continuous high definition quality stream while people on lower tiers are scaled back to lower resolutions,” Stevenson says.

The SeaWell officials also stress the role the Spectrum solution plays in gathering session data for quality performance monitoring, tracking bandwidth consumption for users’ accounts, assessing viewer interaction with apps and ad metrics. All the information about what occurs during the viewing session is gathered together and delivered to internal collection centers as well as to third party partners, Collie notes.

“For example, we can work with a policy management system which may be assigned to take action in the case of network saturation to adjust allocations to assure all users have a high quality of service,” he says. “We export statistics to our own or third-party quality assurance analyzers to get quantitative values to help operators track performance.

So far, SeaWell customers have been using Spectrum to achieve the basic efficiencies that allow them to deliver streams from single mezzanine files for AS fragmentation, DRM management and client manifest control by Spectrum at the edges. “The goal here is cost reduction and better performance,” Collie says, noting use of Spectrum does away with the need to store content in different formats for different classes of devices.

But, he adds, SeaWell expects the personalized advertising capabilities to come into play as customers put the platform in place and the streaming scales to levels conducive to driving new revenues. “As the advertising delivery ecosystem becomes more complex, Spectrum responds to this challenge by repackaging files for a particular user and device for each session enabling operators to efficiently and cost-effectively expand existing VOD and linear advertising models to any IP device,” he says.

The Spectrum platform can feed the information it is collecting about the device and user into a third-party ad network, enabling personalized delivery of ads with each session, he explains. The ad provider can encode the ads in any AS format, and Spectrum will repackage them on the fly for insertion into the session. The resulting smooth transition between content and ads makes the experience TV like while creating a personal stream immune to conventional ad skipping technologies.

Spectrum has now been integrated into the advanced advertising systems of BlackArrow, ARRIS and Harris. In each case, the joint solution leverages SeaWell technology to eliminate the need to create multiple interfaces and streams for different devices and video formats while using the capabilities of the ad system to determine ad payloads, decisioning and reporting.

Such integrations have important implications for local cable ad sales as well as national spot placements, Stevenson notes. “This is one of the applications MSOs are looking at to deploy with us,” he says. “We look at ad markers like any other splicer, so we know whether there’s an opportunity to place an ad from local cache, and then we perform the formatting on that ad to create the seamless experience on each session.”

Cable customers are looking at personalizing local ad placements in the IP streams, Collie adds. “We have customers who want to go to sub-zones within DMAs, and one that’s looking at doing ads on a zip-code-plus-four basis,” he says. “The fact is, you can go down to the individual level and roll out that kind of targeting when that becomes part of the gameplan.”