Last year EchoStar threw in the towel on its efforts to provide U.S. cable operators a media gateway with SlingBox capabilities built in, not so much because the concept was a bad idea but because of the company’s position as a unit of DISH Network owner Charlie Ergen’s empire and its reported failure to deliver on commitments for early trials of its Aria gateway by prospective customers. Now, however, even as EchoStar goes after two of its SlingBox competitors with patent infringement suits filed in early January, other suppliers are positioning themselves to make such capabilities available through competing platforms.
One of these is Morega Systems, which has teamed with other entities to provide a branded media gateway, the Forge, initially for telcos but with the option to tailor it to cable’s needs if there’s interest there. More significantly, perhaps, Morega’s strategy to provide software supporting place shifting to IP devices in and beyond the home is providing third-party OEMs the means to enable such capabilities on their own branded products, including smart TVs as well as premium service gateways.
Support for place shifting beyond the home is also intrinsic to the media gateway strategy at ARRIS Group, notes Tom Williams, the company’s vice president of service provider marketing and business development. For example, the new MG2402 high-power gateway undergoing testing by Comcast performs transcoding and adaptive bitrate stream packaging along with assignment of protection mechanisms for distribution of premium MPEG-2-delivered content to IP devices wherever they may be.
“MSOs will start with transparent distribution of content to connected devices in the home,” Williams says. “We won’t know what pieces stay in the home and what goes out until the licensing rights are clearer, but the device can support distribution outside the home. It offers a way for operators to get over the live streaming hump.”
The reference is to the amount of bandwidth that must be consumed to deliver content in IP mode to subscribers from central distribution points. Even when IP multiscast is used to support broadcast of live content, which has technology drawbacks MSOs are still wrestling with, the number of streaming formats and bitrates tied to various screen resolutions pose immense challenges.
A major problem with the gateway approach to supporting multiscreen streaming, however, even when place-shifting capabilities extend the reach to devices outside the home, is the operator’s need to get multiscreen service into the market sooner than later to as many subscribers as possible. Waiting for gateways to permeate the marketplace is not a path many are ready to accept.
Cox Communications, for example, plans to roll out Cisco System’s six-tuner hybrid IP/QAM whole-home video gateway this quarter, but it has been offering multiscreen TV Everywhere service to iPads for the past year, utilizing its broadband spectrum to deliver the IP services in conjunction with transcoding and streaming support from edge devices supplied by RGB Networks. Cox recently announced it was expanding the live streaming channel count from 35 to over 90 while introducing an app supporting distribution to iPhones as well as iPads. It said it would add Android devices to the device lineup sometime during this half of the year.
So far distribution is limited to devices in the home, which is the case with most MSOs’ TV Everywhere services, and the lineup doesn’t include ESPN and other sports channels. Cox has just begun offering 30 local broadcast station channels over the IP service in Orange County, CA and says it intends to negotiate rights to do so with broadcasters in other markets as well.
Cox officials, like other MSO executives, say they want to extend their multiscreen services to devices outside the home, which could add significantly to the transport and headend processing burden. And then there’s the rights issue.
Cox has not said what steps it will take to enable out-of-home IP service distribution, although it’s worth noting, as previously reported, that Morega System’s technology has been integrated into what is now Cisco’s NDS software platform, which is the foundation for Cox’s advanced Trio guide and the content protection capabilities Cox is employing with multiscreen services.
The gateway, like others entering the market, affords the MSO the option to leverage advanced processing capabilities in the home rather than in the network to handle the transcoding, formatting and protection requirements for distribution to IP devices, obviating the need to deliver pay TV services over-the-top to gateway-equipped subscribers. Whether Cox utilizes these capabilities remains to be seen, but the Morega connection provides a means for extending the reach of the gateway to out-of-home devices if that’s how Cox wants to go.
One of the advantages of this approach is its potential to overcome licensing hurdles for distribution of pay TV over IP beyond the home, as demonstrated in the long-running use of SlingBox for out-of-home distribution without specific licensing authority. Whether this becomes a factor in MSOs’ IP migration path calculations could well depend on how hard it is for them to get licenses for out-of-home distribution to devices connected to Wi-Fi and mobile networks.
As far as Morega Systems is concerned, it’s all about the combined power of the cloud and advanced software running on media gateways and smart TVs. “We’re allowing service providers and CE manufacturers to move content and media to any device that will accept that content, including phones, tablets, laptops and smart TVs,” says Morega CEO Buddy Snow. “Whether it’s a stream or file transfer, we allow it to happen inside the home or outside the home over wireless networks.”
Morega’s latest announced customer is Philips, which has deployed Morega on its TP Vision Smart TVs to support IP streaming to any Apple iOS device in the home that is running the Philips app. Morega enables up to six concurrent streams from a single smart TV set, Snow notes. While the system could be used to supply content outside the home, Philips has not chosen to do that, he adds.
Out-of-home distribution from a device running Morega’s software is the aim of DirecTV’s Nomadic service, which it offers with a $149 add-on device. The option, available since 2011, has not been heavily marketed but soon may be as DirecTV goes beyond the initial application, which was file downloads to encompass streaming as well.
While licensing for out-of-home IP distribution of pay TV services might be a hassle for a while, Snow believes those issues will be worked out. But the real need for solutions that rely on the home gateway as the distribution point for multiscreen service comes down to the bandwidth and storage capacity associated with a centralized distribution approach. “Everybody will have a solution from the cloud,” he says, “but the vast majority will do transcoding in the home.”
This, of course, remains to be seen, given the division in opinions as to whether network- or gateway-based approaches to IP distribution make the most sense. As evidenced by Cox’s reliance on RGB, a high-density multiprocessing edge platform can be used to significantly alleviate the centralized distribution burdens.
RGB’s Video Processing Gateway, originally introduced as a high-quality, high-efficiency transcoding platform, now encompasses a wide range of modular hardware components which together comprise its Enhanced Video Intelligence Architecture. This includes an adaptive rate packager along with ad insertion capabilities that utilize adaptive bitrate streaming to facilitate targeted advertising down to the neighborhood, device or even specific individual subscriber demographics.
As operators wrestle over best approaches to expanding their IP pay TV service footprints there are likely to be more gateways entering the market with support for the out-of-home streaming capabilities enabled by Morega, ARRIS and SlingBox. There have been a variety of SlingBox imitators in the market offering devices directly to consumers, such as Sony’s LocationFree product line, Belkin’s @TV Plus and Monsoon’s Multimedia Vulkano.
Providers of IP set-tops like Boxee and SimpleTV have recently implemented place-shifting capabilities extending to anywhere in the world. TiVo has introduced TiVo Stream, a $129 device supporting place-shifting but only to iOS devices in the home.
The Belkin and the Monsoon devices are subjects of the patent infringement suit filed by EchoStar in early January. But there’s every sign that, suits or no suits, the place-shifting ecosystem will continue to grow.