Columbus Communications, the Caribbean-based MSO, has come up with a cost-effective way to leverage IP streaming to support a range of strategies that include multiscreen service within its existing footprint and extension of its premium TV service to greenfield areas in all-IP mode.
The operator’s ability to leverage a distributed processing architecture from a single headend to do all these things across multiple island nations opens an IP migration path that could work for other MSOs as well.
At the same time, LIME (Landline Internet Mobile and Entertainment), a unit of Cable & Wireless that serves 13 Caribbean islands over DSL and mobile networks, is pursuing a model that may be especially significant for DSL-based providers not presently engaged in pay TV delivery. The carrier has launched pay TV in over-the-top mode in Barbados, marking a first in North America where major content suppliers like ESPN, HBO, MTV, U.S. broadcast networks and many others have agreed to license their live channels for delivery over the open Internet.
For Columbus Communications the linchpin to its new IP delivery architecture is the multifaceted processing capabilities of the edge-based Spectrum platform supplied by SeaWell Networks. “Spectrum’s comprehensive carrier-grade platform includes network-side per session management, dynamic repackaging and DRM translation, helping us solve the challenge of delivering IP video over unmanaged networks, and eliminating the need to multi-encrypt every video file prior to delivery – a huge time and cost savings,” says Columbus CTO Darren Richer. “These attributes along with Spectrum’s scalability are critical to Columbus as we continue to extend the reach and quality of our services.”
As previously reported, the MSO’s plans call for construction of an IP headend in Curacao to deliver its live and on-demand programming to subscribers in Jamaica, Trinidad, Curacao and Grenada utilizing the streaming capabilities of Elemental Technologies’ Live encoding system to serve devices compatible with Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) and Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming. In addition, Richer reports, the new IP delivery system will be used as the sole source of programming to be transmitted to Barbados where the company is building a fiber-to-the-home network scheduled to reach all households on the island within two years.
To make all this possible Columbus had to come up with a distribution architecture that addresses the security and performance assurance requirements of content license holders as well as the operator’s needs to maintain session control and maximize bandwidth efficiency. “SeaWell is responsible for getting the right content to the right devices, session management and generating certain statistics that are essential to our operations,” Richer says.
SeaWell’s Spectrum platform employs commodity off-the-shelf servers at the network edge to support a wide range of functions that can be implemented on a per-user, per-session basis. Initially Columbus is using the platform to manage individual sessions for delivering secured live and on-demand premium content to authenticated subscribers’ connected devices, Richer says.
“The first phase of the SeaWell implementation is actually for our on-net delivery for accessing content on IP devices in-home,” he explains. “Technically it’s delivered over-the-top, but it doesn’t leave our network.”
Longer term, as Columbus begins to serve greenfield territories in all-IP mode without reliance on the traditional digital MPEG-2 transport used within its current cable systems, the SeaWell platform will be tapped for additional functionalities. “Our goal with having SeaWell in the network is, on the backend side, to be able to maintain a single format internally and to transrate and transencrypt at the edge,” he says. In other words, the bitrates and encryption processes suited to the type of content and device used to access the content by each subscriber will be performed at the edge, minimizing the number of streams that must be transported from the headend.
Session management in the first phase will consist of processes required to make sure each user is an authenticated subscriber authorized to receive content ordered at any moment in time over any connected device. “We’re eliminating the need for the device to negotiate the rights for each session,” Richer notes.
As explained by SeaWell CMO Duncan Potter, the per-session authorization process entails communications between Spectrum and the cable system middleware, which, in the case of on-demand content, generates a temporary URL that contains the location of the asset, entitlement rules and an authorization token verifying the user is entitled to view the content in accord with those rules. All of this happens in an instant, Duncan notes.
“Spectrum is enforcing policy as part of the content flow,” he says. ”There’s a different twist with live programming where the system operates in a pre-authorization mode that lists the URLs of channels each subscriber is entitled to.”
By performing authorization and policy enforcement at the edge Columbus is eliminating the delays in channel changes that would otherwise occur with users’ access of the programming, Richer notes. “One of the big issues you face with IP distribution is channel change time,” he says. “We wanted to ensure the user experience on the IP side matches the traditional viewing experience.”
Another important function performed by Spectrum from the outset is data collection, which is very important to programmers as well as the operator, Richer says. “Certainly what we’ve found is one of the things they don’t have as programmers is good data as to how their content gets used,” he comments. “One of the other things SeaWell is doing for us is collecting data with each session as content passes through the edge servers.”
This is very granular data generated in real time offering viewing statistics and verifications of quality of experience that are invaluable to programmers, he adds. “This helps us to negotiate rights and to give the feedback on content uses and types of devices accessing their content,” he says.
Another first-phase application employing SeaWell functionalities is enforcement of simultaneous session ceilings per subscribing household. “When you’re supporting access to your content over multiple devices in the home you want to set policies on how many sessions are permitted at one time under a given subscription contract,” Potter says. “We enforce those policies.”
Expanding OTT Distribution
As Columbus launches its FTTH network in Barbados it will implement additional functionalities on the SeaWell platform, starting with re-encryption of content at the edge. At present the multiscreen service for existing cable subscribers is secured by Microsoft’s PlayReady DRM, but the company will need a means of implementing security more flexibly in the pure IP delivery environment envisioned for Barbados and potentially other localities where it may want to operate in pure OTT mode. “When you start delivering to connected TVs which in some cases only support certain encryption formats, you have to be prepared to meet those requirements cost effectively,” Richer says.
Inevitably new security systems will appear, making it all the more essential that the headend be able to send out content in a single encryption mode with re-encryption performed at the edge, Potter says. “Spectrum reports to the key server, which regenerates the key suited to the unique encryption employed for a given session,” he explains. “We’re able to do that on the fly.”
Similarly, the platform can perform the packaging, including fragmentation, transrating and manifest messaging for different streaming formats at the edge. While Columbus is presently performing packaging at the headend for just two streaming modes, namely, Microsoft Smooth and Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), remote packaging may come into play later, especially if it becomes necessary to implement support for the new MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) standard, Potter notes.
How far beyond Barbados Columbus might go to extend the reach of its IP service capabilities into regions it doesn’t presently serve, possibly as an OTT supplier of premium content to broadband ISPs, depends in part on how programmers’ licensing terms evolve in the future, Richer notes. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach to such opportunities,” he says.
Another Barbados Initiative
But, at least in the Caribbean, licensing attitudes appear to be changing rapidly, as evidenced by LIME’s in Barbados, which the company says may be extended to other islands as well. “LIME TV subscribers nationwide can now watch up to 130 IPTV channels and video-on-demand content via a set-top box or connected device over a fixed broadband connection,” says LIME CMO Chris Dehring.
“Our goal is to provide consumers with a pay TV product that is functionally superior to their current experience, delivers higher levels of service and is easy to use,” Dehring says. “The launch of LIME TV is an important step towards delivering entertainment services to all our customers.”
The service is available to anyone who subscribes regardless of the type of devices they use, including smart TVs, connected set-tops, computers, tablets and smartphones. In addition, in December LIME introduced a new version of the service with deployment of Entone, Inc.’s FusionTV gateway solution, which provides access to a wide range of OTT on-demand content, including Walmart’s Vudu, enhances performance over adaptive rate streaming modes and supports DVR and other functionalities.
“By leveraging the Internet to deliver a pay TV service that bundles live content and OTT services, we can further strengthen our broadband value while also increasing our revenue opportunity,” says Dianne Bissoon, vice president of TV and entertainment at LIME. “Entone’s FusionTV solution allows us to offer a superior entertainment experience to all our customers while also enabling us to quickly roll out new services across our entire broadband footprint without changing set-tops.”
“In the case of LIME we have an early example of an operator who has been able to negotiate the rights to deliver premium channels over the open Internet,” says Entone CEO Steve McKay. “This is something that’s been mused about for years, and to my knowledge hasn’t happened anywhere other than a few markets outside North America.”
Given LIME is using ADSL to distribute content over twisted-pair copper lines the content owners had to weigh quality as a concern in the licensing process. “They had to look at how else they might be able to generate monthly fees from those households before concluding this was a compelling way to do that,” McKay suggests.
“It’s hard to tell whether this is a new direction we can expect programming networks to take elsewhere or whether they’re just experimenting to see how it goes,” he adds. “In some ways Cable & Wireless is a canary in the coal mine. It’s a small but early example of what’s going to happen elsewhere over time, although it’s possible the U.S. will be the last place where this is possible.”
Monetization and Scaling
As Columbus waits to determine what licensing latitude it might have for its own OTT ambitions Richer sees other opportunities for deriving new revenues from the new IP distribution system. One is advertising, given the dynamic ad insertion capabilities that the SeaWell platform introduces with per-session management of streamed content.
Another is network PVR. “We think there will be new monetization opportunities, particularly when you look at something like cloud-based DVR service,” Richer says.
Potter argues that the path toward IP migration taken by Columbus affords operators a more scalable, cost effective and flexible way to compete in the multiscreen era than other means now under consideration within the industry. These include use of multimedia home gateways to perform transcoding and fragmenting for streaming to devices in the home or reliance on client-based apps to reach connected devices via direct streaming from the headend.
“The challenge with the gateway approach is cost and the need to have enough processing power to support whatever devices consumers come home with,” Potter says. “The gateway has to be integrated with all the things CE manufacturers are deploying as they make their plays to own the home. It’s a problem of economics for service providers.”
When it comes to direct streaming from the headend to devices using device-specific apps, there, too, it becomes an issue of constantly changing generations of devices with new iterations of apps to be supported, he notes. But, more significantly, he adds, the need to support a multiplying universe of devices, especially when it comes to live program distribution, poses major challenges for even cable’s high-capacity broadband networks.
“Encoding and packaging at the core for every stream is a really expensive way of doing things as you scale up,” Potter says. “If you have 1,000 TV channels and a huge VOD library and need to encode eight different bitrates across three or four different protocols, you’re looking at massive amounts of storage as well as bandwidth consumption. If you look at repackaging with ad insertion, it gets ridiculous.”
Edge-based processing minimizes storage requirements and uses less bandwidth over the core network, he says. “From our point of view, that’s the only way to scale.”