Tier 2 & 3 Cable Ops Embrace Low-Cost Path to Next-Gen TV

Joseph Nucara, CEO, Adara Technologies

Joseph Nucara, CEO, Adara Technologies

By Fred Dawson
July 6, 2013 – The cloud is fast becoming the great equalizer across the vast divide that has long separated small cable companies from the top tier, affording the tier 2s and 3s a chance not only to catch up with yesterday’s service paradigm but to get in stride with the next-generation consumer experience now emerging in major markets.
Nothing better illustrates the trend than smaller operators’ embrace of the cloud-based platform supplied by Adara Technologies, which allows them to address key pain points with regard to network capacity limitations, antiquated electronic programming guides and barriers to mounting advanced multiscreen services at far lower costs than would be possible without the cloud solution. Having seen a steady expansion of its customer base over the past two years Adara is now experiencing a more rapid pace of engagements, including two recent wins with Darien Communications of Georgia and Beaver Creek Telephone (BCT) of Oregon, notes Adara CEO Joseph Nucara.
“Along with the two new customers we just launched we have another one in Illinois that we will be launching shortly,” Nucara says. “We have a couple dozen more in the pipeline before the end of the year.”

These customers, ranging in size from about 10,000 to one million homes passed, are turning to Adara for a variety of reasons, in terms of immediate priorities, but all are positioned to gain the full benefits of services offered by the company as they go forward, Nucara notes. “Sometimes they come to us thinking the top priority is whole-home DVR because they’ve given up on finding an affordable solution for the other two things that matter most, capacity to deliver a large number of HD channels and the ability to deliver a good user interface,” he says.

“Then we step back and say, Why do you win and lose customers?” he continues. “Many times they’re not used to having that kind of discussion. Once they look at their needs from that perspective the top priority driving our business with them usually becomes either HD or the UI.”

The ability to facilitate use of switched digital video (SDV) at affordable costs was the launch pad for Adara’s business, putting in the hands of smaller operators a mode of capacity expansion to accommodate high quantities of HD channels that previously had been available only to large companies with big capital budgets. Until then analog channel reclamation, itself a costly and less efficient mode of capacity expansion, had been the primary option used by smaller operators to raise their HD count.

HD capacity remains a huge issue, of course, but getting beyond the subpar user experience delivered by ten-year-old electronic programming guides, many of which still operate in SD-only mode, has emerged as a top priority as well, given the types of UIs consumers have access to through satellite companies. “Situations vary as to which is most important,” Nucara says.

“For example,” he adds, “we have a new customer that had done analog reclamation to get to 80 HD channels. They’re treading water with just 80 HDs versus 200 HDs from competitors, but the burning issue was the competition they’re getting from AT&T’s U-verse service, because with their current guide solution they can’t keep up with the cool navigational stuff AT&T provides. So, with us, they’re focusing first on the user experience and then they’ll get to solving the HD problem.”

As previously reported, Adara provides a turnkey SDV solution that uses Cisco Systems’ QAMs (quadrature amplitude modulators) and set-tops without requiring any change out of legacy headend gear or standard definition set-tops regardless of whether the operator is a “Motorola shop” or uses a Cisco headend. By putting just eight new QAM channels into play in conjunction with a cloud-hosted digital control system and application servers tied to locally installed universal session resource managers, Adara can enable the operator to simulcast the entire channel lineup in HD for delivery to subscribers who take the service by upgrading to the Cisco HD set-tops.

With implementation of HD, whether through the use of the Adara SDV solution or analog reclamation, operators introduce an urgent need to update their programming guides, given the inadequacy of an old SD grid guide running on big HD screens. “For a lot of our customers, the ability to provide an HD guide is an advanced feature of our offering,” Nucara says. “Right out of the chute it’s going to be a guide that looks good on a 50-inch screen fully customized to that operator’s brand and colors.”

Adara has designed the navigation platform to run on software it supplies to the set-tops, including software it can download to already-installed older Cisco boxes that are already supporting HD services. “If you write the code well, you actually have enough processing power to do amazing things,” Nucara says. “We’re finding that 90 percent of the legacy set-tops can render our guide.”

A good-looking guide is essential, but it’s just the starting point, Nucara notes, which is where the cloud comes in. “The question becomes, with 500 channels, VOD options and even over-the-top interfaces, how do you help the consumer navigate rather than scrolling through hundreds of channels?” he says. “The navigation has to be modern and intuitive.”

A big weight lifted by Adara’s cloud solution is the continuous ingestion and management of metadata as content enters the linear schedule or goes into the VOD library. “We have partners we work with to bring metadata in to support navigation on the guide,” Nucara explains. “Every night there’s a file dump providing us the data for all the new programming that we’ll be introducing onto the user interface. If you want to search for certain actors or genres or a certain venue where a movie was shot, it all has to be in the searchable database. That’s part of what we bring to our customers.”

The cloud-hosted metadata is crucial to enabling enhanced search that can respond to any kind of key word across all content categories. “If you type in Brad Pitt you might see there’s a live interview going on with him somewhere on the linear channels and several movies available either in the linear schedule, on VOD or your DVR,” Nucara says. Bringing the DVR capabilities of set-tops it is providing to operators into the navigation experience is a vital benefit of Adara’s UI service, he adds

Rather than just showing a grid on the UI, the Adara system provides a window exposing availability of the user’s personal linear programming favorites and also offers mosaic programming clusters based on how the operator wants to utilize the mosaic option whether for sports, kids programming, news or other groupings. “The subscriber can toggle between those mosaic screens, turning on audio while toggling, and then push select and get to the full-screen channel,” Nucara says.

Other features on the navigation system include caller ID and access to social TV apps appearing in various broadcast channels without requiring a separate IP connection. Indeed, there’s a lot of IP-based content that can be triggered from the user interface and configured in the cloud for distribution to the TV screen, such as widgets for local weather and traffic information or videos from YouTube.

“What we’re probing now is bringing into the user experience the capability of delivering over-the-top content to the set-top,” Nucara notes. “Initially we’re just supporting certain ones that are available free. As operators tell us they see additional options that would be interesting to their customers, it’s not difficult to add them.”

Using the cloud to bring premium OTT into the set-top experience is possible as well. “In the case of premium services like Netflix this gives the operator an opportunity to work with them as opposed to against them,” he says. “We’ve reserved those kinds of opportunities for operators to negotiate, and we’ll add them as those arrangements are made.”

Adara is also bringing second-screen apps on connected devices to the navigation environment, such as the ability to program the DVR away from home or to do search on the TV UI. “It’s much easier to do enhanced search on a device like a smartphone or tablet,” Nucara says.

“This is already included as an option in our service,” he adds. “All the operator has to do is decide where they want to host the app for consumers to download to their devices. We always suggest it’s a good idea to give consumers a reason to go to your site, but we can host it as well. Making it available for consumers to download is all it takes to activate companion device functionality through our service.”

Another benefit associated with the Adara advanced navigation service is operators’ ability to promote impulse upsells. “For example, you can let someone who’s a fan of a certain team know a game that’s coming on is available as part of an additional package,” he says. “The user just pushes a buy button and the purchase is added to the monthly bill.”

New things are in the offing as well, including the marketing of a Cisco six-tuner gateway to Adara customers which will support whole-home DVR. “There’s a real competitive push on operators for whole-home DVR,” Nucara notes.

Less pressing competitively but definitely on smaller operators’ roadmaps is the implementation of TV Everywhere service. While the gateways will support in-home distribution of IP content to multiple devices, Adara is eyeing an end-to-end solution supporting multiscreen distribution outside as well as in the home.

The company is leveraging certain capabilities of Cisco’s Videoscape platform to make this possible in a move originally scheduled for this year but now slated to occur in early 2014, given the time it has taken for Cisco to adjust Videoscape following its acquisition of NDS. “Our plan is to enable operators to take linear and VOD content to customers on managed and unmanaged networks with support for full authorization and authenticating client software,” Nucara says. “Encryption, DRM support, transcoding and packaging will all be done in the cloud. The operator won’t have to worry about any of those moving parts.”

While working with Cisco has been a bit of a roller coaster ride, Nucara says the delays have been worth the wait given the improvements the vendor has brought to Videoscape. Now, he says, there’s a roadmap in place which will allow Adara’s customers to make the migration from legacy to IP pay TV service with minimum operational pain and capital costs.

Executives at both of Adara’s most recent customers alluded to the scope of benefits they anticipate beyond the initial applications they plan for its services. “We expect significantly reduced costs and risk as a result of the Adara launch and are particularly excited about delivering new customer services and experiences,” says Johnny Zoucks, COO of Darien Communications, a subsidiary of Darien Telephone Company, Inc. offering triple-play service in Southeast Georgia

Adara’s expertise “will help BCT more quickly achieve our goal of providing more advanced services to our customers and also enable us to provide better, more responsive and proactive customer service which we know will improve our retention and reduce churn,” says Mark Beaudry, vice president of operations at BCT. BCT provides quadruple communications services to Beavercreek, Oregon City and surrounding areas.