Deployments Secure Technology’s Role as Solution of Choice for Any Strategy
In a sign that multiscreen TV is finally ready for prime time, premium video providers in growing numbers are leveraging the highly versatile distribution platform developed by SeaWell Networks to achieve service goals that until now were out of reach.
The variety of business models supported by SeaWell’s Spectrum system is especially noteworthy. SeaWell customers ranging from incumbent fixed and mobile service providers to startups and cloud-based suppliers are driving new revenues by delivering video services at HD quality to virtually any connected device wherever users happen to be. As a result, Spectrum has become the proven solution of choice for any strategy involving distribution and monetization of high-value video over managed or unmanaged IP networks.
While many companies now deploying Spectrum cannot be publicly identified, three which can be named represent the full range of business models now in play as premium content distributors pursue new opportunities in multiscreen services. These include:
- Columbus Communications – The Caribbean-based MSO has embarked on an ambitious TV Everywhere strategy by positioning SeaWell’s Spectrum platform in multiple island locations to deliver premium TV to authenticated subscribers in all its far-flung service areas.
- tv2u – This provider of cloud-based distribution services is leveraging Spectrum in pursuit of a global Content Hub strategy, beginning with a major facility in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is meant to provide telco and mobile pay TV providers as well as enterprises of every description a cost-effective way to distribute high-value video over IP networks anywhere in the world.
- Nemont Telephone Cooperative, Inc.– With a telecom and mobile network reach extending across vast reaches of Montana this independent provider of voice and broadband services is utilizing Spectrum to support distribution of exclusive local content within and beyond its service areas, marking a new approach to video monetization that does not rely on traditional pay TV content.
The Spectrum Solution
The versatility to support such a diverse array of strategies stems from the fact that Spectrum software modules are designed to maximize the processing efficiency of commodity off-the-shelf (COTS) servers to perform multiple tasks aimed at overcoming the drawbacks associated with adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming. Positioned anywhere downstream of transcoding systems, Spectrum responds to requests for video and takes control of the ABR device manifest process to query authentication, digital rights management (DRM), advertising and other service management systems, thereby creating personalized, secured streaming sessions based on the devices in use and the business rules set by the distributor.
These steps are necessary because standard ABR protocols do not include a state for managing the interaction between the HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) servers and devices. Instead, at the initiation of a video streaming session by the user, the HTTP server sends the device a live manifest file that defines each of the available bitrate 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.
This provides a powerful way to maintain continuity amid fluctuations which otherwise might cause buffering breaks in the stream. But it 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. As a result, concerns over quality control, personalization and costs have limited the usefulness of multiscreen service, leaving content distributors to target limited varieties of devices with a non-personalized stream of content and making it hard to bring new devices with variant ABR and DRM formats into the service mix without spending huge amounts on more processing power at the core.
To overcome these limitations Spectrum creates a managed session where each piece of content is tailored to the distributor’s service profiles for any given user as it’s delivered in real time. Along with personalizing each session, Spectrum eliminates the need for a separate set of transcodes for each type of ABR format, which greatly reduces the amount of processing required for live and on-demand content and cuts back on the number of files that must be stored for each on-demand title.
Similar efficiencies apply across all other aspects of premium multiscreen content operations. For example, content protection is delivered through the Spectrum interface with DRM servers to individual streams, whether files are stored in the clear or in encrypted form.
The per-session personalization process also allows distributors to implement dynamic, targeted advertising models. The Spectrum platform can feed the information it is collecting about the device and user into a third-party ad network, grab the appropriate ad and package it on the fly for insertion into the video stream. 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 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 handle ad payloads, decisioning and reporting.
Spectrum also plays a vital role 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 quality assurance analyzers to help distributors track performance.
Spectrum is designed to integrate with all other components in the multiscreen streaming process, including multiple vendor transcoders, DRMs and back-office systems. The platform can operate in standalone mode or utilize the COTS processors deployed with existing caching infrastructures.
When it came to getting TV Everywhere off the ground, Columbus Communications faced all the challenges any cable operator must deal with and more. Based in Barbados with about 450,000 subscribers in Trinidad, Jamaica, Curacao and Grenada, the MSO had to come up with a way to leverage IP streaming to support a range of strategies that include multiscreen service within its existing footprint as well as extension of its premium TV service to greenfield areas in all-IP mode.
The solution was to build a distributed processing architecture supported by SeaWell’s Spectrum that would allow Columbus to meet its service goals across multiple island nations from a single headend. “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.”
The MSO has installed 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.
The first phase of the SeaWell implementation entails on-net delivery for accessing content on IP devices in-home. Technically, the service is delivered over-the-top, but it doesn’t leave the operator’s network.
Longer term, as Columbus begins to serve greenfield territories in all-IP mode without reliance on the traditional digital MPEG-2 cable transport, 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,” Richer 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.
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. With live programming 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 multiple devices can access premium content in each home, setting policies on how many sessions are permitted at one time is critical to balancing bandwidth consumption across all subscribers.
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, he adds, 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.
Similarly, the platform will eventually 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 Smooth and 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.
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.
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 DVR. “We think there will be new monetization opportunities, particularly when you look at something like cloud-based DVR service,” Richer says.
The strategy pursued by U.K.-based tv2u offers another perspective on the business opportunities taking shape around use of Spectrum. The five-year-old company built its business as a system integrator and provider of authentication services for OTT content distributors all over the world.
Now, with the launch of its global Content Hub hosted by NTT in Kuala Lumpur, tv2u is providing a comprehensive set of authentication, security, billing, content programming services and Spectrum functionalities to support managed OTT distribution for a wide range of entities, including telcos, mobile carriers, TV broadcasters, webTV providers and enterprises with niche markets for high-value content.
“The Content Hub can provide everything needed to ensure delivery of any type of content to any device at a significantly lower time to market,” says tv2u CEO Nick Fitzgerald. “This is a one-stop solution combining best-of-breed technologies and cloud platform to accelerate the development of this market.”
Along with SeaWell, the suppliers tv2u has brought together to support its cloud service include Elemental for transcoding requirements, Verimatrix for content protection, Minerva Networks for program guides and Vubiquity for premium content from leading networks. The result is a tightly integrated platform that allows tv2u to bring the security and control of a closed network to the open network, while expanding organically with customer growth, Fitzgerald explains.
“We’re providing a managed service to telcos and other service providers who don’t want to incur the risk of installing their own delivery solutions to serve a market they’re not familiar with,” he says. “They want to have some way of purchasing content and selling to customers with the capabilities and quality of a network-based pay TV operation.”
The Content Hub is designed to accommodate various mixes of internationally and locally supplied content, depending on client needs. “We have a customer in Indonesia who wants international content, which we provide for subscription VOD and live delivery,” Fitzgerald says. “At the same time we ingest their local content into the cloud and deliver the whole package to multiple screens, not only over their network in Indonesia but also to their customers who live overseas. With our service delivery capabilities, there are no boundaries.”
From the Content Hub tv2u exploits the on-the-fly packaging capabilities of Spectrum for pure OTT delivery. In cases where tv2u customers operate their own fixed or mobile facilities, the company installs the Spectrum platform along with origin and VOD servers at those locations. “We can supply billing support from the cloud or we can integrate with customers’ billing systems at the edge,” Fitzgerald notes. “Everything else is cloud based, including the DRM protection and EPGs. In the case of the programming guides, we customize them to each provider’s requirements.”
Spectrum can be implemented at the edge in two ways, he adds. “If you own fiber to the home or some other kind of broadband access network, we will build out the niche solutions at a hub or node on your network,” he says. “If you already have a CDN, all we need to do is license the Spectrum software to run on your servers. It’s very lightweight at the edge as far as the amount of processing power you need to run Spectrum.”
Spectrum allows tv2u to support managed sessions with a wide range of capabilities, he adds. “If I’m a subscriber requesting Star Wars on my iPhone, the message will go to Spectrum at the edge where the stream will be processed on the fly for viewing on the iPhone. We don’t have to do multiple transcodes for each type of smartphone at Content Hub, and we don’t have to store multiple files of VOD content for each format.”
Spectrum gives the operator complete session control down to the device and customer, he continues. “I know who that customer is, what device they’re watching content on and at what bitrate,” he explains. “We then do analytics on that customer, and that information will allow me to do multiple things. For example, if that subscriber is a Tier 1 customer, I can guarantee that person will always receive the maximum resolution for the device that’s in use for that session. In the case of Tier 2 and 3 customers, rather than having someone blocked because there’s too much traffic, I can set policies for the network to throttle back on these sessions so everyone always has access.”
Also, he adds, “because we know what device is receiving the content, I can do direct targeted advertising by device, by location, even by customer. We can send you an ad and your next door neighbor a different ad.”
Advertising is especially important for monetizing premium content in Southeast Asia, where subscription fees run just $5 to $7 compared to much higher rates in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, Fitzgerald notes. “We’re seeing opportunities to generate 30-40 percent more revenues because we can do targeting and produce the analytics that prove our customers are watching. We can even go back to the ad agency and say, 35 percent of our viewers switched to another channel when your ad came on, so it’s not working for you.”
As tv2u builds its customer base in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia for the Content Hub it is also preparing to expand elsewhere with similar models, including in North America where there’s strong interest from some service providers for this type of cloud-based support for a high-quality premium TV product. “There’s no reason we can’t build the mirror image of what we’ve created in Malaysia in North America or Europe,” Fitzgerald says. “We’re seeing strong interest in many places.”
Spectrum and tv2u are also teamed on a very different type of service strategy pursued by northeastern Montana-based Nemont Telephone Cooperative, Inc., which is pioneering an original local content distribution business that has drawn much interest from other independent operating companies. Here again Spectrum is playing a key role in enabling a service provider to deliver high-value subscription content across multiple networks.
A Unique Strategy
As described by Derrick Mottern, data operations manager at Nemont, the company is creating its own local content and tapping other sources to support Nemont.tv, a portal which Montanans anywhere can access at a subscription price of $50 per year to get live and on-demand coverage of high school sports and other events that aren’t available through any other source. “In developing Nemont.TV we wanted to use video not only to drive new revenue but to establish a level of intimacy with our customers that we didn’t have,” Mottern says.
Those customers are also owners in the traditional rural telecom cooperative model that Nemont has pursued since its founding in 1950. Through mergers and acquisitions over the years, the company expanded to where it now serves 24,000 wireline telephone customers along with 15,000 mobile and 12,000 Internet customers over a 14,000 square-mile area.
A majority of its fixed network customers are now served by either fiber-to-the-home or fiber-to-the-node infrastructure, notes Kate Chudoba, public relations and marketing manager at Nemont. “Here in Scobey [where Nemont is headquartered] we have a population of fewer than 1,000 people, and they’re all fiber fed,” she says.
While fiber provides ample bandwidth if the company wanted to deliver traditional pay TV, which it actually does in a couple of very small cable systems, the existence of satellite alternatives and the high costs of programming make that kind of TV service impractical. But there are real advantages and potentially a monetary payoff to delivering local content.
In places like Montana where professional sports are practically non-existent and colleges are few and far between, high school sports are a major source of entertainment and community identity. “Towns shut down,” Mottern says. “People get on buses and go to games, and they have a great deal of interest in games taking place in other towns.”
There are many other local events Nemont.TV’s crew can turn into TV-quality coverage using the distribution system the company has developed with SeaWell and its other partners, Mottern adds. High school dramas and performances and commercial events like the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede, the Montana Law Enforcement Torch Run, stock car races, demolition derbies, parades and fairs have the potential to draw large audiences if they are delivered at quality levels in the TV channel mode people are accustomed to, he says. Also helping to fill out the lineup of Montana TV is good quality content from third-party sources like the outdoor videos developed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Challenges and New Opportunities
But while local attractions abound for TV coverage, putting together a distribution platform that could accomplish Nemont’s goals cost effectively was no easy task. “We went to several vendors looking for turnkey solutions thinking that OTT was out there and well defined,” Mottern says. “We soon found out that wasn’t the case. There were bits and pieces we liked, but not the whole end-to-end solution we were looking for.”
There were canned solutions offering what Nemont didn’t want and charging way too much to ingest and distribute the content it wanted to provide. There were integrators offering to put together a custom solution, but the costs were off the charts. The upshot, he says, was the company decided to put together what it needed itself.
Nemont found what it was looking for in the “studio-in-a-box” transcoding platform supplied by Telvue, the authentication process and policy router supported by tv2u and the high-quality distribution made possible by SeaWell. “We’re able to deliver that ABR video in the right screen size and at the bitrates suited to the bandwidth available to each customer,” Mottern says.
Nemont.TV is just at the starting point as it continues to build its live and on-demand content portfolio around four core categories: Sports, News, Community and Outdoor. But already the company is engaging in discussions with other similarly positioned independent operators looking at the possibility of helping them put together their own video distribution infrastructures or even leverage the one Nemont has created as a cloud-based option.
“We’re seeing many Tier 3 telcos and coops like us who have similar challenges dealing with competition in their areas and knowing that local content is something they have to pursue,” Mottern says. “Many of them are starting to produce content but don’t know how to turn it into a professional distribution operation. We’re always looking for ways to generate revenue and to pay for the high costs of things we’re doing, so we welcome the opportunity to work with other coops to help them understand the solutions.”
All of the service strategies undertaken by these SeaWell customers represent formidable challenges to competitors who are limited in their ability to deliver next-generation multiscreen services. As ever more providers of every description embrace the edge-managed service capabilities of Spectrum the new benchmarks set by these pioneering suppliers will become the measures of success for any entity seeking to build business in the video distribution business.