Liberty Global’s Cloud Plan Could Be a Game Changer

Aamir Hussain, managing director & CTO, Liberty Global Europe

Aamir Hussain, managing director & CTO, Liberty Global Europe

By Fred Dawson

September 27, 2013 – Years of resistance to delivering pay TV services on one of the oldest cloud platforms in the market have given way to adoption by leading service providers here and abroad, posing a challenge to multiscreen strategies that rely on next-generation media gateways and to other types of cloud solutions as well.

While the market has seen a proliferation of cloud platforms designed to support premium multiscreen services, most are not meant to bring legacy set-tops into the IP technology domain, leaving in place the division between traditional navigation and the new user experience on IP-connected devices. In contrast, the CloudTV service developed by ActiveVideo spans that gap, creating the potential for a sweeping change in provider approaches to delivering next-generation services now that leading players have validated the case for the vendor’s technology in a spate of implementations in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

In September Liberty Global, Deutsche Telekom and KPN Telecom became the latest Tier 1 providers to reveal they’re on the list of operators commercially deploying or undergoing market trials of ActiveVideo’s CloudTV. Other big providers moving in this direction include Charter Communications, Cablevision, Japan’s Sumitomo and Dutch MSO Ziggo, which in September announced it was expanding on its previously announced deployment. Even Comcast, which has predicated its Xfinity1 and 2 rollouts on the introduction of new high-power gateways, is taking a hard look at CloudTV in a trial underway in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The move by Liberty Global, Europe’s largest cable operator, was especially noteworthy given the amount of money and effort it has put into its Horizon media gateway infrastructure to support its move into multiscreen and whole-home service. Amid ongoing issues with the Horizon gateway the CloudTV announcement raised the possibility that Liberty might deemphasize gateway rollouts in preference for the less costly and complex CloudTV approach.

On the other hand, Liberty could pursue both agendas in parallel so as to maximize the reach of its next-gen service as quickly as possible while seeing the gateway as the long-term preferred choice for maintaining a cutting-edge subscriber experience. But, given the capabilities ActiveVideo touts for CloudTV and the support to those claims voiced by Liberty officials, it’s hard to see how the gateway strategy would lead to greater flexibility in service innovation over the long haul

“Liberty Global is using ActiveVideo’s CloudTV platform to complement its cloud UI strategy and expand Horizon-like experiences, including cloud DVR, VOD navigation and advanced applications, to STBs and connected devices,” said Aamir Hussain, managing director and CTO, Liberty Global Europe, in a prepared statement. Earlier in the summer Liberty CEO Michael Fries suggested Liberty might begin using the cloud to extend the reach of the Horizon service, but it wasn’t clear until this month just how ground-breaking the move would be.

As originally conceived the Horizon service, now in over 300,000 homes in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland and Germany, entails integration and synchronization of technology from a broad range of vendors, including Samsung, Intel, NDS (now part of Cisco Systems), NAGRA, ThinkAnalytics, Seachange International, KIT Digital and thePlatform. The service employs a universal navigation system delivered through an advanced media gateway to support personalized viewing and sharing of content on TV sets, computers, tablets and smartphones within the home. Applications include remote control functionality on connected devices, viewing recommendations, whole-home DVR and much else.

Speaking at the CTAM Europe EuroSummit meeting in September, Peter Dorr, managing director of strategic marketing, sales and customer care for Liberty, acknowledged a number of problems, including slow navigation, difficulties using the remote and the design of the UI, had prompted the carrier to mail out 270,000 newly designed remote controls in conjunction with a software upgrade of the platform. “It would be naïve to think you can launch a product of this technical complexity without any bugs,” Dorr said, according to European press reports.

Along with extending the reach of the Horizon service to homes without the new gateways, Liberty’s use of the CloudTV alternative should ease the burden of future service upgrades. That they could deliver the full complement of functionalities of the Horizon UI on legacy set-tops or low-cost dongle attachments to TV sets using the ActiveVideo platform with no loss in quality of experience came as a shock to Liberty executives, said an executive close to the deliberations, asking not to be named.

“When they took the Horizon UI and showed that on a 15-euro dongle, it blew them away,” the source said. “They couldn’t tell the difference. That was the turning point for their decision to accelerate rollout of Horizon using CloudTV.”

Adding to the sense that the CloudTV approach offers service providers a competitively viable way forward was Ziggo’s decision to expand its use of the platform. As previously reported, in The Netherlands, where Liberty first launched Horizon, Ziggo, the country’s largest MSO, has deployed CloudTV to make its VOD service more widely appealing to subscribers who purchased off-the-shelf addressable retail set-tops. The company hoped that by improving the user interface with advanced functionalities such as recommendations and search enabled by the CloudTV-based streaming graphic user interface more people would be drawn to use of VOD.

In its Q2 earnings report Ziggo said the gambit had paid off, drawing 150,000 out of 482,000 interactive set-tops now used by subscribers into the interactive functionality enabled through the cloud-based streaming graphic user interface (SGUI). This contributed to a 56 percent year-to-year growth in VOD transactions and accounted for a third of all VOD transactions during the second quarter, the company said.

Now Ziggo is extending the SGUI to customers who own or purchase CI+ modules designed to enable delivery of protected content to CI+-capable TVs without the use of set-tops. Ziggo has been supporting CI+ since 2009, enabling access to its pay TV service over a large number of HD TV models from LG Electronics, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Philips. By extending the SGUI to these customers Ziggo not only opens VOD to them, it creates a time-shifted mode of access to live content as well.

“People can’t hide behind old assumptions anymore and say CloudTV won’t work,” said ActiveVideo CMO Murali Nemani. “We’ll continue to have growing pains, but things will be resolved as our customers expand the use of the platform.”

As previously reported, ActiveVideo took a major step toward driving adoption of its platform in May 2012, when it announced it had transitioned its core navigation system to HTML5, enabling the platform to deliver UIs and applications developed in HTML5 along with user-selected content over either the traditional pay TV channels or over broadband IP, depending on the type of device in use. A thin software client in the device is used to send key clicks from standard remote controls to the cloud system, which determines which actions are required and controls all systems that are involved in executing those actions.

This year the company added to the improvements with several innovations designed to streamline operations and conserve bandwidth. Given the increasing volume of content delivered in unicast mode, including traditional VOD and both live and on-demand content delivered to IP devices, a key priority among operators is to minimize the impact on bandwidth consumption. One solution is to use multicast technology, the IP equivalent of broadcast, which has not caught on owing to the delays incurred with content acquisition at the device end. But, as reported recently, at least one proprietary adaptation of IP multicast by the European software company Octoshape has gone into use on pay TV networks in Europe.

In ActiveVideo’s case, the bandwidth issue has long been addressed by the firm’s “MPEG stitching” algorithms, which compose a screen out of picture elements that have been individually encoded to ensure bandwidth is allocated in proportion to what is required by each element.  The system generates AVML (ActiveVideo Markup Language) scripts, the company’s version of XML, to specify the optimal window size and frame rates for each section of the screen, which are stitched together to create a bandwidth-optimized generation of each user’s session.

This past spring ActiveVideo took the bandwidth-savings process a step farther with what it calls “smart multiplexing,” which tailors the stitching process to either the VBR (variable bitrate) mode of multiplexing used with MPEG-2 channel streams or the IP fragmentation process used with ABR (adaptive bitrate) streams. “We’re able to deliver a dedicated service to several homes within one VOD stream,” Nemani said, adding the resulting throughput improvement nets a 25 percent savings in bandwidth on cable QAM networks over what would be seen with typical unicast distribution modes.

Other new innovations contributing to scaling efficiency include the rendering of UIs and animation in layers to lower the amount of computing cycles employed for rendering a UI at any moment in time and “dual-stream” rendering at the client end, which delivers partial-screen versions of the UI for rendering locally to further cut bandwidth consumption. One important result of these steps is they free up bandwidth for sessions where the user is navigating via a multi-mosaic presentation of options, where all the mosaics are delivered in a single stream running, in the case of HD renderings, at 4 mbps.

A key issue of concern to service providers is whether the ActiveVideo CloudTV platform can deliver responses to keystrokes on the remote at speeds comparable to set-top-based navigation systems. At the ANGA conference in Cologne last spring Eric Meijer, senior innovation manager at Ziggo, was quoted as saying end-to-end delay was the biggest challenge he’d encountered with use of the platform. But he said Ziggo had made considerable progress in reducing response times.

Now, apparently, the new enhancements have further contributed to achieving the performance operators are looking for. The Deutsche Telekom decision to go to full market trial with CloudTV for its virtual set-top strategy was predicated in part on latency performance, Nemani said. “After extensive testing they determined the response time was at a point where they could go to market trials,” he noted. The trial will begin in Croatia at the end of Q4, with commercial rollouts slated there and in five other markets outside Germany where the telco currently serves over three million subscribers with traditional IPTV service.

“Virtualizing the set-top box is the killer app,” Nemani said. Assuming all goes well in the Croatia trial the telco will be able to expand its service using low-cost dongles attached to TV sets in lieu of deploying more set-tops. By aligning the ActiveVideo platform with TeraStream datacenters and a software-defined network (SDN) architecture, Deutsche Telekom will be able to deliver a fully virtualized next-generation service across its gigabit fiber and DSL footprints to every type of connected device in all these countries, he noted.

The range of strategies used with CloudTV deployments confirms the applicability of CloudTV for all the major next-gen strategies now underway across the globe, Nemani noted. For example, in the case of Charter, which has begun a market trial with the platform, the goal is to leverage already deployed set-tops to support the MSO’s advanced UI and related functions, much as is the case with Liberty Global.

“This technology enhances platform and network scalability, while delivering a balanced architecture on which cloud and client interactions can be optimized,” said Jim Blackley, Charter’s executive vice president of engineering and IT, in a prepared statement issued with the engagement announcement in June. “Early tests have shown favorable results and the next step is an in-market trial.”

In Cablevision’s case, the expanded use of CloudTV involves inclusion of VOD in the MSO’s multiscreen service, which eliminates the need to run separate on-demand operations for traditional and multiscreen services. Previously Cablevision was using the platform to support a wide range of apps with its service enhancements.

The addition of KPN to the ActiveVideo fold is the result of that carrier’s recent acquisition of Dutch IPTV provider Glashart Media, which launched its service three years ago on an earlier iteration of the ActiveVideo technology and has since upgraded to CloudTV H5. Reporting a signup rate of 1,200 subscribers per week, Glashart Media says it now serves more than 140,000 households on CloudTV following a rapid transition from the earlier platform, which relied on set-tops to run the UI.

The company has realized many benefits from the transition, officials said. “CloudTV has been essential to Glashart Media’s ability to achieve key success metrics, including an annual doubling of subscribers and VOD take rates of three items per subscriber per month,” said Niels Jonkman, business manager for Glashart. “The performance enhancements of CloudTV H5 and the ability to work with the deep pool of HTML5 web developers are enabling us to accelerate innovation of new services, to drive increased customer penetration and to enter new market areas.”