Liberty Global’s Approach to Netflix Integration May Soon Be Replicated Elsewhere
By Fred Dawson
January 26, 2017 – Pay TV providers looking to include OTT subscription services like Netflix in their programming lineups will be relieved to learn there’s an expeditious alternative to the tortuous procedures they’ve had to employ to integrate such services in the past.
Liberty Global, which last year announced it was going to feature Netflix in its programming guides, has revealed it has performed the integration in a much more straight-forward and timely fashion than operators are accustomed to by utilizing technology developed by Metrological. As described by Metrological CEO Jeroen Ghijsen and VP of technology and innovation Wouter van Boesschoten, the new cloud-based process provides a means by which operators everywhere can more easily create OTT service-enhanced user experiences using existing middleware and set-top boxes (STBs).
“By leveraging our experience with browser-based application frameworks, we have standardized key components, simplifying the integration of premium OTT content,” Ghijsen says. “This results in a reduction of the required STB resources, deployment cost and time to market.”
Liberty Global has launched the Netflix app on its Horizon UI in the UK, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, to be followed in other countries throughout 2017. “Metrological’s Application Platform, which is an integral part of Horizon TV, helped us to streamline this particular Netflix deployment and expedite the time to market,” says Doron Hacmon, chief product officer at Liberty Global. “The flexibility of the platform allows us to continue to innovate by integrating new relevant services in a timely fashion.”
As Doron’s comment implies, the Metrological solution promises to make it easier for operators to continually add third-party OTT services as strategies are refined and new deals are arranged, improving their ability to turn the growing multi-subscription phenomenon to their advantage. About 22 percent of cable subscribers also subscribe to at least one OTT service, according to research conducted by Millward Bown Digital. A new study from Parks Associates finds that 31 percent of U.S. broadband households have multiple OTT service subscriptions, which is nearly one-half of the 63 percent of U.S. broadband households subscribing to at least one OTT service.
Brett Sappington, senior director of research at Parks, says the service-stacking phenomenon has become an important step in the growth of the U.S. OTT video services marketplace. As Sappington notes, a big reason for the surging importance of OTT services to pay TV and multi-OTT service subscribers is the volume of original content they provide that can’t be found anywhere else. “The regular release of high-quality original content, such as The Grand Tour (Amazon) and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (Netflix), ensures the large OTT players will remain a core, consistent subscription among service-stacking households,” he says.
For pay TV providers who want to serve this demand by creating a one-stop-shopping environment for their own and others’ subscription services, having a way to bring those OTT services into the pay subscriber’s navigation window as a routine operational task will become ever more important. “If you can support this through one unified solution that integrates services in compliance with all their requirements in a standardized manner, you can save a lot of time,” Ghijsen says.
Metrological’s hybrid deployment architecture leverages an application framework that acts as a device- and software-agnostic abstraction layer streamlining the engineering and coding requirements for STBs, van Boesschoten explains. This approach also yields a smaller STB resource footprint, enabling operators to deploy premium OTT content on legacy devices, he notes, adding that much of the Liberty deployment involves use of five-year-old STBs.
As previously reported, Metrological has become a leading supplier of solutions designed to facilitate pay TV operators’ multiscreen services strategies. Its Application Platform integrates TV and OTT experiences, providing full lifecycle support for operators’ management of branded TV app stores and OTT content via a cloud-based back-end that also provides real-time business intelligence data and marketing analytics. Operators can execute on these capabilities utilizing Metrological’s App Library, which contains over 300 apps, or they can build their own apps with an open software development kit.
The move away from reliance on apps hosted on the STB, where limited CPU resources restrain operators’ ability to respond to new opportunities, requires use of browser technology that draws on cloud resources fast enough to meet low latency requirements. There was considerable skepticism at Netflix that a cloud-based platform could execute on trick play and other functions intrinsic to its service, van Boesschoten notes.
But, with wide-scale adoption of its cloud technology, including incorporation into the Reference Design Kit (RDK) software stack backed by Comcast, Liberty Global and Time Warner Cable, Metrological has proved its pay TV-optimized HTML5 browser is up to supporting this latest addition to its cloud capabilities. Utilizing an open-source environment known as “WebKit for Wayland,” the browser enables better rendering of apps and next-generation UIs in a multi-device environment along with better control over all applications and resources, van Boesschoten says.
“Our browser gets past the native utilization hurdle,” he says. “It’s very fast with the ability to read data at 60 frames per second.”
In the hybrid deployment architecture used for integrating OTT services there’s a careful balance between functions residing in the cloud and on the STB. “At the hardware level we perform integration for graphics rendering with the CPU,” van Boesschoten says. In an RDK set-top environment, integration with the STB SoC takes just three days, he adds.
Speed to market is greatly aided by Metrological’s integration with GStreamer, a multimedia framework included in the RDK software stack to support secure streaming of content over the home network with a full set of components for managing complex renderings across all networked devices. GStreamer employs a plugin model supporting implementation of a wide range of codecs, filters and other resources that can be mixed and matched through developer-defined pipelines to enable feature-rich multimedia applications.
“We have tremendous experience with GStreamer,” van Boesschoten says. “As long as an application supports GStreamer we can make that app work with whatever STB and middleware environment you bring to the table.” Metrological can achieve the STB-level integration with apps that aren’t compatible with GStreamer, but it takes a little longer, he adds.
At the cloud layer in the hybrid architectural approach Metrological supports all the state functions (pause, rewind, resume, reset), positioning of the app in the UI (whether as a standalone app or as a channel selection or both) and any modifications tied to rendering on different types of devices beyond the STB. Device certification, subscriber authentication and security provisioning live in the cloud as well. A systematic, automated approach to pushing to the STB whatever DRM or other security mechanisms are required by a particular OTT service is critical to quickly mounting such apps, van Boesschoten notes.
In the case of Liberty’s integration with Netflix all these capabilities were put into play with the existing Cisco middleware platform with a minimum of heavy lifting,. “We’ve defined the platform to be useful regardless of whether the STB is running Cisco, ARRIS or somebody else’s middleware,” he says.
There are likely to be many more customers for the new Metrological platform, given how widespread the OTT service integration strategy has become. As previously reported, a recent global survey of operators’ service innovation priorities by the Pay TV Innovation Forum found that on-boarding OTT content was one of the top three priorities among service providers everywhere.
“This is opening an important new business opportunity for us,” Ghijsen says. “Meeting Netflix’s requirements for engagement has been a difficult undertaking for operators. Now we’ve validated it can be done much faster with far less effort.”