The Multiplatform Vendor Bender

Multi-device delivery represents a major shift for manufacturers
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If the push to offer more content on more devices promises to fundamentally change the networks used by multichannel providers to deliver TV programming into the home, it is an even bigger deal for equipment and software vendors.

The deployment of TV Everywhere services opens up a huge new sales opportunity. But it could also significantly change the mix of products and equipment those vendors will be supplying, making software and cloud-based services more important and potentially reducing the central place that set-top boxes have long had in cable operations.

Over the last year, there has been a major rush by vendors to launch products and service that would allow operators to more easily deliver TV Everywhere services.

"We joke because it seems like every vendor is now a multiplatform, personalized TV, advanced advertising company," notes Marty Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing at thePlatform, which is providing TV Everywhere services to a number of major operators and programmers. "We see a lot of similar power point presentations and are hearing a lot of noise that is making things difficult for the operators, who are trying to vet the technology and see who has something more than ‘slideware.'"

Last year, Motorola and SeaChange bowed software and products for multiplatform delivery and this year during CES, Cisco launched its Videoscape offering and Technicolor brought out the MediaNavi system.

Others like thePlatform are moving into the space from the online video world. After years of working with operators and programmers to provide content management services for online and mobile offerings, the Comcast-owned subsidiary brought out its mpx platform last year. This fundamental reengineering of its offering added the ability to manage traditional video on-demand platforms to its upgraded online and mobile capabilities.

Currently, thePlatform has built Authentication Adapters for Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Bright House Networks and Cablevision and publicly announced TV Everywhere deployments with Comcast's Xfinity TV, Rogers On Demand Online in Canada, and iSKY for SKY Television in New Zealand.

While operators continue to restrict what vendors can say about deployments-and a number of other deployments are ongoing-Cisco has announced deployment of its Videoscape product with Telstra in Australia, and Motorola says it has deployed its services with at least one large operator.

HELPING OPERATORS EXPAND

All of these major vendors are touting their experience in working with operators as a major selling point.

"We're well positioned to help operators expand what they have and to help them monetize it through advertising and their offerings," argues Steve Davi, senior vice president of advanced technology at SeaChange International, who points to the company's extensive current work with operators in the U.S., where it is a powerhouse in the VOD space, and internationally, where they have deployed a multiplatform system with Virgin Media, the U.K.'s largest cable operator.

"You don't want to put in a separate system to expand your content delivery into three screens because that will double or triple your operating costs," he adds.

All of these products illustrate the central role that software and cloud-based solutions will play in the future of multichannel TV and the declining, though still important, place occupied by traditional set-top boxes.

"In the past, we've always used set-tops as the center of the world from a design point of view because they were the end point for the delivery of video," notes Ken Morse, chief technical officer in service provider video technology, at Cisco. "Now we have a range of other devices-connected TV, game consoles, connected Blu-ray players, PCs, Macs, smart phones, tablets-that can be used to access content and we should really view the set-top box as just another device in the home, which is not to relegate its importance."

Closer integration of these other devices into cable, satellite and telco networks is already occurring, in some cases replacing the need for a set-top box.

At CES, for example, Time Warner Cable announced alliances with Sony and Samsung that would allow its subscribers to access its cable offering on their connected TVs without a set-top box.

Similarly, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, DirecTV and Dish have released apps that allow subscribers to access content on a variety of smart phones and other devices. Later this year, Comcast will allow subscribers to access content over their connected Samsung TV.

To connect more of those devices, operators are rushing to transform their traditional MPEG-2, QAM based networks to an IP architecture that can deliver a plethora of on-demand content to them.

BANDWITH ADDED

While cable operators lag behind telcos in this transition, the major MSOs seem to have done a fairly good job in freeing up more bandwidth, in part to make room for more HD channels or to boost the speeds of their broadband Internet offerings.

To increase their bandwidth and prepare their networks to handle more IP delivery, operators have also been able to rely on a number of well-established technologies.

These include aggressively reclaiming analog spectrum by going all digital as Comcast has done, deploying switched digital systems (one of Time Warner's tactics), upgrading systems to 1GHz (a tactic Cox has used), or deploying DOCSIS 3.0, which greatly increases the speeds of broadband connections and allows operators to deliver more content to Internet-connected devices.

Others are deploying gateways in the home that permit consumer electronic devices to access multichannel services over an IP network inside the home.

"In 2011, I think you'll see a tipping point where cable operators are moving more routers and gateways [into the home] then they are pure data or voice modems," says Buddy Snow, senior director of product marketing for converged experiences and home devices at Motorola Mobility.

These gateways allow operators to go all IP in the home without having to immediately upgrade their MPEG-2 QAM based cable networks. "The key thing is that the shift to IP can be decoupled from their traditional networks," notes Snow. "With a gateway, all of these IP enabled consumer electronics devices that consumers love-connected TV, gaming consoles, Blu-ray players, etc.-can then be plugged into a broadband network" without having to revamp the rest of their plant.

These multiplatform delivery systems are also being powered by sophisticated software systems, many of which operate in the cloud.

This is important given the hundreds of smart phones and tablets flooding into the market. Traditionally, operators and programmers had to develop a new app for each device, creating a very expensive, time-consuming process.

By centralizing how the network works with these devices to a cloud-based service, operators will be able to quickly add support for new devices and rapidly launch new services, vendors say.

"One of our launch partners for Videoscape, Telstra in Australia is now, to the point where they are adding a new unmanaged consumer device pretty much every two weeks or so," notes Morse. "You literally make an overnight adaptation to the network versus doing a three month regression test for a new client."

These software cloud-based solutions also have the advantages of reducing capital expenditures because they can be designed to work with legacy set-top boxes and existing headends.

"We provide a software application that makes it easy to connect various consumer equipment-tablets, mobiles phone-that have different operating systems," says Basil Badawiyeh, vice president of product management for MediaNavi solution at Technicolor. "But we have been very conscious to make sure our technology works with legacy environments, whether they have lower end set-top boxes or the higher end set-top boxes we are offering."

That means, he adds, they don't have to make major changes to their head ends or other parts of their infrastructure before they can launch multiplatform offerings and start seeing some revenue from those offerings.

Providing more content on more devices and moving their networks to IP may be the biggest change in cable networks since the transition to digital in the 1990s. But fortunately for operators and subscribers, "it is more an evolution than a revolution," notes Roberts. "Nothing needs to be ripped out of their plant for them to start providing a better subscriber experience."

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