Focus Sharpens on Multi-Screen Video Delivery
Vendors are on board with provisioning video content to three screens, but other issues abound.
With apologies to Mary Ann and Ginger, and the Professor if you are so inclined, there’s more to three-screen viewing than watching “Gilligan’s Island” repeats on your TV, PC and mobile device.
Thanks to deployments by Comcast, Cox, Rogers and Time Warner Cable, the latter through broadcaster partners’ Web sites, we currently have TV content being delivered to PCs based on the subscribers’ cable subscriptions, and we have limited video content that is available on mobile devices.
We don’t have true three-screen, multiplatform convergence of video services, but we’re getting there. There are still digital rights management/conditional access issues, authentication across devices, different adaptive streaming technologies, business cases, content issues and revenue splitting problems that need to be resolved – all of which are enough elephants to fill several rooms – but the underlying technologies are starting to coalesce.
“One year ago the technology wasn’t available,” said Thierry Fautier, Harmonic’s senior director of convergence solutions. “The adaptive streaming, the transcoding, the scalability that we need to reach this weren’t available. It wasn’t possible. Now the technology is there and the content rights are under control, at least on the cable side.”
Certainly adaptive streaming, which is a form of progressive downloading that breaks the videos into “chunks,” has come a long way in eliminating the painful buffering process of Internet videos from several years ago, but there are various flavors, including Microsoft Silverlight Smooth Streaming, Adobe Flash Dynamic Streaming and Apple HTTP Live Streaming, the latter of which has been proposed to the IETF as a standard.
“There’s an IETF draft, and hopefully it will be finalized so that everyone will agree on doing it the same way,” said Michael Adams, Ericsson’s vice president of software strategy. “When you move to mobile networks, they tend to be much more variable in the amount of band that you get at any instance in time. Of course, the reason for this is because it’s a radio, and that radio, depending on where it’s positioned, gets good or worse reception. When it gets less-good reception, adaptive streaming goes to a more robust coding, which means less bits.
“Adaptive streaming is a brilliant solution for that because the client senses the amount of video it has in its buffer, and when that amount of video starts to get depleted, it starts retrieving the same content, but at a lower rate. It can seamlessly switch from one rate to another, such that the user isn’t even aware of it, except you might see the picture get a little fuzzier.”
VIDEO PROCESSING: IT’S A PROCESS
So while adaptive streaming is able to handle the various bit rate requests from the various devices, the various networks need to be able to process these requests for various flavors of H.264 and MPEG-2, as well as HD and SD.
Harmonic’s Fautier said it has to be a fully automated process because there are hundreds of channels and thousands of assets sitting on servers that need to be managed, and there is a need for bridges between linear TV, PC and mobile silos.
“And if you do Catch Up TV, it’s even more of an explosion in terms of the storage and streaming capability,” he said. “Think of it as 24/7 storage of 200 channels across the U.S.; there are terabytes of data that you need to distribute across the continent.”
Harmonic’s solution is its MediaPrism platform, which transcodes the content so it can go across multiple networks to IP devices such as PCs, iPhones, Android phones, tablets and iPads. MediaPrism, in addition to the ingest and transcoding, interfaces with DRM servers.
“What we’ve tried to bring here is a completely integrated solution from a technology perspective, and hopefully it will be easy for the operators to offer that as a commercially bondable offer, which means that the content you watch on your TV you can access on PC and mobile,” Fautier said. “Of course, there will be applications for the side loading, where content on your PVR could be transmitted over the network to a PC or mobile device so that when you are flying, you can always have your content with you. That’s the promise of multi-screen convergence.”
Three-screen, or multi-screen, vendor offerings are thick as crabgrass this time of year, with various new players tackling different parts of the ecosystem, such as start-ups in the mobile space, but SeaChange International is banking on its years of VOD server expertise to deliver on-demand content to TVs, PCs and mobile devices.
Thanks to its acquisition of Mobix last year, SeaChange’s Intelligent Video Platform (see Figure 1) is able to identify the various screens and different cell phones, as well as the type of streams it needs to deliver to those devices.
“It’s fundamentally a back office combination that talks to different clients,” said Simone Sassoli, SeaChange’s vice president of in-home product solutions. "We can identity if someone is a cell phone user that connects to the back office system or a PC user that connects, or if it’s a set-top box. It’s an extension of what we’ve been doing at SeaChange for the last 10 years with having a centralized discovery management and stream delivery system that is able to connect across multiple networks.”
SeaChange is working on adding Flash Access 2.0 into its platform, which wouldn’t work with most current set-top boxes, with the goal of having a single DRM across PC, mobile and set-top box technologies.
Ericsson has also been showing a proof of concept model, which it’s calling "Multi-Platform TV,” that goes across the multiple platforms by using its existing OpenStream, AdPoint and WatchPoint Content Management System products. Adams said the Ericsson platform operates on the control plane to tie the PC, TV and mobile elements together, including policy management to ensure there’s enough bandwidth for the video content to be delivered.
“There has to be consistency,” Adams said of the user experience. “It doesn’t have to be identical from one platform – or one device – to another, but there has to be a consistency in the business logic. I think that’s important.
“At the CableLabs Winter Conference, we talked to basically every operator in North America about this stuff. I would characterize every discussion as being extremely enthusiastic – in other words, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement.”
Adams said Ericsson’s offering is slated to be deployed in customers’ labs this year.
RGB Networks has added a transcoding module blade to its Video Multiprocessing Gateway (VMG) line, which comprises a 14-slot, 13-rack unit and a six-slot, five-rack unit. The VMG is a carrier-class video processing module that enables service providers to deliver digital and IPTV-based video services in both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4/H.264.
“We’ve really architected the VMG to be a high-capacity, high-density transcoder and a PC/mobile content-repurposing device from the ground up,” said Nabil Kanaan, RGB’s senior director of product marketing. “For some of our traditional peers to go after that, they have to forklift and throw away a lot of their encoding products that they’ve built up over the years. We’ve started with a much cleaner slate.”
Kanaan said RGB’s VMG is in field trials with cable and IPTV service providers around the world. “We made the announcement late last year, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the demand so far this year,” Kanaan said.
“We thought it was going to take a bit longer, but I think what has happened is that the over-the-top operations, including Netflix streaming and Blockbuster’s announcement with TiVo devices, have really sent a wake-up call to our customers, the cable and telco TV operators. They realize that they can’t stand by and watch their lunch get taken away from them.”
LIVE CONTENT IS KEY
While getting on-demand content across three screens seems to be well on its way, Ericsson’s Adams said the real liftoff will be live events, such as sports, across multiple devices, which dovetails with Fautier's belief that content offerings need to be more than the same TV shows that are being offered by Hulu.
While live programming of a sports event from a TV to a PC to a mobile device has its own set of hurdles, including similar interfaces for finding and playing the content, as well as one-time authentication for all three devices, it’s the endgame for the providers and customers.
“If it’s on-demand, you can cache movies on your iPhone before you leave your house, and I guess you could say that is mobile video, but it really and truly doesn’t solve the live problem because the stuff that you are really going to be compelled to watch is live content, like a hockey game, on a mobile device,” Adams said. “If you’re watching it on a mobile phone, the bit rate doesn’t have to be as high because the screen is smaller.
“At the same time, we have this next generation of wireless network, 4G, coming along. There’s going to be two things that will happen here. The video and audio coding will become more adaptive and more efficient, and the networks are going to become faster and have more capacity. Those two things combined are going to get you a much better experience for mobile TV.”
RGB’s Kanaan said cable and telco operators will cut over even more content to PCs this year.
“Also, with the cable and telco operators that have WiMAX, 4G, or even 3G networks, and some cable operators have 3G licenses, you’ll see some of that content going into handheld devices, too,” he said. “In 2011, from my crystal ball, they’re going to start getting a lot more serious about the advertising side of it.”
Multi-screen deployment issues and answers
When it comes to three-screen strategies, North American cable operators are keeping their cards clutched tightly to their chests. While none of the cable operators that were queried for this story were willing to go on record in regard to their multi-screen deployment plans or network details, Scott Hunter, Rogers Cable’s director of technology strategy, was willing to answer some general questions. With Rogers firmly entrenched on the wireless side, the Canadian operator seems like a good candidate to ramp up meaningful video services to its customers’ mobile devices.
CED: Three-screen and TV Everywhere are basically the same concept. What are the barriers to deployment?
Scott Hunter: There are key considerations associated with providing video content to a multitude of devices, including:
CED: How does cable, in particular, get beyond video to PCs and TVs and move into mobile? What needs to be done with the networks for this to happen?
SH: Rogers has already been delivering video content to the mobile device over a separate platform to the traditional cable delivery system. The concern of delivering video to a mobile device is typically capacity and the requirement to support an increased amount of video distribution on the wireless network.
CED: How will cable operators share three-screen content across their footprints?
SH: Cable operators can share content across screens using session management. However, even though the technology can achieve that (especially with newer devices), the business rules are not established yet on how it can be done. This includes the use of DRM (and how content and sessions can be shared across devices), monetization of a piece of content across devices (is a movie worth the same on a mobile device vs. a big screen TV at home?), licensing content for use across many devices, etc.
CED: What are the business/revenue cases for TV Everywhere or three-screen deployments?
SH: Business cases are still being developed to support the TV Everywhere solution. Being able to access your content across multiple devices with the same entitlement rights is a converged advantage. Customer retention is also a critical consideration in the TV Everywhere scenario.
CED: Content owners are pushing this from their Web portals; over-the-top is pushing it through cable’s pipes. How does cable respond to keep customers from cord cutting?
SH: Cable providers provide value that goes beyond the content. A cable provider delivers the same content in a user-friendly environment (one that everyone is used to, they know the interface and it makes for a better experience – big screen TV vs. a computer monitor) and allows the customer to find the content they are looking for quickly, as well as provides an excellent-quality video viewing experience, independent of the viewing device.
CED: Do customers really want three-screen technologies right now? Do they want to watch on their PCs?
SH: While industry studies are still being completed on this topic, it is interesting to note that video streaming in Japan is more prevalent on the mobile device than the TV or computer, even when the customer is within his house. Certainly the younger generations are quite comfortable with watching video on a mobile device or on a PC, but the viewing experience is not the same. If the computer monitor becomes the screen across the sofa and the keyboard is as easy to use as a remote, then customers will not mind watching a video on a computer monitor.
CED: Customers don’t care about the technology. How can this be made easy for them to watch a show or live event from TV to PC to mobile?
SH: The key to device shifting is a common session management system. Although vendors have been able to demonstrate the three-screen experience, these deployments have been very proprietary and difficult to scale to date.
CED: No standards, different vendors, different devices, different providers – where do we start? What is a good goal for this year and next?
SH: Rogers does not comment on future products or services; however, we are well-positioned to deliver constant innovation.