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DIY gives way to outsourcing in Multi-screen

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 7:19pm
Brian Santo

Multi-screen delivery and TV Everywhere are now a matter of fitting the pieces together    

For service providers, the challenges of multi-screen – delivering video to smart TVs, tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices – are no less daunting for being well known. It is a marvelously complex process to deliver video to an ever-expanding universe of devices running multiple major operating systems all with different screen sizes and supporting unique combinations of streaming formats and digital rights management (DRM) schemes.

That’s not to mention content ingestion, packaging, metadata, closed captioning, or audio tracks (especially important in Europe where multiple languages need to be supported).

And that’s before negotiating distribution rights with content owners who have little incentive to adopt policies that are consistent from one distribution partner to the next, let alone among themselves.

On the other hand, the challenges have been the same for long enough – it was 2009 that Comcast and Time Warner Cable introduced the capability – that a growing number of vendors have had the time to develop hosted and managed solutions for multi-screen delivery.

There’s someone available to take on any given aspect of delivering multi-screen video, from the actual delivery of the video to the authentication, and if a service provider desires an end-to-end solution, there are combinations of companies that can do that too.

Mediacom, for example, recently extended its contract with Synacor to provide its subscribers with multi-screen and TV Everywhere (TVE) services.

Synacor has carved out a niche with online portals for Mediacom as well as Armstrong, BendBroadband, Buckeye Cablesystem, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Hargray, Midcontinent, SuddenLink, and others.

Cisco said it is building an end-to-end hosted solution for a customer in Europe who will have no equipment on its premises; Cisco has not announced the project yet. Separate from that, the company plans to beta test a cloud-based set of services in 2014 that is envisioned to include everything from storage-on-demand to delivery to any specific device, doing for multiscreen what Amazon Web Services does for web services.

MobiTV manages multi-screen services for most of the major North American wireless carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Telus. The company also does NFL games for Verizon.

MobiTV is also having its technology integrated in chipsets from Intel and Marvell, for a range of devices ranging from set-tops to HDMI dongles.

Even larger companies that have built their own systems have built them on a cloud model, in a way it looks like they’re hosting their own services.

Nick Thexton, CTO of the service provider video technology group at Cisco, observed that, “Comcast and Liberty Global are advertising the fact that they’re using their own private cloud infrastructures to deliver services faster, and it's multi-screen from the beginning, but the fundamentals of the design are very different from how you’d do an enterprise sort of development.

They’re providing a kind of heartbeat of the viability of the solution.

“Fewer have moved to the public cloud – yet,” Thexton continued. “Not many people will be doing all their content distribution on the web with something like Amazon Web Services, but we’re seeing increasing numbers of companies – and we ourselves are using companies like RackSpace – providing flexible and elastic cloud resources. We’re seeing a kind of gradual move to cloud infrastructure, simply because it’s so useful and convenient. It’s not driven by philosophy – it’s a convenience and cost issue.”

Part of the decision to go with hosted services starts, most people agree, is a matter of philosophy. Some companies want to own the user experience, but that comes with the responsibility for managing it through its life cycle on multiple devices, which requires dedicated resources.

Others operators will not, as a matter of principal, relinquish control of any aspect of their operations. And that’s all well and good, provided they have the resources to do everything themselves.

But not everybody does – and even some Tier 1s that do have the resources don’t feel it necessary to control everything.

After that it becomes an issue of what’s practical, given your resources and your business goals, and the combination is going to be different for nearly every single service provider.

“There’s 20 or 30 different elements – ingestion, transcoding, there’s DRM wrapping, there’s hosting, there are CMSs that have to be there to publish content, there’s the CDN, licenses – it’s complicated, there are a lot of moving parts,” said Michael Bishara, SVP of product, GM of TVE at Synacor. Taking care of all that is the value a third party can bring.

“Distribution is not that hard,” Sud Kaushik, director of multi-screen platform products for SeaChange, said. “DRMs are becoming standard. ABR technologies have been solved, in my mind – the ability to get content in a multicast fashion, to even do edge caching, to get quality of experience on a multi-screen device has become easy, from a technical level.”

Deluxe Digital breaks the third party market into three major components: the app, the retail storefront, and the content library. The multi-screen pioneers, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision, built all those elements themselves because they had to, observed Chris Rittler, SVP sales, business development & marketing at Deluxe Digital.

“Now they’re looking to do it more cost effectively. Then there’s everybody else that hasn’t launched yet – they’re still in a programmer- branded experience world,” Rittler said.

“The good news is that all three pieces are available through third parties. There are companies who make white label apps. For retail storefronts, they can go to Cisco, to Arris, to Ericsson, to a number of smaller companies and get a turnkey solution they can host. Or they can go get a hosted version of that, and that’s available too. Then there are companies like Deluxe making content available in formats required to do this,” Rittler said.

“The content is still an issue,” Kaushik noted, referring specifically to the reluctance of premium channels to make their content widely available, and on a consistent basis. Thus, not all content available on the first screen is available on the second screen. “Catalog management is a challenge. The catalog that exists on your TV screen tends to be robust, the ones on other screens tend to be limited because of the rights issues,” Kaushik said.

The proliferation of devices makes the entire process of doing things in-house difficult.

Bishara said, “There’s iOS environments, there’s Android devices, there’s multiple devices associated with each, and there’s connected TV sets, and you hear about spinning up a team of 40 to 50 people just to keep track of all that and modify experiences for each of those platforms. That’s an incredible scaling problem.”

MobiTV’s CTO Cedric Fernandes said, “device proliferation involves platform proliferation. There are a million flavors of Android. Much less talked about, but with potential to impact the ecosystem is Windows. You have Mozilla, and you have Google Chromium. We all need to deal with that, and it’s always been a challenge. You have to put the intelligence in your network, so that when these devices change, you don’t have to update the devices, you update infrastructure you control. It’s all about leveraging resources in the network.”

“These sorts of things are forcing people to consider – given the large number of devices we have to reach, which is only going to increase – are we going to have to build more infrastructure ourselves, or is there one system that can do it?” Thexton said.

“A lot of providers are building and investing in on-premises equipment, but there’s a decision point a lot of them go through: do we see ourselves in the long run building a lot of this all ourselves? “Some say: absolutely,” Thexton continued.

“It defines our platform experience.

But I’ve been very surprised in the last 12 months that there has been a distinct shift in the minds of a lot of operators, large and small, that it might be a lot easier for someone else to do this for us as long as we have the necessary controls.”

Give up even that piece of it, and then the operator doesn’t have to keep track of what device is most popular this year, or even this quarter, Thexton noted.

The proliferation of devices is an ongoing problem on the delivery side, but it’s also an ongoing problem in the back office, and that might be an even bigger headache. When it comes time to decide to make or buy, that consideration could tip the scales toward the latter. For companies that have already built their own multi-screen systems, the problem is big enough to inspire them to reassess their decision.

“If you look behind the curtain, you see a lot of inelegant back office systems with high levels of silos and duplications of activity,”

said Thexton.

Kaushik agreed, noting that, “If you’re a Tier 1, you’ve grown through acquisitions, you have different billing systems in every different market, and you’ve put a little umbrella over all of it, and all of a sudden you have to extend your billing systems to handle newer methods of payment, maybe not exactly PayPal, but a transactional model. You want recommendations to drive consumption, you want end caps, to borrow a concept from retail.”

“So even the largest guys won’t do all of it; the same for the content providers,” Bishara said. “It’s a complicated environment, and you’re seeing a mixed model now, with the exception of the largest of the large truly doing it themselves from start to finish.”

“We’re seeing the large distributors who were the pioneers are making the transition to more cost-effective activity in the cloud.

And the next tier of operators who were unwilling to make the investment to do it all in-house are moving to the cloud as well, because it’s now at a price point where they can afford to do it,” Rittler said.

Hybrid models

There is just no one way to outsource elements of multi-screen and TV Everywhere.

One function that operators will either start with in-house or, if they start with a hosted solution, might bring in-house, is the content delivery network. CDN technology is fairly common now, and one of the essential elements of a CDN is storage, and storage has never stopped getting cheaper.

Doing your own CDN becomes attractive, said Rob Hickey, vice president of engineering at Azuki Systems, if you look at them in context of the multi-screen system, from the perspective of broadcast versus multicast.

“You take it from the paradigm of first screen, where you broadcast your linear content. Take Mediaroom, there will be issues of multi-cast. You’ll have a server to service fast channel change and recover error packets. Then you’re going to switch to segmented ABR delivery? You can still leverage multicast over that same network, then you would rely on a CDN to be your quote-unquote fixup server, where you can use unicast delivery for multi-screen OTT delivery, and it can also serve fast channel change and error recovery. That’s a big change in terms of the service providers, but the Tier 1s are certainly looking at that as the future.”

Ultimately, as more goes to the cloud, including (and perhaps especially) network DVR, then even linear broadcast ends up looking exactly like on demand unicast.

Some portion of the viewers will watch linear TV in real time, but every person who uses Start Over, or even simply pauses briefly, they’re no longer live, they’re drawing a unicast stream.

That’s a rationale for treating everything as an ABR stream, Hickey said. “The nature of ABR is that you don’t have to convert a linear stream into a VOD asset because you’ve already segmented the data in the live stream – you save a tremendous amount in terms of the lack of infrastructure you need to support time-shifted and nDVR technology because it’s the exact same segment you distributed linearly, it just was never purged.”

David Grubb, CTO, cloud solutions business at Arris, said, “An operator might start one way – start using a third-party CDN, but then when they get to enough traffic, they’ll do their own. Or maybe I want to turn my service on tomorrow, and it’ll take me six months to get my own CDN up and running.”

Grubb said Arris is in the process of merging the multi-screen IPTV portfolio from the Motorola acquisition into the Moxi ecosystem. “Today, Moxi is essentially a triple play, whole-home DVR. Now we add the multi-screen delivery for live and video on demand,” he said. Arris already hosted the back end support for Moxi; it will soon be able to do the same for multi-screen services in the Moxi environment.

Also on the hosted Arris recently cut a announced at the Cable which Deluxe’s content preparation services are being integrated with Arris’ SecureMedia content security system.

“With what Deluxe is doing, there are multiple tiers of what you can and have hosted,” Grubb said. “They have the content factory’ – the content preparation. The streaming to the end device – be on the operator’s network, but that’s another service that can be bought, leveraging third party CDNs.”

Of course, service providers could elect to do the content preparation themselves too. “It’s fundamentally a scale discussion,”

Grubb said. “There’s some fixed cost to building out the content factory – bringing in content, transcoding it into different formats, adding DRM, having a QA system.

If you have 10,000 subscribers it’s not going to make sense to build your own; it makes more sense to go to a hosted service. If you have a million subscribers, then the economics swing in the other direction. No different from any other supply chain decision.”

Creating your own ‘content factories’ can be more complicated than its worth. Bishara said, “You’ll work with some content providers who will provide mezzanine files that have to be encoded. Others will provide a syndicated player, but the mezzanine files still need to be encoded. Others will provided mezzanine files with encoded files that they host. Just to accent the complexities.”

Another situation that might lead service providers to go with hosting, Thexton suggested, might be when some device, a particular smart TV, for example, becomes quickly popular, yet the number of viewers using it might be quite small compared to the overall number of subscribers. A service provider might want to be seen delivering to that device, but it doesn’t make economic sense to do so. That’s when going to a hosted solution as a defensive strategy makes sense.

And then think about devices that get obsoleted. Apple no longer supports the original iPad, Thexton noted, but they’re still out there. Do you cut off your subscribers, or have someone manage those subscribers and that traffic for you? Once you start making decisions like this frequently enough, it might make sense to reevaluate your hosting strategy more often, he suggested.

Another reason to go hosted is that it’s a simultaneous move to the cloud, which comes with an extraordinary advantage: intelligence is in the network, not in the client devices. Thexton said, “You don’t have the horrible gut-wrenching challenges of downloading software to set- top boxes or other devices and hope that your intensive software testing has trapped every bug. Client software is just orders of magnitude more sensitive to defects, minor or major, so the more you can reduce the complexity in the clients, that’s a motivator to move to a hosted or cloud service.”

Yet another reason to jump straight to a hosted solution is competition. It’s simply the fastest way to get to market.

“My personal belief is that somebody will deliver a service OTT, that will truly compete against what the offerings are,” Hickey said. MSOs, he said, “might be the biggest laggards with regard to technology. They were slow to adopt DVR technology; TiVo came and built a business out of it. Then they were slow to deliver a well thought-out SVOD platform, and Netflix beat them to the punch. Now when it comes to a TVE experience, will they be allowed to continue to move slowly and eventually figure out how to deliver all these features you get on first screen on multi-screen? Will they just say we’ll wait for MPEG-DASH, or will somebody come out with a product and deliver that experience? That’s the threat, and a lot of service providers understand they have to be that solution or the jig is up. You can survive TiVo. You can survive Netflix. It will be difficult to survive if someone else comes up with a TVE experience that matches what you can get on the first screen.”

 Overview:  

For an overview of how to evaluate your multi-screen hosted options, CED recently hosted a webcast called “Headend in the Clouds: Secure Multi-Screen as a Managed Service,” with Rittler and Whit Jackson, who leads studio relations and business development at Arris. 

Another recent webcast, “Bridging the Gap Between Traditional and Multi-screen TV” looks at the specifics of preparing for the transition to multi-screen delivery. The speakers were Allen Broome, VP of IP video engineering at Comcast; Marios Stylianou, director of telco marketing at Envivio; and J.C. Morizur, senior director of professional solutions at Dolby.

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