ActiveVideo: Virtualization of the pay-TV STB is “inevitable”

Ronald Brockmann,  CTO,  ActiveVideo

Ronald Brockmann,

IP&TV News talks TV in the cloud with Ronald Brockmann, CTO, ActiveVideo…

IP&TV News: What do you think of as the most significant technological advance regarding TV in the cloud over the last year?

Ronald Brockmann: There are really a couple of different ways to answer that question:  the growing role of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), and advances in how the industry is using virtual set-top box (vSTB) approaches to drive business and market growth.

The greatest impediments to advanced user experiences for service providers have been the limitations and fragmentation of resources in STBs and connected devices.  The vast majority of the billions of existing STBs are unable to support online video, advanced user interfaces and interactive TV ads; the impact of new boxes with the computing power to render those experiences has been limited by the cost and time to market, both of deploying the STBs and of writing apps for each make and model of STB.

There have been three major technological advances that have made it possible for pay-TV operators to deliver advanced user experiences to any STB:

1. Anchoring on HTML5 as the application framework for creating web-style user experiences in the cloud, so that content and applications need to be written only once;

2. Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) that moves the functionality of CPUs, GPUs, memory and browsers from the device to standard blade servers, enabling richer, more complex applications that exceed the processing capabilities of STBs; and

3. Development and adoption of a software centric approach that enables content and applications rendered in the cloud to any STB or connected device.

The most significant application advance of the past year has been the way pay-TV and online video providers can work together when the STB is virtualized in the cloud.  Liberty Global’s UPC Hungary system is a good example: They’re using the cloud to bring YouTube to all of their existing set-top boxes, and the response has been outstanding.  Customers are viewing more than a million minutes a day, and the length of engagement is very TV-like — 45 minutes on average. Two things to watch for: UPC Hungary has announced an interest in bringing the service to other countries; and other online providers – including HBO GO – are moving toward launch of cloud-based services of their own.

Is there a misunderstanding regarding the fundamental nature of TV in the cloud – what is this and why? Where does the STB come into all this?

Pay-TV operators and vendors have approached “TV in the cloud” from a variety of starting points — including content ingest, content transcoding and content delivery – but the biggest challenge is the one ActiveVideo is addressing:  the set-top box.  As we’ve virtualized the STB, we’ve had to overcome several misunderstandings, both about vSTB in general and virtualization in the cloud in particular.

The first is the misconception that STB virtualization is simply the removal of STB resources to another device, such as a connected TV, to save on capex and opex. This is “TV as an App,” not vSTB. The benefits of TV as an App are real, but they overlook the greater value of true STB virtualization: the increased service velocity and subscriber reach that can be attained when rich, high-end experiences are delivered to any device without the cost or time-to-market of writing the application multiple times.

The other areas of misunderstanding are in the areas of concurrent usage, bandwidth and latency.  In all three areas, field deployments have shown that our customers have been surprised and satisfied by how a cloud-based platform such as CloudTV can equal or exceed the performance of a device-based solution.

And where does ActiveVideo see TV in the cloud as ultimately developing?

TV as delivered today more and more is being defined using software rather than specific hardware. The headends and the entire video delivery infrastructures of pay-TV are being virtualized.  Our belief is that the STB is the last node in pay-TV networks; thus virtualization of the STB as well has been inevitable. What ActiveVideo has done is move all of the functionality of the STB – the processing, browsing and memory – to the cloud.  In that environment, the role of the existing set-top box or connected device is simply to decode video, so the breadth of cloud-based services is limited only by the imagination.

Charter Communications is deploying a guide based entirely in the cloud.  Liberty Puerto Rico has created a UI that combines viewing trends with multiple tiles of live video.  YouTube is streaming its rich user interface and its full library of content to UPC Hungary subscribers.  Cablevision is launching interactive ads.  Ziggo is offering on-demand services with NO set-top box.

One of the most important points is how quickly these innovations can proliferate across providers of cloud-based services.  Once they are developed by one system, they can easily be replicated across MSOs’ entire service footprints, or even licensed to other MSOs, so there’s really no limit on what can be accomplished using the cloud.

Could you tell us more about ActiveVideo’s exciting announcement with HBO Europe?

What’s exciting about this relationship is the way we’re helping operators and HBO Europe bring the complete user experience of HBO GO to the television, using their existing STBs.  That means an intuitive HTML5 interface, a 20X improvement in the content library and the ability to find content in the guide – just like any other channel.

Bringing online video to pay-TV STBs required clearing major hurdles: Providing the rich online UI for every STB at scale.  Making content stored in IP CDNs compatible with managed network protocols.  Converting Web DRM to pay-TV conditional access standards.  We address all of those content experience, content delivery and content security issues in the cloud, so that operators can deliver a full HBO GO user experience that is integrated into their linear TV service.

ActiveVideo will be at the OTTtv World Summit (17-20 November) in London. Click here for booking and more info.

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