The TV set-top-box is a strategic asset for Telcos, cable MSOs, and Pay TV operators: they provide their subscribers with access to a world of media and entertainment content under their brand’s umbrella. By adopting Android TV, they keep their curated universe of content (their walled garden), but they choose to let users navigate the open world of content found on the Google Play Store. Most Telcos and Pay-TV operators who have chosen to do so, are satisfied with their decision, though it was not easy to let these third-party OTT services reach their TV set-top box. However, the situation is now very open by nature, because users are already using these OTT services on their mobile devices. Most TVs in living rooms are Smart TVs, and OTT video dongles are cheap and very successful (e.g., Fire TV, Roku, Chromecast, etc.). Openness keeps viewers happy with their primary TV access device. It unlocks new business opportunities for a Super Aggregator strategy, where the subscription and payment journey on third-party apps such as Netflix is controlled by the operator using carrier billing, enhancing trust and reducing friction (no credit card details to provide). By adopting Android TV, Telcos, cable MSOs and Pay-TV operators also reduce their total cost of ownership, relying on Google to provide R&D efforts for the underlying software platform maintenance and roadmap on the TV device side.
Furthermore, releasing and updating the operator’s apps for the Android TV platform requires less specialized skills, thanks to tools that are well known in the Android developer community. Android TV set-top-boxes help reduce operational costs by transitioning to a smartcard-less CAS (Conditional Access System) and DRM (Digital right management) to entitle subscribers from an online platform without requiring dedicated physical components (CA module, subscriber’s card), therefore saving costs on card handling and shipment.ABR (adaptive bitrate) streaming media technology brings another set of advantages to operators.
ABR streaming media uses the universal HTTPS protocol, and is delivered using ubiquitous components (HTTPS web servers) deployed and managed on either the telco CDN for on-net delivery or a public CDN for off-net. The most used ABR packaging formats are HLS (by Apple and IETF) and DASH (by MPEG and DASH Industry Forum). CMAF (by CMAF Industry Forum) is a newer format unifying media delivery while keeping lightweight playlist manifests files in both HLS and DASH formats, saving resources and costs across packaging, storage, and delivery. CMAF is not yet broadly supported by devices. These packaging formats now have an optional Low Latency mode (LL-HLS, LL-DASH) that’s especially relevant for live sport events, providing broadcast-level latency or even better while preserving quality-of-service during content playback.
Media CDNs are content delivery networks that can cope with a large peak audience and deliver on-demand video content, live events and linear television channels. The network is one of the most valuable assets Telcos have; building an On-net Telco CDN is an investment for the future that differentiates them from those using public CDN services, enabling them to get much closer to their viewers. Deep CDN edge cache servers can be deployed in telco networks near fiber access nodes, copper line DSLAM, and active mobile network towers supporting NFV/SDN (Network Function Virtualization/Software-Defined Networks) using MEC (Multi-Access Edge Computing) infrastructure. Edge servers can also go as deep as the home network and be located within a Telco’s home gateway to serve the ABR connections from the many OTT personal devices in the home: mobiles, tablets, Smart TVs, etc. Open Caching by the Streaming Video Alliance is working in that direction, with the specification for a Home Storage Open Caching Node (HS-OCN) and Open Caching for MEC. When implemented by CDN vendors and analytics providers, CMCD (Common Media Client Data) by CTA-WAVE, a mechanism based on a media playback session identifier, enables video streaming performance analysis using both client (media player) and CDN logs, helping the operator to drive a better video streaming experience.
Dynamic Ad Insertion (DAI) for linear television ad break replacement per viewer becomes easier with ABR streaming. It replaces Transport Stream splicing technology in the set-top-box with manifest manipulation and stream stitching that can occur server-side (SSAI) or client-side (CSAI) and is Multiscreen by nature, unlocking a larger size inventory stock beyond the TV box.
Although Pay-TV operators don’t have a telecom network, they can easily go over-the-top by using any Internet access their subscribers have in their homes. The TV set-top-box may still receive broadcast television services, especially from direct-to-home satellite broadcasting (DTH), thus enabling a rich world of possibilities thanks to the Internet connection. Another benefit comes from a possible channel line-up split between broadcast and broadband. Most premium channels will stick to satellite delivery, while less popular channels and pop-up channels may be delivered exclusively over broadband, saving on satellite capacity costs. DVB-I is the new standard addressing this broadband+broadcast delivery for a hybrid TV device.
Operators can also provide an Operator App for Smart TV platforms (Samsung, LG, Android TV, etc.) already available in viewers’ homes. Virtualizing the set-top-box for specific market segments lets operators retain the physical TV set-top-box for most households.
By adopting OTT video technology based on ABR and CDNs, Telcos unlock access to the world of content found on the Internet and bring it to their TV set-top box. But then the question raised is whether or not to maintain legacy IPTV technologies such as DVB Transport Streams (TS) using UDP/IP multicast for live TV and RTSP/RTP for some old video-on-demand systems. By giving up on these legacy technologies and embracing future-proof and universal ABR streaming media, Telcos expects cost reduction and less maintenance with a single (instead of several) convergent media pipeline, while developing expertise across modern technologies. Specific Telco CDN technologies, such as mABR (Multicast ABR) and Deep Caching, can help transition from IPTV legacy technology to full ABR unicast content delivery. mABR keeps the multicast one-to-many attribute to cope with peak audiences until an operator finishes building an appropriately sized, reliable CDN infrastructure. Deep Caching helps the operator split the global load to local smaller loads handled by deep cache servers running on MEC (Multi-Access Edge Computing) infrastructure close to the users.
Also, OTT Video ABR unlocks innovation by quickly enabling new services such as VR (virtual reality and immersive video in 360 or 180 degrees), advanced audio experience (e.g., choose your own mix), advanced video experience (e.g., select your camera and multi-live), the latest improvements in audio and video quality (e.g., spatial audio, high frame rate, high dynamic range, wide color gamut, lower latency), and “watch together” with social interactivity on the TV app or the companion mobile app. New monetization options appear, such as linear TV ad-break replacement with advertising targeted for each viewer or home. Video advertising is obtained programmatically (automatically) from video ad servers. It’s also easier for Telcos to adopt newer and more bandwidth-efficient audio and video codecs already supported on only some devices, but not yet all of them, requiring device capabilities management.
VMAF can be used to evaluate the quality of encoding settings or transmission variants, helping decide on applying optimization while preserving the VMAF score (i.e., the perceived video quality). Video Multimethod Assessment Fusion (VMAF), by Netflix and a couple of universities in the USA and France who received an Emmy Award for recognition of the work, is an objective video quality metric.
Providing TV content on-demand, either as a catch-up TV service, a TV start-over service, or a network personal video recording service (nPVR), requires a delicate equilibrium. Balance must be found between the correct user experience, operational workflows, business agreements and channels’ technical requirements. The most cost-effective solution is to use the TV electronic program guide (EPG) to get the program name, synopsis, poster image, start-time, and duration. The last two are the most critical data to use for the delinearization of the TV program while aired on linear television channels. For stock content, such as TV series, it can often be obtained, but not always, from television channels as video files, dropped in advance in a hot folder with associated metadata. But nowadays, the promise of AI-assisted content recognition brings automated detection of the TV program name, start/end, and ad-break begin/end, improving timing when using a not-so-accurate EPG.