Down The Multi-Screen Rabbit Hole
Innovation sometimes happens best in a state of near chaos, where many people are looking at a problem from many different angles. That certainly describes the current state of innovation when it comes to delivering video to multiple screens. From 36,000 feet, the engineers might look like mice running around in circles, bumping into one another, but through this creative process, solutions begin to emerge.
In July, Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), sent a letter to Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), outlining "all of the remarkable innovation that’s occurring in the U.S. cable industry." The purpose of Powell’s letter was to convince the FCC that cable is enabling a robust retail video-device marketplace and doesn’t need any more regulation ( i.e., CableCARD or AllVid). But the letter also laid out a lot of accomplishments in terms of multi-screen video.
Powell pointed out that cable operators are working with TV manufacturers to find ways to deliver video without having to use a set-top box. He cited collaborations between Sony and Time Warner Cable, and between Samsung and Comcast to add programming clients from the MSOs to Sony and Samsung smart TVs. In addition, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision have apps for customers to watch subscription video on tablets within their homes.
And another big multi-screen trend is cloud-based access to video. Through "TV Everywhere" Web portals, operators allow their subscribers to authenticate and watch video on myriad devices. Programmers like ESPN and HBO are offering their content via Web pages or through applications as well.
Multi-Screen Over Existing Plant
But while apps, Web portals and partnerships provide interim solutions, ultimately operators want to deliver their video to multiple screens in a more uniform way and with consistent high quality.
"You can put up a Website, keep it clean and independent, and manage it like a Hulu site," says Murali Nemani, director/Video Solutions Service Provider Marketing at Cisco. "You don’t have the whole MPEG QAM world. The all-IP world is very different. Delivering an iPad app or Website, I have a content management system; can encode into different profiles using adaptive bitrate; and can deliver across IP-based networks. That ecosystem can be managed pretty independently, simply because you don’t have non-IP-world elements creating a muck."
However, there are problems managing two very different ecosystems: They require replication of such functions as storage, databases and security. "In the MPEG world, set-tops are authenticated in a very particular manner," Nemani explains. "But in the IP world, you don’t know the end points. It’s all very clean as long as the two worlds operate independently. (But) consumers don’t want to operate in siloed worlds. The future is how these two worlds come together."
Moving in this direction, CableLabs is working with its operator members on a Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) to integrate the functions of broadcast and narrowcast QAMs as well as DOCSIS 3.0 downstream and upstream interfaces. ( Editor’s note: CCAP formerly was known as CMAP).
A CCAP device will combine a cable modem termination system (CMTS) and edge QAM functions, and it will help operators transition their networks to all-IP. But transitioning to CCAP will take some years. In the meantime, engineers continue to look at ways to deliver more video to more screens using existing QAM infrastructure.
A recent white paper from SeaChange — Multi-Screen Video: A Requirement in Today’s Digital World — identifies high-level elements MSOs must consider when delivering video to multiple end devices:
Editorial compliance and normalization,
External feeds with diverse catalog requirements,
Publishing to multiple and diverse delivery systems,
Tracking multiple workflows with real-time monitoring and alarms, and
Reconciliation and reporting.
The paper also identifies these obstacles: content security, screen-tailored UI experience and quality of UI experience.
One of the most critical considerations is delivering different formats for different devices.
"Every channel one wants to deliver has to be transcoded into multiple formats and transrated to multiple speeds," says Jatin Desai, CTO at itaas. "Right now, video coming from most sources is MPEG-2 video. Most new devices cannot use MPEG-2; you must use MPEG-4 H.264. In some cases, you may use some other format. You need to transcode from one format to another. A transrater can change the bitrate for a particular video stream."
And then there’s the question of how many formats the operator is going to support for transrating and transcoding.
According to Keith Wymbs, vice president/Marketing at Elemental Technologies, "We talked to one major content provider creating 240 different versions of one asset to cover the full possibility of stream-size technology, and different quality levels and network levels."
Yaron Raz, director/Digital Video Solutions at Harmonic, notes, "We’re converging toward three main protocols (Apple, Microsoft and Adobe) but, when combined with digital rights management (DRM), MSOs are trying to focus on iPads, PCs and Macs, and then some game consoles. Most of the MSOs are trying to converge on at least two variations of protocols if they can work with a single DRM."
However, he adds, "The technology is focused on second and third screens today but, in 12 to 18 months, we’re going to have to send higher bitrates, higher resolutions."
Although today most transcoding and transrating typically is done at a MSO facility, itaas’ Desai says, "At some point, you will see a media gateway device, which will receive QAM channels inside the home. A gateway is an option that allows (operators) to piggyback on QAM, and do transcoding and transrating inside the home."
Vendors are being creative about customer-premise devices. For example, Motorola Mobility’s "Televation" broadband device plugs into a Wi-Fi router inside a customer’s home, and it does real-time transcoding and transrating to match the capabilities of the consumer’s viewing device.
Without a device at the customer’s premise, "the challenge becomes local content," says Raz. "When we look at content today — national content — MSOs take national feeds in one or two locations and feed it into a content delivery network (CDN).”
He continues, “We see two approaches for processing content locally. First, take adaptive bitrate and distribute across all these regions. But you’ll need expertise across all these regions. The other approach is just take content, backhaul it to a national headend and do all the processing in that headend. But you’ll need additional bandwidth."
Raz says MSOs are all looking at both options, with the choice depending on backhaul network capabilities and the number of regions they have. “At least some of them only have the option of doing it in local regions," he adds.
Cisco’s Nemani agrees that CDNs are an important element in multi-screen video delivery. "All these devices don’t speak QAM," he says. "These CDNs become really critical because they can deliver different formats with high-quality for linear and on-demand. Service providers are saying ‘I need to build my own (CDN). It’s a competitive advantage.’"
Besides Comcast’s efforts to build its own CDN, Nemani says AT&T, France Telecom, Verizon and BT are building their own as well.
"Old CDNs are built for data — the Internet," he says. "The new CDNs are being asked to deliver more video content. They can cache deeper into the edge of the network. The closer to the consumer, the lower the latency buffer. Akamai and Limelight don’t control the last mile. That’s a big part of the evolution."
Once CCAP becomes a factor and operators are able to deliver more IP video, it will raise some interesting business questions. Traditionally, cable providers have operated in established footprints and, to a certain extent, they resented over-the-top (OTT) players that deliver services over their networks.
Harmonic’s Raz says just because operators may begin transporting more video over IP, it doesn’t make them OTT providers. However, the IP technology does allow them to offer services outside of their coverage areas. This could open a whole new world of opportunities.
"I could be a service provider and offer my content to any subscriber that has some broadband connectivity," Raz concludes.
Linda Hardesty is associate editor at Communications Technology. Contact her at [email protected]