Seamless content on demand. An interesting concept, but what does it mean? Seamlessly watching content on your wireless device, download device, TV set and on the Internet? Watching the type of content we see on the Internet on our cable systems? Watching content of different formats easily across multiple domains and delivery means?
Or how about all of the above? That’s the correct answer. But that answer begs further questions. Each scenario poses technical challenges to—and creates opportunities for—cable operators today. User-generated Before considering the technical implications, let’s note a few interesting trends in expanding content access today. Video-sharing Web site YouTube, acquired by online giant Google for $1.65 billion in October 2006, owns nearly half of the U.S. online video market share. Social networking Web site MySpace owns about 30 percent of the online video market share and was acquired by News Corp. for $580 million dollars in 2005.
Even more interesting is that MySpace beat out the traditional Yahoo and Google Web sites as the most visited U.S. Internet site in July 2006. If you take a look at these two leading online companies and many other similar ones, you will find that two trends are clearly emerging: User-generated content and communities are here—and here to stay.
The upshot is that cable operators need to accommodate such communities and content while, of course, allowing the content to be shared in a seamless way with the Internet and mobile devices.
Cable operators are in a strong position to do so. Although many Internet video entrepreneurs believe that the Internet is the next TV platform, if there is one thing the cable industry has proven, it’s how to take content, add the proper controls and licensing, and make it into a successful business for the content provider, operator and consumer.
User-generated content may be interesting and successful in its early stages, but who better to make it a real business than cable? Internet video, after all, is just that—video on the Internet. Cable is poised to offer a much richer experience.
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine being on vacation with your children on the beach and capturing them on video, then uploading the video to your cable company via its cellular service. Within moments, the video has been converted to video on demand (VOD) format and, based on your preference settings, has been uploaded to the electronic program guide (EPG) for customers within your “community” to view on their cable service. You then call Grandma, telling her to view the children on her TV set by simply selecting the community videos in her EPG. At the same time, of course, the video is also available in your cable operator’s video Web site for viewing on the Internet. Likewise, the Internet site, being keyboard-based, can easily be the setup place for your cable TV and EPG-based preferences.
A fantasy? No, all of this is quite possible with some extensions to the technology that’s available in our systems. The network gateway The options quickly expand: picture uploads to Web sites, picture backups to a home media center, downloads from your computer to your MP3 or iPod, streaming video, download video, and so on. With the emergence of content mobility, the “seamless” part is not so seamless. The burden is on users themselves to figure out how to move content and maintain its longevity.
One proposed answer is to have customers buy expensive routers and home gateways. A home gateway is supposed to offer a central backup system for content, as well as provide a means to network devices in order to seamlessly move content from device to device in a home.
But how many customers have $200 for the high-end home router and $500 for the gateway or media center? Even if home gateways are offered by cable operators, the cost is still in the hundreds of dollars per subscriber with an additional $40 or more truck roll.
With existing, two-way infrastructure, however, isn’t it logical for cable companies to offer network-based media centers or gateways? With ever-increasing bandwidth between the headend and home, it’s quite feasible to offer upload, backup and download services in addition to current TV-based streaming services. The cost per subscriber for on-demand services is around $10 to $15, without any necessary truck roll, making a network gateway an extremely feasible product. (See Table 1.) Mobility Content mobility is easily enough imagined. Today, we can watch a movie that we’ve downloaded to a mobile device and receive news content on our cellular phones. Unfortunately, however, silos still prevail.
Even with triple-play services, data video, cable TV video, and mobile video are not combined into a seamless service offering. But the technology exists to change that, and as an industry, cable is uniquely positioned to combine the content offering into a more unified approach.
In fact, much of the infrastructure to offer these services is already in place. Some questions, such as what exactly the seamless content experience should be and whether user-generated content should be screened or limited, lie in the business realm. On the technology side are issues involving applications and user interfaces.
Let’s consider what’s happening in content sharing via cable today. All the major cable company Web sites contain descriptions of data, video and voice offerings. In addition, most are looking seriously at video streaming solutions via Web portals. Time Warner, for example, launched PhotoShowTV in 2006, allowing customers to create slide shows of photos and videos, and then share them on Time Warner’s VOD network. Comcast recently announced Ziddio, which allows subscribers to submit online videos, with winners subsequently posted on Comcast’s VOD system.
What components exist for video files and how are they loaded onto a DVD or VOD system or onto the Internet? For an answer, see Figure 1, the following related notes, and further technical commentary to follow: • A VOD system has metadata, which consists of text information that describes the content, its business rules and its attributes, and video files. These are typically loaded or “pitched” via satellite to a staging area and then automatically ingested into a VOD system. Video files typically follow the CableLabs VOD encoding specification.
• DVDs have a different defined format and directory structure. Each DVD player expects the specific menu, information, graphics and video files in this format for DVD play-out.
• Several Web video players exist: DVD players for PCs are available, but also various formats such as RealPlayer, QuickTime, and Windows Media Player exist in which each PC client must have the decoding software loaded in order to play that type of content.
• The cable industry also is evaluating the support of additional codecs such as H.264. For a truly seamless, shared content offering, these various streaming and metadata formats should be addressed, as well.
Metadata: Sharing the same file format for describing metadata is not the biggest issue. (Translation software exists.) The biggest problem is that metadata itself differs in support of one device or application to another. (See, again, Figure 1.)
Even though metadata specifications have been defined to be extensible and flexible, metadata content is still very different. Look, for example, at the information that exists about a video on a VOD system vs. an Internet site such as blip.tv. We see some overlap for items such as video categories, but also many unique metadata tags.
Therefore, in order to share metadata among devices, metadata translators need pre-defined logic to understand the target applications. Today development is in progress to do just that—that is, to target specific Internet sites, specific VOD systems, and specific mobile devices to build appropriate metadata translators that will build file formats for the specific devices to be supported by the cable operator. This is a major first step in seamless video offerings.
Video codecs: The issue with the support of various video codecs is more complicated. Transcoding can be expensive, especially in building infrastructures that would encode “on the fly.”
Today, content is encoded in various formats upfront, and then the same content is stored multiple times in order to support various devices and codecs with the same piece of content. Storing multiple videos certainly is not efficient for storage, but automation tends to be easier because it caters to the old-fashioned concept of video silos for media delivery.
Various industry efforts are in progress to address multiple video formats. More cost-efficient transcoders are being built, even those that would allow for transcoding on the fly. With these devices, one high-quality piece of content could be stored, and as that content is requested for play-out, it would be transcoded into the appropriate format for the requesting client (for example, PC, mobile device or set-top box).
The automated management of various content formats and the routing through transcoders (if necessary) and supporting devices would require extensions of today’s system resource management software. Certainly efficient storage and streaming of multiple codecs is desired, but since we can always store multiple copies, the management aspect becomes a more urgent issue in seamless content on-demand offerings.
Resource management and Internet protocol multimedia subsystem (IMS): The common means for requesting an on-demand session and session changes in cable VOD is through the use of customized digital storage media command and control (DSM-CC) or real-time streaming protocol (RTSP). In addition, system and edge resource managers collaborate to assign and monitor resource capacity, control bandwidth paths, and set up and manage interactive sessions. These systems work quite effectively today and are being expanded to control broadcast capacity for switched digital as well.
As we expand beyond the digital video tier, however, there are other resource management technologies. IMS, for example, is a 3GPP architecture designed to offer multimedia and voice over IP (VoIP) services. It supports global system for mobile communications (GSM), wideband code division multiple access (WCDMA), CDMA2000, wideband local area network (WLAN), Wireline broadband and more. The idea of IMS is to enable the use of Web applications everywhere, including video streaming to various devices, across various network types.
Additionally, an IMS implementation could track the availability of a user’s various devices, mobile or fixed. A key part of IMS is the session management. One current development we’re seeing is the quiet integration of cable VOD resource managers into various IMS platforms. Using session initiation protocol (SIP), which is designed to address signaling and session management in a packet telephony network, cable-based resource managers can perform as a plug-in to IMS implementations, allowing currently installed VOD platforms to be managed in a common IMS platform with other services.
This quiet integration will go a long way toward the future of true content mobility. It tears down the silos of individual networks being managed by their own software and is a major step toward true unified network control.
PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM): With the introduction of PCCM, policy servers authorize and apply business rules to various applications in a DOCSIS environment. Certainly, business rules are quite applicable to applications such as VOD. As with system resource management, policy servers are currently being extended to support nonDOCSIS applications. As we see these integrations continue, it is likely that VOD and content sharing across various devices will have one common policy management body.
Network and plant impacts: Even with the buzz around fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), cable plant infrastructures are extremely solid. Having applications share content among devices is much more centered on networking than on the plant. The key is taking advantage of delivering content into various networks in a commonly managed way.
What that means is that changes are more likely at the headend than anywhere else. For example, a VOD server that is wired today into a quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) device must be wired into a switch, a trend that has been making progress in the last few years. That switched network certainly needs accessibility to the various service infrastructures, and additional gear, for example to support real-time transcoding if that comes to pass, will need to be wired in (unless such features are combined into other complementary devices as is also being proposed by some vendors).
The move from individual, service-based networks to more shared switched networks, however, is well underway. As that trend continues, content sharing among services is the logical next step.
Conditional access (CA) and licensing: An issue not to be forgotten is licensing and digital rights management. It’s nice to talk about content streaming and downloading all over the place, but ensuring the proper controls and rights is absolutely critical.
Again, who better to understand this than cable companies? CA is no longer about pay channels and parental control; it’s about sophisticated business rules around content types, security and licensing management. User-generated content is spurring significant conversation about new licensing controls, and user-to-user controls are a new hot topic in the licensing arena.
In the future of seamless content on demand, one likely scenario to prepare for is the support of multiple systems to support CA, licensing, encryption, copy protection and other digital rights management systems. Already we’re seeing multiple copy protection schemes and various additional controls from the headend software application side. In addition, we have streaming-based encryption and pre-encryption (encrypted prior to delivery into a regional or local VOD system). Many IP-based VOD technologies are incorporating new pre-encryption schemes, some of which are causing us to re-evaluate how we can insert dynamic content and advertising. The whole picture With all of the work in progress that’s been described here, certainly a true seamless application of content on various devices is possible.
Today we can see video and other types of content on devices technically, but the service itself has yet to be combined. Is it possible? Absolutely! We’re getting there by working through the issues such as common signaling, metadata conversion, shared digital rights management and back-end integration.
As the items described here come to fruition, we’ll see more and more integrated video services with a plethora of receiving devices. As the triple play enables more shared content and applications, new challenges will arise, such as content services across cable operator boundaries, especially as we cache and license content within a cable operator community.
But to take this one step at a time, think about configuring your pictures and videos on the Internet and defining the accessibility of what you’d like to authorize on various other devices. (See Figure 2.) Then, to return to our previous example, imagine your grandmother looking at a TV EPG as in Figure 3 and watching your vacation videos and pictures on her TV set. This technology is in the works, and with the right infrastructure, licensing, and management, the cable industry is poised for success in this seamless on-demand, video-everywhere future. Yvette Gordon-Kanouff is senior vice president of strategic planning for Seachange. Reach her at email@example.com.