Cable's Cloudy Future

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Boston - Ciao, Old Cable: The days of services being anchored to specific pieces of operator-supplied hardware are fast receding.
The industry has moved swiftly to deliver an increasing amount of content and applications from "the cloud" - the buzzword du jour that simply refers to any network-delivered service. (TV Everywhere, available over any Internet connection, is a cloud service.)

At a high level, the architecture provides several clear advantages. MSOs can deliver video services to "virtual" set-tops, which could be tablets or smart TVs, over any Internet- protocol network. And they can modify their services - and make changes - far more quickly than with traditional set-top-based guides.

Multichannel News May 28 cover image

"The cloud allows you to innovate at a faster pace," Comcast Cable president and CEO Neil Smit said, speaking at the 2012 Cable Show last Tuesday (May 22). "It's a mix of technology fueling it and consumers saying, ‘Now that we've gotten that, we want more.' "

The cable industry is even virtualizing wireless data access, with a plan among the top five MSOs to let customers log in to 50,000-plus Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas across the U.S. using any mobile device or laptop (see "Wi-Fi Everywhere,").

Vendors, naturally, are eager to fill the needs of the video-everywhere providers.

TiVo, for example, introduced a device for its MSO customers to provide in-home streaming to tablets and smartphones and "sideload" DVR content to go (see Platforms). And Motorola Mobility was talking up a "DVR Everywhere" system that would fling recorded content to devices inside or outside the home, while preserving ad rules (see page 16).

COMCAST IN THE CLOUD

In a concrete example of how cable is using the cloud today, Comcast is finally getting its next-generation TV service - with a spruced-up interface, personalization features and new interactive apps - out of the clouds and into customers' hands.

The operator said here last week that it will launch Xfinity TV on the X1 Platform, along with a new remote-control app, starting in Boston and followed by other major markets in the coming weeks.

The MSO touted the X1 platform - which Brian Roberts debuted at last year's Cable Show as Project Xcalibur - as a "cloud-based" service that combines interactive, customized apps and IP-delivered social-media features with traditional TV services.

In the past year, the operator has made 400 software updates to the X1 guide, according to Smit. "We're no longer doing a guide once every 18 months," he said. For example, according to Smit, with the X1 guide Comcast was able to add in movie ratings from website Rotten Tomatoes in about two weeks.

Initially, the X1 service will be delivered using a six-tuner gateway manufactured by Pace, available to new Xfinity triple-play customers with HD DVR service at no additional cost. X1 has a Web-like user interface that provides unified search across TV listings, DVR recordings and VOD, as well as built-for-TV apps for social networking, music, radio, sports, traffic and weather.

Comcast will eventually bring the X1 personalized interactive program guide to nearly 8 million existing settop boxes and other platforms, including IP set-tops, chief technology officer Tony Werner said.

The operator plans to deploy the X1 guide and applications to set-top boxes based on Broadcom's BCM7420 system- on-a-chip. The MSO has 7 million to 8 million such boxes in the field, which conform to its RNG 150 gateway specification, Werner said, adding, "It remains to be seen how fast we move on those."

Comcast is able to relatively quickly bring the X1 experience to other platforms because of the cloud-based architecture, Werner noted. The guide uses an "HTML-like" presentation layer, with the Tru2way specification handling underlying services. "The real magic is the 65 to 70 systems we built on the back end," to handle everything from authentication to personalization, Werner said.

With the launch of X1, Comcast is introducing a new companion X1 remote-control app for iPhone and iPod touch devices, which will let users interact with the guide using gestures - for example, by "swiping" their device to page through content selections or change the channel. The app includes a virtual keyboard to search video choices on their TVs and provides other features.

Comcast will still provide a conventional TV remote with X1, which the operator said will offer greater responsiveness and does not require a line-of-sight connection to the set-top.

Smit said Comcast has a speech-recognition service, currently in beta, that it plans to introduce with X1 either later this year or early next.

In a project related to X1, Comcast provided a preview of a personalized "dashboard" user interface - spanning TVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones - that combines up-todate information with customers' Xfinity TV, voice, Internet and home-security services.

Code-named Project Dayview, the dashboard is scheduled to be available to Comcast subscribers later this year. The service displays alerts, appointments, texts, e-mail, voicemail and DVR data, and aggregates updates from social media, news and local information sources for updates on traffic and weather.

VIDEO ESCAPE ARTISTS

In another cloud-based initiative that promises to further TV Everywhere, Verizon Wireless and Comcast last week debuted a new mobile-video search portal dubbed "viewdini."

Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead, who announced viewdini at the Cable Show general session last Tuesday (May 22), said the service will take advantage of the capacity of the carrier's LTE network, which covers 258 markets and more than two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Viewdini will provide video from a range of content providers, including Comcast Xfinity, Hulu Plus, mSpot and Netflix. Additional partners, including Verizon FiOS TV, are expected to be added soon, the company said.

On the panel, Mead said the idea behind viewdini has been kicked around for about two years, and was spurred by what Verizon Wireless saw as insatiable demand for capacity.

"We saw the capacity of the LTE network ... saw the possibilities, the hunger of consumers to get this information whenever, wherever they want," Mead said.

On the other hand, Verizon Wireless earlier this month announced that it was eliminating unlimited data-usage plans. With viewdini promising thousands of video options, customers may find themselves bumping against their monthly usage caps in fairly short order.

Vevo president and CEO Rio Caraeff, who also spoke on the panel, said the future of content - games, movies, TV and music - is quickly changing. He noted that he may have scads of content available on his computer hard drive at home, but it becomes worthless to him when he is out of the house.

"It's not about owning anything. It's about accessing everything," Caraeff said. "We're going through a generational shift, from a generation that values ownership to a generation that values access."

WHO NEEDS A SET-TOP?

Cablevision Systems spotlighted a new app at the show built using HTML5 and JavaScript technologies running on Internet-connected TVs from Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. The software provides full access to live TV and an on-screen guide - without any set-top required.

The smart TV demo uses the same interface as the one the MSO deployed earlier this year for its Optimum App for Laptop, which allows access to live TV and guide listings on PCs and Macs. A Cablevision spokesman said there is "no consumer deployment timetable yet" for the connected- TV apps.

According to Sam Chang, general manager of LG's Innovation Development Group in San Jose, Calif., the app demo with Cablevision was developed in just a few weeks.

The Cablevision app "uses common Web technologies to deliver a new user interface, full EPG [electronic program guide] and secure streaming of live linear TV to the LG Smart TV, needing only a single authorized cable modem," Chang said.

Cablevision currently offers customers in its New York footprint access to live TV apps for PCs and Macs, as well as iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices. To use the software, a customer must have a subscription to iO TV and a Cablevision-supplied modem. (If a customer is not an Optimum Online customer, Cablevision will provide a specialized modem that allows access to the streaming TV apps but not the Internet.)

Elsewhere at the Cable Show, in the CableNEXT section of CableLabs' CableNet pavilion, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications showed various TV apps for tablets, PCs and game consoles (see "Translation Please" in Platforms). In its demo, TWC connected an iPad running its TWC TV app to two HDTVs via an HDMI cable.
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Mike Farrell contributed to this report.

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