Tech Roundtable 2017: Video

Multichannel, multiplatform, multiscreen

The 2017 Tech Roundtable Panelists
Kevin Hart, executive vice president and chief product and technology officer, Cox Communications
Dan Hennessy, chief architecture architect, Liberty Global
Jay Rolls, chief technology officer and senior vice president, Charter Communications
JR Walden, senior vice president of technology and CTO, Mediacom Communications; and 
Tony Werner, president of technology and product, Comcast Cable

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MCN: What are your video priorities?
Tony Werner: Fundamentally, I only have one video priority, and that’s to provide our customers with the best, most dynamic video experience available anywhere, and to keep evolving that experience ahead of our competition. Everything else that I might call a “priority” is really just a tactic to achieve that goal. 

In terms of delivering on that objective, my focus is on continuing to evolve X1. On the business side, we’ve been driving to get X1 in the hands of as many of our customers as possible. At the end of the second quarter of 2017, 55% of our video customers had X1, compared to 40% at the same time a year earlier. We’re making that push because we know that when our customers have X1 they are happier, they watch more TV, and they’re more likely to stay with us. I see the responsibility of my team as making sure that X1 stays on the leading edge of innovation.  Since we last gathered for Expo, we’ve made a number of major improvements, including adding Netflix and YouTube to X1. Whatever video our customers enjoy, we want them to be able to enjoy it on our platform.

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With X1, we have become an aggregator of aggregators, bringing all the best content together in one place, and making it easy and fun for our customers to search and discover it. To that end, we continue to really drive the evolution of our X1 Voice Remote and the cloud-based Natural Language Processing platform that powers it. This is a place where our AI and Machine Learning teams have really helped us refine our ability to deliver highly accurate, contextual results to our customers. 

Our ongoing transition to all-IP is another tactic that’s going to help us deliver even better video experiences.  It’s behind the scenes so our customers won’t notice it immediately, but it really creates more flexibility to deliver next-generation video experiences.

Finally, I’m focused on providing our customers a really great range of choices for how they interact with our video experience, whether that’s in or out of the home, on second and third screens, and across devices, I want our team to build technologies that meet customers where they are.

Dan Hennessy: Our priorities are simple: Lose the artificial boundaries between different screens, and focus on a seamless, contextual video service that gets a customer to what they want to watch (or what they don’t yet know they want to watch) on their screen of choice, as quickly as possible. Key to that is simplicity of the user journey and experience, irrespective of the screen type.

In order to achieve that vision, we’ve been on a journey for some years now, to take control of the key parts of the video service delivery chain -- in terms of design, development and integration.

We are currently in the midst of standardizing and virtualizing our video backoffice, across our footprint, to take control of the embedded software developments on our customer premises  equipment (set-top box middleware). This will ensure that we have continuous integration and delivery capabilities to deliver new features and performance optimizations, across our core Horizon video services.

Some confuse taking control with doing it alone. In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. While we are indeed developing video back office we still value many value technology suppliers and partners in that back office, and that will remain true. On the embedded software development side, we work with select partners to provide us with hundreds of software engineers, across Europe. Above and beyond controlling the velocity and quality of development, the key for us, on the embedded software development side, is being able to contribute to and leverage the development contribution and scale of the RDK community. This is where we truly see the benefits of scale and innovation.

Beyond our platform focus, we’re also very focused on bringing more and better programming with access in and out the home and we continue to launch exclusive new channels such as Ziggo Sports in the Netherlands and MySports in Switzerland and tightly integrate services such as Netflix to our core platform.

Jay Rolls: Ultimately, our priority is to give a full, modern video experience to our customers, without foisting things upon them. We don’t want to be the one who says, “Oh, you want this new thing, let me send out a tech who spends hours ripping out your equipment and putting in new, unfamiliar technologies.” Also, we want to give our customers the flexibility to watch what they’re going to watch anyway -- and that specifically includes premium, over-the-top video services, like Netflix, which we integrated earlier this year.

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We continue to build a common CPE platform, which we call the Worldbox -- which does come with an integrated, 16x4 DOCSIS 3.0 modem. So, it can do QAM signals just fine, but is also a very adept IP device.

And, last not least, I’ll mention our work on a converged video core. That’s about harmonizing and making common our video distribution, for linear and VOD, and then converting those streams at the network’s edge -- to be received in the right format for the screen that will display it.

JR Walden: Fundamentally, we're focused in the near term [developing] an IP video-centric platform. The answer to why is because it's more efficient, the set-top boxes cost less and it gives us more opportunity and flexibility on the guide side. But it's more than that. We became convinced a few years ago that being a content aggregator, in the traditional sense, is not a business model that pays off for us anymore. 

We don't see that changing, so we can imagine a scenario where I don't think we get out of the video business entirely... but in transitioning to IP video, and by adopting platforms like TiVo — because it’s so specifically friendly to the OTT world — it moves us out of the video aggregation acquisition business.

Maybe we move into the mini-bundle aggregation business. But we get out of this larger video aggregation business, which is not sustainable in the long run. Focus more on where we’re good, have value and can protect ourselves — which is delivery of service, and equipment, for customers who want it. We can see a future where some customers who wish to be cord-cutters will decide to buy a Roku or an Apple TV and they'll buy Netflix and Sling TV package. But it's a big hassle. 

And much like we've done with our WiFi's just less work to get it from us. You could see us providing IP set-top boxes, providing managed, guaranteed delivery of video and facilitating -- we do this with Netflix and others -- customers signing up for those kinds of video packages. At the end of the day, the only video we really aggregate might be the local broadcasters with a broadcast tier, or we support an antenna-driven solution, or a regional sports tier that we support. But the rest of it might be that we sell DirecTV Now or HBO Now and Sling TV and Netflix and Amazon --- we'll just facilitate all of those solutions if you want it.

If you want convenience and you want support, then we're the guys to call. And you'd pay an extra $10 to $20 for that convenience, but for a percentage of the customer we have now and perhaps more [later] that would be a great deal. The rest, if they want to cut the cord or go to something else, that's okay because we'll provide the high-speed data as well. 

This is where we differ from perhaps the Comcast strategy. We don't imagine in the long run that we're going to compete with all of those guys. 

MCN: What does it take, technologically, to onboard premium OTT apps and services (e.g. Netflix, YouTube, etc.)

TW: It’s a pretty complex process, with lots of moving parts, so I’ll focus on the piece that keeps my team up at night. To really add value to our customers’ experience, we wanted to truly integrate Netflix into X1, and that took quite a bit of work. If you use Netflix on X1 today, you’ll see Netflix content in our discovery menus, and you can search it with the voice remote. Making all that function seamlessly, and delivering it in way that both Comcast and Netflix could be proud of, was not easy, but I think the payoff was well worth it.

Kevin Hart: [OTT integration on set-tops is] on our near-term roadmap. From a technical standpoint, we're ready to ingest some of the OTT apps, and the actual app integration isn't too terribly difficult with OpenStack integration, etc. The longer pole in the tent, at least with the first instance is some of the behind-the-scenes back office work that needs to be done around subscriber information, customer records, billing and things of that nature. Once that's set up after the first instance, it's relatively simple and straightforward. 

DH: The challenge for us and others is the sheer range of OTT apps and services, which have a variety of requirements. Our ability to influence them varies depending on who the partner is, and, of course, the nature of the commercial relationship.

Integration can be as simple as an HTML5-based app, with standard content security functionality, to bespoke apps and services that we may choose to fully integrate into our platform, in terms of search and recommendation, and personalization.

The key here in terms of our back office and embedded software developments is that we remain open in terms of APIs, and that we support the multitude of security and media standards out there -- and that we stay that way, so that when 3rd party apps are updated, our customers are able to benefit from those updates, and the core functions are not impacted.

MCN: As the triple play moves to IP, what’s the technological work of it, for video? Is it multicast? Unicast? What’s the status of your IP video transition?

KH: We're well down the path on an IP offering.  All of our second screen [apps] are IP-enabled, all of our video-on-demand is IP-enabled. We've got the building blocks in place and we've got a program underway to further create the road to all-IP TV. 

Some of the key things that need to be put into place ...we're working on cloud DVR and some of the nuances around ad-insertion, blackouts, some of those capabilities just to replicate the existing experience need to be baked into the IP video framework. We're well on our way. The majority of this will likely be unicast just based on the nature of what people are watching. Multicast is perfect for a Super Bowl and [major TV] events, but we're definitely leaning toward unicast. 

JR: There’s a huge amount of foundational work happening with IP, both behind the scenes and front-and-center. Most everything on our network is being done on IP. We’ve been working to harden some of the all-IP components, like the CDN (Content Distribution Network), so that it’s truly capable of being a replacement for QAM distribution.

As far as unicast and multicast -- unicast services will be the first focus for IP delivery, and by that I mean file-based assets, versus live and linear. Even our broadcast, linear IP streams are multicast to the edge of the network, where the edge caches, live. Once you hit the edge, it’s unicast to each receiving device. I don’t think either will leapfrog the other, or that we’ll go to some hugely complex multicast environment. It’ll be somewhere in between.

DH: This transition has started for us across the video business, in terms of how we acquire, process and distribute content to our customers.

From a distribution point of view, we have quite a number of tools available to us in this transition. Whether it’s re-farming spectrum across the network to ensure the right balance between narrowcast and broadcast, or scaling our CDN infrastructure to accommodate increasing demand.