• Harmony
  • Presence
  • Reliability

Set-top box virtualization should increase service velocity and subscriber reach for pay-TV operators while simultaneously reducing capex and opex, according to a presentation by ActiveVideo at the “CDN World Summit/TV In The Cloud” conference. 

At the event, Sachin Sathaye, vice president, product marketing for ActiveVideo, drew a distinction between the benefits of two different approaches: virtualization of STB functionality entirely in the cloud; and “native operator app” approaches that merely shift resources from the STB to connected TVs and other devices on the customer premises.

Using a formula that quantifies vSTB as a function of service velocity and subscriber reach –

vSTB = f { (# of services X # of Subscriber Reach)/STB (# of CPU X #GPU X # Memory X # of Browsers) }

Sathaye showed how the definition is supported by deployment examples that are underway with pay-TV operators in Europe and the United States.

Modern pay-TV set-top boxes historically have included an array of computing resources such as Computer Processing Units (CPU), Graphics Processing Units (GPU), Memory and Frame Buffers, as well as Browsers and Rendering Engines.  These capabilities increasingly are being integrated into connected TVs and other devices. “When the pay-TV operator writes a native app for a connected TV,” Sathaye says, “it is still using the same resources that would have been in the STB — thus none of the functions are virtualized.”

Moreover, he says, the lessons of the past five years show how even the most expensive and powerful of device-based solutions quickly can become incapable of supporting advanced user experiences. During that time, rapid advances in CPE horsepower, application frameworks and browser technology have outpaced the 10-year product lifecycle for designing and deploying new pay-TV CPE.

Sathaye showed how the vSTB formula produces unsatisfactory results when applied to modern IP set-top boxes and connected TVs, both of which have high resource costs and lengthy time-to-market for service availability and subscriber reach.  Remote browsing devices such as Chromecast, he said, rely on browsing and processing capabilities of a PC that is not virtual, but is located on the customer premises.

Optimal results are achieved when the functionality of the set-top box is truly virtualized, using CPUs, GPUs, memory and browser technologies in the cloud to enable complex services on any device – from low-cost dongles and “hockey puck” boxes to existing STBs and connected TVs.  Sathaye pointed out that cloud-based virtualization enables availability of high-end services at scale without the cost or time-to-market of deploying new devices or writing content for multiple makes and models of devices.

In showing how a cloud-based approach maximizes service velocity and subscriber reach while minimizing cost, Sathaye cited the following examples:

Charter Communications has developed and launched an HTML5 cloud-based guide in approximately one year, is delivering it to existing set-top boxes without browsers rather than investing in new $300 STBs. Charter expects full deployment across 7 million STBs by the end of 2015.
Cablevision is moving forward on plans to become the first pay-TV operator to bring HTML5 ads – including existing Web ads – to existing STBs, without requiring a browser in the box.  Cablevision has announced plans to roll the service out to its 7 million STB service footprint beginning in the current quarter.

Liberty Puerto Rico has used cloud-based virtualization to create a trend-driven, personalized user interface that allows viewers to see what the community at large is watching.  The “Social Content Navigator” incorporates two key innovations: Use of social viewing trends and program metadata to rank channels by real-time popularity, and creation of mosaics of eight tiles of live video on single-tuner STBs.  Liberty Puerto Rico expects the Social Content Navigator to be available across its full footprint by the end of 2014.

Ziggo has become the first operator to remove the set-top box from the equation, creating an HTML5 “Streaming Graphical User Interface,” or SGUI, that is delivered to CI Plus 1.3 modules inserted into customers’ TVs.  Virtualizing the STB in the cloud has enabled Ziggo to offer full on-demand and catch-up TV functionality without the need for separate devices, cabling or multiple remote controls.  The service was rolled out to Ziggo’s full footprint in six months, and last year helped the operator achieve ARPU growth of nearly 6 percent.

Liberty Global’s UPC Hungary system is delivering the full YouTube experience to existing STBs. The virtual STB approach enabled content experience (UI), content delivery (video format) and content security (DRM) all to be handled in the cloud.  UPC Hungary recently announced that YouTube viewership is exceeding one million minutes per day, and that the average length of engagement is 45 minutes.  UPC Hungary also has announced the intention to make the service available in other countries in the near future.
Deutsche Telekom’s T-Labs has successfully completed limited field trials with set-top box virtualization, rendering user experiences in the cloud and delivering them to an HDMI dongle.  Deployment is expected in the near future.

“Each of these operators has brought or is bringing services to market at scale much faster than they could with a high-end STB or an app on a connected TV,” said Sathaye.  “Their success is proving to the market that virtualizing STB functionality in the cloud can not only reduce cost for pay-TV operators, but also can provide the service velocity and subscriber reach benefits that can significantly improve their competitive positioning.”