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Set top boxes offer broadcasters a means of offering a more tailored service
Boxing, Customers, Analysis, Broadcast Business

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Set top boxes offer broadcasters a means of offering customers a more tailored service

The experts

- Nathan Taylor, GM of technology/OTT & fixed content, Intigral
- John Illingworth, sales director, Middle East, Irdeto
- Paul Tzambazis, service line TV & media director, Ericsson Region Middle East
- Yousuf Al Saidi, CEO of Eurostar Group

Digital Broadcast: How do modern STBs work? What differentiates a linear box from a hybrid box?

Paul Tzambazis: The modern STB works by receiving a live feed via satellite, cable and or IP in MPEG2 and or MPEG4 formats, the content is then decrypted, decoded and then played out on the TV screen. In addition to that we have video on demand that can be played out from a local hard drive in the Set Top Box or via network storage available in the IP cloud network.

A hybrid STB allows TV service providers to offer more services to the end user irrespective of the delivery technology and allows the traditional direct to home TV service providers to also introduce new services over IP and DVB-S/Cable/DTT at the same time.

Yousuf Al Saidi: The term set top box (STB) refers to devices that connect a television to some external broadcasted signal source. The set top box demodulates the broadcasted signal into audiovisual content that can either be displayed on a monitor or captured and recorded. The broadcasted signal source can be sent via satellite, a cable connection, a telephone line, or an ordinary VHF or UHF antenna.

A set top box is an information appliance device that generally contains an IF-tuner input and displays output connected to a television set. It basically converts an external source of signal into content in a form that can then be displayed on the television screen or other display device.

It is a consumer electronics device or application software that records video in a digital format to a disk drive, USB flash drive, SD memory card, SSD or other local or networked mass storage device.

Digital Broadcast: What parameters do service providers and operator networks look for in a set top box?

Yousuf Al Saidi: Supporting decoding technique (MPEG2 or 4); hardware and software; scanning performance, channel storage capacity, DiSEqC support; audio/video support and storage capacity; CAS & CAM support; physical appearance.

Paul Tzambazis: When selecting an STB, the main parameters that operators look for are the chipset manufacturer capabilities, memory capabilities, security capabilities and, of course, price.

Digital Broadcast: How important are STBs for broadcasters?

John Illingworth: New technologies are making an impact on the content market, but STBs are still a core part of broadcasters’ ecosystems.

Low-cost Android tablets and dongles like Google’s Chromecast have brought IP streaming to the doorstep of traditional Pay TV operators, and the launch of the PS4 and the new Xbox One are driving a change in the set-up of the living room entertainment experience. With this, we may see the main screen rapidly transform into an OTT device, giving wider access to content on demand.

However despite this, worldwide digital TV STB shipment volume is expected to still achieve around 10.2% year-on-year growth in 2014 – underlining the continued importance of the STB.

For pay TV operators, this is highlighted by a number of points. In many markets, premium TV providers incorporate their own branded interface and special features in their boxes and see them as a key differentiator. Offering additional, attractive features through a sophisticated interface is an effective way to highlight the value of the operators’ packages.

In addition to this, STBs are a known and trusted technology for operators, with well-established transmission and security ecosystems, whereas alternative technologies, such as cloud-based PVR are still to some extent in their infancy, and dependent on ubiquitous and high levels of Internet bandwidth for sufficient quality of service, which is not yet the case in many markets.

Furthermore, demand for home networking is increasing, and STBs have an important role to play here. Leveraging the STB as a service “gateway”, operators can enable the secure sharing of premium content received on the STB or recorded on the PVR to connected devices in the home – both managed devices such as a set-top box in the bedroom, and unmanaged devices such as smartphones and tablets.

There is also an opportunity for operators to create a great media library interface to differentiate from game consoles and smart TVs, which will allow consumers to manage both paid-for content and personal media from the home gateway.

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Nathan Taylor: Very important. There is often talk about the “death of the STB” when in actual fact, in most markets, sales of STBs have increased in the last 2 years. The initial thought behind the death of the STB was due to the CE manufacturers all developing Connect TV platforms. Using these Connected TV platforms was appealing to Telco’s, Pay-TV providers and Broadcasters because it was seen as a path to offer interactive On-Demand services without the cost of developing and managing their own hardware, which can be particularly painful and costly.
Unfortunately this has not worked out, due to a number of factors including:

• Low Connectivity rates of these Devices; typically less than 30% in most markets
• In Home Distribution challenges; most TV’s only have Ethernet integrated which is not convenient, those that have Wi-Fi do don’t typically have adequate performance
• Divergent technology between CE vendors; an application built for one CE manufacturer won’t work on another CE manufacturer’s device without significant modification, which is costly to maintain
• Many different models and variants to support; TV manufacturers typically release 3+ different models of TV each year, and the performance of these can vary significantly. In addition the performance of a 2014 model TV can vary significantly from a 2013 model. This matrix of devices make it very costly to maintain
• Variance in user input devices; All TV manufacturers have different remote controls. This makes it very complicated to design a consistent way for customers to interact with a service and often forces the design down to the lowest common denominator
• Hard limitation of CE Development cycles; Manufacturers launch new TV sets every year. The launch of the devices has very hard deadlines that does not tolerate variance. This can be extremely difficult to align with complicated IPTV service development

Because of these challenges, TV’s continue to be mainly used as rendering devices. The role of the STB has begun to diverge. Pay TV providers are going for high end media gateway STB’s that act as a central point (In-Home Cloud) within the household, and are capable of complicated functions like transcoding content into formats that can be viewed on companion devices like tablets, mobile phones and PC’s.

Telco’s are going in the opposite direction. They are moving capabilities like recording and transcoding into the cloud. This is allowing them to strip down the components of the STB into a low cost, small form factor device. It is likely that within two years this device will be a HDMI stick, which is slightly bigger than a USB thumb drive that will cost less than USD $50 for customers to buy.

Broadcasters are behind and are still experimenting with technology such as HbbTV which uses information embedded within the broadcast stream to activate applications which are embedded within connected TV’s. This approach will run into the same issues that telco’s and Pay-TV providers have faced with the connected TV platforms and also tend to be very limited in terms of the functionality that the applications can provide.

Digital Broadcast: Is the customer’s appetite for Internet access and apps built into the STB increasing? Are smart boxes ready to overtake the conventional?

Paul Tzambazis: End customers in the home expect the set top box to be their main device for consuming TV and video on demand only. Customers are using their smart mobile devices and tablets to connect to the internet while watching TV via a STB on the main screen at the same time.

This is also supported from Ericsson’s 2013 TV Consumer Lab study, which points out the importance of services in TV and video experiences for users. In the bottom 5 results from the study were, ‘Personalised apps and widgets on top of TV programs’ and ‘Apps on my standard TV’.

Yousuf Al Saidi: Yes, smart boxes can easily overtake because of smart applications like YouTube, weather forecast, games, video /audio player and lots more applications.

Digital Broadcast: Why would a consumer pay for a subscription to use a set top box when ‘Smart TVs’allow direct access to internet content, such as (OTT), for free?

Paul Tzambazis: An STB subscription usually consists of premium content being available from the TV service provider, which is also made available for direct access via the internet for OTT consumption. OTT content available on the internet is usually free or linked to a main premium STB subscription and hence why a consumer pays for the STB subscription.

Yousuf Al Saidi: A number of reasons: Guaranteed quality of service in subscription is always available; consumers can watch most of the channels for free, even in traditional STBs, similar to OTT, but there is a limit on channels that you can watch through OTT.

To watch paid channels over OTT, consumers need to pay for the OTT subscription and for the internet service provider too (which increases the cost and it’s expensive compared to STB subscription where no internet is required).

In OTT, the consumer may experience the buffering while watching the video content due to network issues.

Digital Broadcast: What security issues should broadcasters be aware of and address with respect to STBs?

John Illingworth: Broadcasters must ensure that they are adequately protecting all of their content, be it live sports with a short monetisation window or conventional programming. In a multi-device world, securing content across a range of devices such as tablet and mobile presents new issues in addition to STB piracy such as control word sharing, most notably the threat of internet redistribution.

The ability to be able to rapidly and remotely update security, be it through a smart card or software conditional access technology is imperative for STB security, and allows operators to respond rapidly to piracy attacks.

Furthermore, as STBs themselves become increasingly connected with hybrid broadcast and IP connectivity, operators need to ensure that not only their valuable content, but also the device platform itself, is effectively protected from malware.

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Digital Broadcast: Are OTT operators looking at producing native apps to run on STBs?

Yousuf Al Saidi: Yes, it is available in most of the advanced STBs.

Paul Tzambazis: Yes, we are starting to see OTT operators creating native apps on STBs, especially on the STBs that are running standard operating environments, especially on the Android based STBs.

Digital Broadcast: Are STBs both a threat and an opportunity to more traditional broadcasters?

John Illingworth: STBs are the de facto standard device for operators, offering a tried and tested method for delivering services to their subscribers. As such they present a great opportunity to quickly set up new customers, as well as offer value-add services such as the recording features that appear in many STB units.

What broadcasters must be aware of are changes in consumer consumption habits. The rise of multiscreen devices is well documented, with Irdeto consumer research into GCC viewing preferences finding that 40% of respondents surveyed would prefer to watch TV, movies or sport through internet TV in the future as this will allow them to consume the content on a wider range of devices.

Relying exclusively on the STB may therefore become an issue for operators longer-term as consumers look to use new technologies to watch content – instead it should be seen as part of a fulsome strategy that takes in multiscreen as well.

Nathan Taylor: The shift in consumer’s consumption habits towards on-demand content is a huge threat to the broadcasters’ traditional business model. This change in consumptions habit will accelerate due to two main factors:
• The improved reliability in broadband bandwidth due to the deployment of fibre networks and 4G LTE mobile broadband networks
• The evolution of the STB to a low cost platform will significantly increase the size of the footprint of devices that telco’s and OTT Streaming device manufacturers (e.g. Roku, Amazon, Google, and Apple) control. These devices allow customers to easily access On-Demand content on their TV screen.

These drivers threaten to completely change the value of the TV advertising slots and as a result will redefine the operating model of traditional broadcasting.
 

How does conditional access work? How can it protect operator profits from being pilfered by piracy?

Yousuf Al Saidi: Conditional access or conditional access system is the protection of content by requiring certain criteria to be met before granting access to the transmitted content. This is achieved by a combination of scrambling and encryption.

The data stream is scrambled with a 48-bit secret key, called the control word. Knowing the value of the control word at a given moment is of relatively little value, as under normal conditions, content providers will change the control word several times per minute. The control word is generated automatically in such a way that successive values are not usually predictable.

In order for the receiver to unscramble the data stream, it must be permanently informed about the current value of the control word.

Encryption is used to protect the control word during transmission to the receiver: the control word is encrypted as an entitlement control message (ECM). The CA subsystem in the receiver will decrypt the control word only when authorised to do so; that authority is sent to the receiver in the form of an entitlement management message(EMM). The EMMs are specific to each subscriber, as identified by the smart card in his receiver, and are issued much less frequently than ECMs, usually at monthly intervals.

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Benefits of STBs
Traditional broadcasters can seek to maximise the benefits of STBs in a number of ways, according to John Illingworth, sales director Middle East, Irdeto

“STBs can provide a strong level of content security. To really maximise their effectiveness, operators should ensure that their security solution is fully updateable through renewable CA, either smartcard or software-based,” he says.

“Software CA can also provide additional benefits such as massively reducing logistical complexity by cutting card swaps and even helping operators achieve up to 50% savings on total cost of ownership compared to a smartcard-based solution.”

He adds that STBs also offer operators the ability to rapidly enable home networking use cases through the STB gateway and allow a full set of consumer devices to be used in connection with content, be it live, video-on-demand or catch up. “In this case, traditional broadcasters are in a great position as they already have the infrastructure in place for quality delivery end to end,” he says.

“Operators should also make sure that they are maintaining a consistent user experience across STBs and other devices via both broadcast and IP networks. Using a Cloud UI can be beneficial here, providing a familiar, easily updateable service to consumers while lowering costs.”

Nathan Taylor adds that broadcasters must adapt to succeed in the on-demand world by finding a partner who is not looking to compete with their advertising business model and has assets and skills that complement the broadcasters’ weaknesses.

Fast facts
- 40% of GCC respondents expressed a preference for internet TV
- 10.2% Expected year on year growth of worldwide digital TV STB shipment volume in 2014

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