A trend has begun to emerge among multichannel video programming distributors (MVPD) to stem the tide of “cord cutters” that continue to cancel their subscriptions in favor of on-demand services like those from Apple, Netflix, Roku and others. The solution, many feel, is to give customers what they want: a lower monthly TV service bill that allows them to pick and choose the programs they want to watch, and live broadcasts from local TV stations.
To date, these IP-based, OTT services have not offered local channels, but that’s now changing. Canby Telcom (a telephone cooperative in the Canby, OR, area that offers IP-based digital TV, voice and broadband services) is now adding a Roku channel — via an on-screen app — that, once they are authenticated, allows users to watch the local signals of Portland, OR, stations along with the vast array of programs available (upwards of 700 to date) to Roku player users. Canby executives adamantly claim that they are using a private network, not the open Internet, to deliver content, and they restrict local broadcast content for distribution solely within their DMA.
At launch, the local streams of KATU (ABC), KOIN (CBS), KGW (NBC), KOPB and OPB Plus (PBS), KPTV (Fox), KRCW, and KPDX (Fox) will not be viewable on any other device.
That’s a big distinction from services like Aereo, which use a personal RF antenna and the unrestricted public Internet. Or, as Canby says on its website: “We are a facilities-based MVPD with direct connectivity to our subscribers. Aereo is a virtual MVPD.”
Mary Shepard, manager of product development and marketing at Canby Telcom, said when designing the “EZVideo PayTV Lite” service — which will go live in June for $14.95/month to its high-speed (10 Mb/s) Internet customers — the first step was to amend retransmission agreements they already had in place with the local stations to include the new delivery model and pay fees per subscriber. As part of the EZVideo channel, Canby will lease, install and manage the Roku box, as it does for its IPTV set-top boxes.
The service is comprised of H.264 encoding technology from Elemental Technologies, called the Elemental Live video processing system, which converts the broadcasters’ MPEG-2 telecasts to multi-bit rate Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) channels. The eight local live broadcast channels are packaged into an authenticated channel on the Roku platform, which is then delivered by Canby over a secure broadband connection to Canby subscribers who have Roku players.
“We’re delivering channels via HLS over a private network; we’re not streaming these local channels over the Internet,” Shepard said. “Our set-top box, in this case, happens to be a Roku player. There was a definite learning curve that we needed to go through with the local broadcasters to make them understand the difference here and what we’re attempting to do. In concept, it’s really not different than our existing IPTV service. It’s using the same headend equipment; we’ve just added an Elemental encoder to convert signals to HLS. So, my dilemma today is getting broadcasters to understand what a Roku box means to their business.”
Keith Wymbs, vice president of marketing at Elemental, said Canby is using an RF antenna at its main facility to capture the broadcasts. Then it demodulates the signals and ingests them into Elemental’s Live encoding and streaming software. The software then uses adaptive bit-rate algorithms to allocate the required bandwidth for each channel to be displayed on a Roku box. The Elemental software is loaded on a server at Canby’s facility. (Elemental will showcase the new channel at the Cable Show/NCTA 2013 June 10-12 in Washington, D.C., in the CableNet Pavilion.)
Shepard said it has taken Canby a mere two months to take the new EZVideo service to market, and since the Roku box is widely available in retail outlets and is well-known in the general public, she anticipates the uptake will be significant. She added that Roku offers an easy to deploy SDK and customizable user interface. The potential is there to move to other on-demand platforms in the future, as the Elemental software can accommodate all types of streaming and close network content delivery.
“We recognize that Roku has sold over 5 million boxes, so it’s a platform that has wide reach and is growing,” she said. “Even senior citizens have Roku players in their houses. Honestly, we’re losing customers of our digital TV service to cord cutters, and I know our competitors are, so we as an operator have to adapt and retain those subscribers any way we can. Why not embrace this new trend and monetize it.”
Time Warner Cable currently offers a similar Roku channel, as part of a much larger IPTV service that includes local broadcast channels within the markets it serves.