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Cloud PVR spreads over Europe

Europe is heading into the clouds for PVR with a spate of recent deployments. This suggests that, at last, network PVR is coming of age as the cloud-based shared infrastructure approach to TV service delivery makes it more cost-effective for pay TV operators.

Equally important, rights restrictions that have bogged down network PVR ever since its inception more than five years ago have eased, even though there is still some way to go before content owners and broadcasters totally embrace cloud-based recording of programs.

Operators now talk of cloud rather than network PVR to reflect the availability of flexible platforms allowing use of shared infrastructure for content storage and distribution. There is the option for pay TV operators to combine resources in their own networks, and third parties to deliver scalable services, including network PVR most cost-effectively. This was the case for one of the recent European deployments by Swiss Internet service provider Netstream, which selected Swedish video infrastructure company Edgeware for a wholesale IPTV package, to provide catch-up TV, pause-live TV, and VOD for pay TV operators in Switzerland.

This wholesale service is based on Edgeware’s Distributed Video Delivery Network (D-VDN) framework, a scalable platform for video delivery with in-built capability to record live TV channels in the network. It means operators using the Netstream wholesale package for their IPTV services can combine their own video servers with those in the Netstream cloud, making use of their existing infrastructure while also benefitting from the economies of scale of a larger network as they expand, according to Reto Kasser, chief technology officer at Netstream.

"Edgeware's Distributed Video Delivery Network solution enables us to offer superior scalability by hosting content in our own network while allowing our customers to deploy additional caching in their networks, which allows them to scale the service without the need for additional network bandwidth capacity," said Kasser.

Another recent European cloud PVR deployment was also in Switzerland, but with a different twist. As the country’s incumbent telecommunications operator, Swisscom was not short of infrastructure, but was getting fed up with the costs of supporting an aging population of home-based PVRs. Even though hard drives have much higher mean times between failures than they used to, the thrashing they receive recording and playing video means they wear out more quickly than in normal usage in desktop computing, and can become a significant cost for pay TV operators. This is one reason network or cloud PVR is attractive and led to Swisscom’s decision to deploy Alcatel-Lucent’s cloud platform.

The other big advantage of network PVR, one of growing importance in the OTT era, is enabling subscribers to access their content wherever they are from multiple screens. This also was a factor motivating Swisscom’s move, as its head of TV development Bruno Haug indicated.

“As part of the increasing demand for multiscreen services around the world, our customers want to record as much video as possible and access it not just on their television sets but also on other devices such as smart phones, tablets and PCs,” said Haug.

It is not clear whether Swisscom will charge for network PVR, but some other operators definitely see it as a way of gaining extra revenue as part of their TV Everywhere deployment. This was the case for Dutch Telco KPN, which took the view its IPTV customers would be willing to pay extra to access programming they had recorded themselves, from tablets and PCs while away from home. This was why KPN became Europe’s first major operator to launch network PVR functionality in July 2011, enabling customers to record up to six channels simultaneously, along with pause-live TV in the cloud, charging €5 per month extra.

A significant aspect of KPN’s deployment was that it stores each program just once in a central server. That way, if a second person decides to record content that has already been stored, the service merely has to set a pointer to the relevant storage location, rather than wasting capacity holding the same content twice. This is important because in the few earlier network PVR deployments, for example in the U.S., each user’s recorded content had to be stored separately to satisfy rights holders. In the U.S., this followed court proceedings resolved by allowing video to be stored in the network, but only if done separately for each user in dedicated storage. This rather ludicrous arrangement was meant to replicate the idea of home-based PVR, and ensure that pay TV operators were not deemed to be rebroadcasting content when played back from storage in the network. Logically, though, it makes no difference whether a user plays back content from a single common store or a dedicated one, and now rights holders are seeing the absurdity of this position, which merely wastes storage and energy unnecessarily.

Such considerations encouraged Finnish Telco DNA to take a 20-percent stake in Helsinki-based Booxmedia, a provider of the BooxTV service that enables online storage of TV content for delivery to smart phones and tablets. The BooxTV app for mobile devices provides access to a range of Finnish channels that can be recorded in the cloud, for later playback via the app.

Once rights issues have been finally resolved, network PVR is going to gain ground rapidly, with the major technology vendors increasingly betting on it for TV Everywhere to deliver on its promise of universal access to content. One of them is Motorola Mobility, now part of Google, which is on the verge of starting trials of a new cloud-based digital video recorder system that it believes has the potential to kick-start TV Everywhere. It will be the key to providing subscribers with access to all the content they want, including material they have recorded, from games consoles, notebook computers, tablets, and smart phones.

Motorola Mobility is using a version of the emerging High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) compression technology, which has the potential to reduce by half the size of a given HD video file, compared with MPEG4 AVC/H.264, for a specified level of quality. This means both that operators will be able to halve their storage bill for a network PVR services, and also save on bandwidth for delivery of the content. The latter is important because bandwidth constraints can also inhibit network PVR, particularly for satellite operators.

But, the most important aspect of the Motorola platform is its ability to use broadcast metadata to enable broadcasters or rights holders to specify which target devices their content can be played on. If, for example, they want to have content available just on main screen TVs, but not iPads or PCs, this can be specified in the metadata. According to Motorola, this is possible because of recent changes to key multichannel industry technical specifications that allow metadata to be added to video streams sent to subscribers. As a result, rights holders will begin to be able to control how their content is accessed.

This also allows operators or broadcasters to prevent subscribers from fast-forwarding through commercials. The real appeal here is that pay TV operators can have a unified platform that enables content to be delivered to all screens, via a single headend and network PVR system. It supports the rights requirements of different content owners, while uniting advert delivery, rather than fragmenting it across multiple platforms.