Multiscreen: Efficiency an Ongoing Challenge

BTR_Feature_Art_Multiscreen It is the stuff of legends (at least to those in the cable industry): A generation ago, the idea of providing Internet service to homes was a new idea with an awesome upside. Instead of waiting around for standards and business processes to work themselves out - and we all know how quickly that happens - the cable entrepreneurial spirit shined through and a pre-standard generation of modems was rushed out.

The rest, as they say, is history - and one that still is unfolding.

The same thing is happening with multiscreen video, though it is an environment that is far more complex from both the technical and business perspectives. The first deployments of multiscreen technologies certainly were not tied together with duct tape and baling wire. But they just as clearly weren't as efficient as they could be to do three things: optimize monetization on current services, fluidly change and expand those services, and seamlessly deploy new ones.

That's beginning to change. In several areas that Broadband Technology Report will examine during May, the theme is that cable is starting on the road to creating stable, streamlined and efficient services. We will look at overall efficiency, the use of HTML5 on the industry's multiscreen road forward, the importance of advanced analytics and the way in which the hugely complex task of streamlining advertising insertion is being met.

The need to increase the efficiency of its multiscreen initiatives manifests itself in just about everything the industry currently is doing in the sector. While cable operators are greatly advantaged by being facilities based - owning the networks and the massive backend systems - such a position can prevent the industry from being as fast on its feet as the over-the-top players.

The difference between multiscreen and the early days of high-speed data is that today the industry is racing against an increasingly sophisticated foe, while everyone started at about the same place in high-speed data. A number of savvy and huge companies - Yahoo!, Google and Apple among them, as well as innovative and energetic startups - have been pushing IP video for years. The secret is to get fast enough to swim with the "pure play" OTT providers. "It's really about service velocity," said Jim MacDonald, the vice president of sales and marketing for UXP, a customization platform for operators. "They can't have long cycles; they need a toolkit to implement new services quickly and seamlessly."

A particularly obvious example of where efficiencies can be gained is in adaptive bitrate streaming, which is the heart of multiscreen. All players need to supporting different techniques if they want to provide services to the whole gamut of devices. The challenge is that to date the industry has done so by building parallel stacks for all the approaches.

The way around these wasteful parallel universes is to push the functionality from the end device back into the network. In this way, the heavy lifting - and, between optimizing for the specific ABR protocol and the use profile within it, there is a lot of it - can be done upstream. The good news is that ABR systems, like man and chimpanzees, share much DNA: They all are based on the H.264 video codec. This makes this great gain in efficiency feasible.

Concurrent's (NASDAQ:CCUR) eFactor platform does this. "[The system] waits for the consumer to make a request for content and, based on that, will detect the device and create the appropriate source on demand," said Jim Brickmeier, the firm's senior vice president of strategic marketing. "The advantage is saving on preparation costs. You don't have  to prepare all the formats."

Creating efficiencies in ABR is but one example, though a major one. In general, there is a hidden benefit to increasing efficiencies. Doing so often means moving from proprietary to standards-based technology. That didn't mean as much in terms of the cost of equipment and speed of innovation when the industry had its own unique platforms. In other words, whether a cable modem ran on proprietary protocols or DOCSIS, the products were sold by the same vendors to the same customers.

This changes in an IP world. In this realm, adoption of standards means that operators can tap into a much larger group of vendors, developers and related companies. "Legacy cable was a closed and proprietary technology," said Fabien Maisl, the director of marketing for Witbe, an advanced analytics company. "With IP, you can very easily use the same technology, equipment and service platform as the pure [IP-based OTT] plays and telcos are using."

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at

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