All Boxed up [DigitalProductionME.com]
(DigitalProductionME.com Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Set top boxes are found in every home and are responsible for bringing our favourite TV channels to our TV sets. But how do they really work, and how have they changed in recent times?
A set top box (STB) is an appliance that connects to a television set and an external source signal. It then turns the input source signal into a form that can be displayed as content on a display.
According to John Ive, director of business development and technology, IABM, a television set is not able to accommodate every possible type of input source, like cable, terrestrial, satellite, IPTV, internet etc. This is where set top boxes come in. The STBs can be connected to a particular type of input source signal and decode it for display on the TV screen.
More advanced STBs are also able to relay signals back for specific service requests.
Fady Younes, client director, Cisco, U.A.E. says: "Digital set-tops can also communicate back to the service provider's network in order to deliver VoD, DVR, and other video services."
Shan Jethwani, executive director of Eurostar group explains: "The way things work with satellite STB tuners is that they receive an IF (Intermediate Frequency) signal between 950MHz to 2150MHz from the LNB (Low Noise Block down-converter) and passes it on to a demodulator, which receives the signal and converts it into binary format, after an error check.
This binary signal then gets routed to a de-multiplexer where audio, video and data are isolated from the signal and sent to the appropriate decoder."
A set top box will typically demodulate and decode the incoming signal and then pass it to the display as a baseband signal. In recent times the standard interface between the set-top-box and display is HDMI.
Ive adds: "The input to the box may come from an aerial (terrestrial), dish (satellite) or coax (cable). In addition a phone line or network may be connected to provide two way communication, authorisation and/or Internet access. The set-top-box may also provide access control with a subscription necessary to receive the services. This control may be achieved by a plug-in smart card or network managed."
There are many different types of set top boxes. Most are specific to particular input sources that they are built to decode. This could be either cable, satellite, IPTV, web-based or terrestrial. Some STBs have storage and recording facilities, although these do tend to be costlier than their barebones counterparts.
The retail price of STBs becomes a consideration when there is free-to-air TV, and a variety of manufacturers making STBs to target that market. These manufacturers sell different devices which vary based on the different features in the STB. This in turn affects the prices at which these devices are sold for in retail stores.
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Another growing area in the STB market is the hybrid-box sector, which Younes says is "designed to decode two different digital streams. For instance, in Europe hybrid boxes can decode the digital signal from a service provider as well as the digital signal that is delivered over the air.
Ive goes a step further and explains that though a hybrid box can decode a combination of input signals, the reason for its growing popularity is the ability of some hybrid boxes to connect to the Internet.
He says: "As the demand for interactivity increases, together with a desire to access Video on Demand content, the hybrid box presents the different services as a coherent interface with a single menu. Therefore live programming may come in via terrestrial broadcasting with video downloads or access to other video content achieved through the Internet. Having a single interface is more consumer friendly and in addition, specific interactive applications can be developed."
There are a variety of STBs that also come with Android based operating systems, allowing
users to connect with other Android devices and stream media to a TV, or even perform other functions like surfing the internet and using different apps.
Eurostar's Jethwani speaks about an Android-based STB that his company manufactures to target this market. "For a unified communication experience, the Eurostar ES 9900A merges computer and consumer electronics where the audience will be able to access complete Android functionality such as Google Play Store, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube among others.
Content can be shared between other devices such as Android based smartphones and tablets through direct Wi-Fi," says Jethwani.
Our experts all agree that there is a growing appetite for Internet access and apps built into the STB. However Ive says many of the apps that are being developed are offered for free in order to make the overall sales proposition more attractive.
Younes advises: "The appetite is increasing but goes beyond apps as seen on a smartphone. Service providers are beginning to leverage the set-top to deliver recorded content to all TVs in the home or to other IP devices. The Connected Life is emerging and provides a foundation for service providers to offer services that are not specific to video, voice, or data."
Jethwani says the reason behind this increase is because prices for such technology have reduced, thus making it more affordable to the mass market. He also agrees with Younes and says that because people have become increasingly reliant on their smartphones and are now used to being connected all the time. A set top box with apps and Internet access has become an attractive proposition and is like an extension to the user experience on smartphones
There is a perceived threat on the horizon though; with the growth of Smart TVs that allow direct access to Internet content through OTT players, why would consumers still opt to continue paying a subscription to use a STB?
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Ive's argument is that high quality content is rarely available free and at the very least is paid for by including ads. He says: "Content available free through the Internet, if legal, is different to that available from mainstream broadcasters. So popular mainstream programming in most cases requires a license fee, subscription or features advertising support."
Jethwani too concurs and says: "While there is plenty of content you can get access to using a smart TV, Premium content never comes free; it is usually charged by either internet based companies or from Satellite Pay TV operators."
Another reason why Ive feels Smart TV's won't threaten the Pay-TV and STB business, at least for a while, is because currently many consumers have Internet speed restrictions and also data usage limits.
He says: "This reduces the quality experience and in many cases makes Internet video unusable compared to live traditional programming. This is even more difficult with HD. With improved Internet access then more mainstream programming will be supplied through this route but there will need to be a business model that pays for it."
With broadcasters now experimenting with 4K, it's only a matter of time before broadcasting in 4K will become a reality.
There is however a lot of infrastructural changes that will have to take place on the ground level for broadcasters. The new signal and HEVC H.265 codec will also require new STBs to be designed for it specifically, as current STBs can only support H.264.
Ive says: "In recent times this applied to High Definition (HD) with no legacy Standard Definition receivers able to receive HD, so there has been a big boost in TV receiver and STB sales.
Whether there is an appetite to change again after such a short period of time will depend on how compelling the proposition is for the consumer and how much of a premium the service provider can charge for 4K."
The future of the STB certainly seems bright as long as traditional broadcasting remains a major force for the coming years. STBs will continue to be around, but will have to evolve and become more capable and hybrid with additional features.
Younes says: "The need for service providers to extend their network deeper in subscribers' homes will require an increasingly sophisticated device. Over time the set-top will evolve into a gateway that includes the ability to deliver not only video to devices, but other IP services like data, voice and Connected Life solutions.
Jethwani also points out that "STBs are integral, especially in the entire ME and Africa market, as free-to-air TV still has its own market share. They have core advantages such as being easily navigable, they require no configuration, and their reception is independent. Additionally they are cost effective and get upgraded to better serve the end user's needs."
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