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Instant Video on Demand:

Pushing the DVR into the Network

By Daniel Marcus

 

The evolution from costly home-based Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) to more efficient network-based DVR (nDVR) systems has gained significant momentum, with major cable Multi-Service Operators (MSOs) declaring they will deploy nDVR systems on a wide scale. Leading the pack is Cablevision, and Time Warner and Comcast (News - Alert) have stated they intend to follow suit, once digital rights issues are resolved with the networks. In a rapidly changing environment that promises wildly better TV-watching experiences and interactivity, network providers see the network-based model as a clear winner in terms of cost and ease of deployment. However, while the entrance of cable giants into the fray means network-based services may come soon to a TV near you, uncertainty looms large, with the major Hollywood content developers crying foul.

What Is nDVR and How Does It Work? The User Perspective

The concept of the nDVR is easy to grasp; the network provider stores content in the network, and the viewer uses a simple set-top box to watch previously aired shows at any time, without having to pre-program a Tivo-like digital recorder to record a show when it is aired. Just like a home-based DVR, an nDVR will have a suite of VCR-like controls that will allow viewers to rewind, pause, and forward content. But how will users navigate an nDVR, and how will service providers implement the technology across existing networks?

Current Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) navigation scrolls in two directions; a viewer can scroll into the future (to the right) to view scheduling for a later time on a specific channel or scroll up or down through show options for a specific time slot. In addition, many telcos and MSOs currently offer a Video on Demand (VOD) library that typically allows for searches by alphabetic and category listings.

An integrated EPG for an nDVR would likely add a third direction (left) for viewing programs originally broadcast at an earlier time. The system would also allow for some EPG advances first developed by TiVo, including key word searches of metadata, which would encourage MSOs to offer expanded program synopses.






What Is nDVR and How Does It Work? The Telco Perspective

There are several strategies for deploying an nDVR-capable IPTV (News - Alert) platform, but they all must employ some combination of media servers and media asset management. Media servers in the network store all the content and handle distribution according to telco specifications and user demand. Video aired for the first time is simultaneously streamed through the system and stored on network-based hard drives, where it is immediately available to users as a VOD service. The network must have sufficient storage for all the content that service providers will make available for time shifting. For example, the service provider may elect to make all channels available or only select portions of the more popular channels available.

Media asset management maintains the variable rights for each piece of content, tracking each in accordance with the framework agreed upon by the content owners. Service providers can thus take into account life-cycle limitations for each piece of content and enforce the timetables for content residence and availability required by the content owners. Asset management requires the storage of programming information (metadata) to associate digital rights with the content as well as to provide an overview of the content. Asset management also allows the carrier to offer reconciliation to the content owners based upon the type of content stored, duration of storage, and frequency of viewing. In addition, metadata enables user searches by topic, keyword, and title.

Why Telcos Are Implementing nDVR � And Why This Is Interesting

nDVR promises users a viewing experience beyond any previous offering in terms of access to content at optimal viewing times. The popularity of DVRs demonstrates that consumers truly want to be freed from traditional broadcast schedules. nDVR not only enables this freedom but also eliminates the need to purchase and pre-program a DVR. Consumers no longer risk missing their favorite show because they forgot to set the DVR to record. nDVR has the added benefit of not limiting a consumer to recording only two or three shows at a time. All programming is instantly available for viewing after it has aired, so all shows that are on at a given time will be available.

Eliminating the need for expensive DVRs benefits both consumers and telcos. Every home that wants DVR has to have an 80+ Gigabyte hard drive-based set top box. Content is replicated hundreds of thousands of times as it is stored in each home�s machine. With nDVR, only one copy of each piece of content is stored, so overall network storage requirements are far lower. This translates to a lower total cost to service providers and, ultimately, to consumers.

nDVR also insulates telcos and subscriber from absorbing the costs of DVRs that will be made obsolete by High Definition (HD) programming and expanded interactive services. Plus, nDVR affords greater flexibility and ease of upgrade as multimedia offerings evolve.

If This Is So Great, What�s Stopping It?

While nDVR appears to be a win-win solution for telcos, MSOs, and subscribers, major content interests in Hollywood have doubts about the model and its potential impact on their current businesses. In 2004, Time Warner Cable shelved its plans to deploy its Maestro nDVR service in response to legal challenges by the major studios, which were concerned users would pirate programming from the cable company�s servers.

Nevertheless, service providers press forward with nDVR offerings. In November 2005, Time Warner began to test a �Start Over� service that enables viewers to restart any program from the beginning, so long as they initiate this feature during the program�s normal broadcast time. Cablevision recently announced it will pursue an nDVR service that would operate much like a DVR; the viewer will still need to instruct the system to record programs ahead of time. Essentially, this Remote Storage DVR system provides a personal virtual drive within the network that viewers can access remotely from home.

The only thing slowing providers down is the complex legal framework involved in obtaining the rights for deploying nDVR from the major studios. In general, the courts have ruled that use of home-based DVRs falls under the concept of �Fair Use.� The argument is that time shifting in the home is a fair use of the content given to viewers. This is not the case for nDVRs, which store a single copy of the content and provide it to multiple users.

While digital rights management, encryption, and media asset management have come a long way in the last few years, content owners remain skeptical. Most likely, they are waiting for a satisfactory monetization scheme for repeat viewing. Though hardware and software platforms are currently available that can implement any pay scheme, technology and user demand are moving forward faster than agreements satisfactory to both sides can be drafted, contracted, and implemented.

But nDVR Is Already Happening!

nDVR technology is already widely deployed outside the U.S.; vendors are supporting massive networks in Asia that provide subscribers with nDVR functionality. A network in China gives subscribers freedom to access content on all channels for up to two days after broadcast. Any subscriber can watch any program from any channel at any time during those two days, without a costly DVR.

In spite of the ongoing digital rights debate, telcos and MSOs can deploy nDVR today for content they own and control. For example, they can make local newscasts, sporting events, and public-access programming available right out of the gate. Any content a telco or MSO has the owner�s permission to store, or for which they already own the rights, is fair game.

Consumers� wide-scale adoption of downloadable video clips over the Internet is accelerating public and studio comfort for storing content in the network and will lead to greater acceptance of and demand for nDVR. NBC recently announced it will make promotional video clips of some shows available on YouTube, a leader in video and social networking. Apple has demonstrated that users of its popular iPod are definitely willing to pay for on-demand video clips. As studios learn how to make more money by making their content available as instant VOD through nDVRs, rights management issues will be solved.

The mainstream Hollywood studios and the major MSOs and telcos will eventually come up with a mutually agreeable plan for reconcilition based on the nDVR content-distribution system. On the way to realizing the vision of making all content available at any time, from anywhere, with full VCR-like controls, some content players are early adopters, while others will resist. Early commercial offerings will thus include a combination of active nDVR channels alongside normal broadcast channels. Local content and non-syndicated programming will form the earliest available options. In the meantime, it is heartening to realize that this technology is available today and currently deployed in commercial networks. Major Hollywood studios are not likely to turn a blind eye to the preferences of significant numbers of paying subscribers, particularly with the added pressure of Tier-1 MSOs such as Cablevision aggressively challenging the traditional model in the courts. IT

Daniel Marcus is manager of product marketing for UTStarcom (News - Alert). For more information, please visit the company online at www.utstar.com.

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