OSN’s newly launched PVR does not just provide an enhanced entertainment experience to its subscribers; it is also a reflection of the sophisticated development that is being undertaken at the network’s facility in Dubai. Mark Billinge, vice president of Broadcast Operations and Technology at OSN and platform project manager Jeelesh Patel speak to Vijaya Cherian about the ten-month journey that led to the launch and the new features that make this box different
Last month, UAE-based pay TV network OSN created a sensation in the Middle East broadcast market with the launch of OSN Plus HD, claimed to be the region’s first internet-enabled satellite receiver and recorder with full 3D and HD capabilities. With the new digital video recorder, OSN has shifted from Pace, which provided the previous PVR to Humax, suppliers of the new box. The announcement comes a few months after the rollout of OSN Play, the first online TV platform in the region that enables the network’s subscribers to watch selected premium content over the internet on a variety of devices.
The new launch is not just a win for OSN’s subscribers who can now access the network’s content anytime, anywhere on several devices; it is also an indication of the progress both in terms of technology and development within OSN’s facility in Dubai.
“The theory behind this box is that we wanted to begin hybrid connectivity,” says Mark Billinge, vice president of Broadcast Operations and Technology at OSN.
“The existing PVR does not have the hybrid connectivity as a platform and we felt this was the direction we needed to move in. The beauty of the internet is that it gives us the ability to widen the scope of the platform and deliver both additional content services as well as other added value services in time.”
The new box features an online Video On Demand (VOD) library, branded OSN On-Demand, which provides subscribers with access to 1,000 hours of movies from both independent and Hollywood studios, 100 hours of catch up TV, over 100 hours of TV series and 200 hours of OSN Yahala!HD. Viewers can also queue upto 10 downloads and store them on the massive one terabyte internal hard drive.
“This is a brand new PVR that is built around the new Broadcom 7356 chip set and a 1 terrabyte (TB) hard drive. For the first time, we have internet connectivity and importantly, a return path to the subscriber. The first service taking advantage of these new technologies at launch is the new OSN On-Demand as we have a VOD library of 1000 hours of content. That builds on the strategy over the last year of giving the customer a chance to access the platform’s premium content at a time of their choosing,” explains Billinge.
The present PVR, which was launched two years ago by OSN and began the network’s aggressive campaign to contain piracy and secure the platform, also offers the OSN On-Demand service. The service on that box, however, uses a different technology and enables OSN to push about 80 hours of HD content on to the hard drive delivered through a private linear satellite channel. Although the existing box is still fairly revolutionary in this market, it fades in comparison to the new one that has the capacity to store 300 hours of HD content.
“The difference between the new box and the existing one is that the new one features an online library utilising progressive download technology. It is a much wider, unlimited library of content so the customer has a choice of thousands of hours of content in both HD and SD. OSN Play was a big step forward for us and this PVR builds on that strategy of giving the customer access to that content as and when they want it.”
For those who have subscribed to content from different networks, the new OSN box also includes a CAM slot — another additional feature over the existing PVR.
“The PVR functionality doesn’t work on the CAM slot so you cannot record content from other networks but you can view their content with a valid subscription,” Billinge clarifies.
The new PVR includes an HDMI 1.4 connection, which naturally indicates full 1080p and 3D support. To add a special touch, the Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) goes into 3D mode as well.
“With this specification, you don’t need to set your TV to 3D mode each time you watch 3D content. It will automatically switch to 3D mode. 3D EPG is also a first for this region,” explains Billinge.
The HD content on OSN On-Demand also features Dolby Digital Plus, which Billinge claims, is “a first in the region, and a more efficient and feature-rich codec”.
Essentially, all of these features do not come with the box per se. An intensive, ten-month backend integration was undertaken at OSN’s premises to make these features possible while ensuring that the network continued to keep its content secure.
“There’s a whole headend infrastructure that we have had to put in place to ensure this works,” says project manager and set top box specialist Jeelesh Patel.
The project was full of challenges. While the team remains tight lipped about most of them, Patel was willing to let out a few secrets. For one, OSN is the first broadcaster in the world to integrate Broadcom’s brand new chipset.
“We are the first broadcaster that has used the latest Broadcom chip and so, as with any new chipset integration, there is always a challenge, because no one knows what to expect. There were quite a few issues along the way but with the support of our technology partners Broadcom and our internal platform team, we have worked our way through them, fixed them and delivered a premium product.
“In the new OSN plus HD box, we are using the new 40-nanometre chipset, which is very small compared to the previous one, which was 65nm. This one uses less power and is faster. It will be able to support the platform’s ambitious roadmap over the next two or three years. We are the first to release a set top box with this new chipset not only in the region but in the world so it is a great achievement,” explains Patel.
While integrating the chipset into the box, there were several issues to address and several pros and cons to weigh before going in favour of one decision as opposed to another, the team says. Each decision was aimed at offering a superior service while ensuring that no complications would arise after the release of the box.
One of the big concerns was the On-Demand service. The more features OSN decided to make available with OSN On-Demand, the more the complications that arose in terms of integration at the backend.
“The on-demand library and the whole infrastructure behind getting that data up is significant,” explains Patel.
“The box essentially acts as a browser and downloads pictures of movies as you go along. That content is not in the box. It’s getting it off the internet. All of that involves a lot of integration at the backend. It’s not like a PC, where you can just install something. The whole hardware has to be integrated with this environment. That is the difficulty with set top box integration.”
As opposed to linear TV, where the uplink and downlink uses slightly different technology and methodology to secure the content, the data available on the On-Demand service are pre encrypted and loaded onto the servers.
However, that content and the progressive download have to be manipulated at the backend so the posters can be viewed and relevant metadata added to the content.
“The whole infrastructure behind the progressive download is completely separate from the broadcast element and, therefore, requires a completely new headend,” explains Patel.
When the subscriber wants to download a movie from OSN On-Demand, a progress bar appears at the bottom showing how much of the content has been downloaded. If the viewer sets the system at an automatic setting, the box will download a buffer of content onto the hard drive before it allows them to play it back.
“Depending on the connection, that buffer could take between 20 seconds and a minute but after that, viewing is seamless,” explains Billinge.
“The theory behind that buffer is that when you do start watching, you will have a seamless experience.”
Another additional feature available on the new OSN On-Demand platform which takes advantage of the new return path is IPPV (Impulse Pay-Per-View). This means as long as the subscriber has credit on his OSN account, he will be able to order PPV content directly through the STB.
One of the other features of this box is the enhanced metadata that allows subscribers to search for content through several different keywords as well as through posters. This, again, required substantial integration and work on the back end, explains Billinge.
More importantly, the enhanced metadata was significant to the overall launch of the new OSN box as well as to OSN Play.
“There are several points of commonality between this box and the Play platform. For one, we are using the Level 3 CDN (content delivery network) for the distribution of content. When we transcode all the content to SD or HD and it is encrypted, it is uploaded to the Level 3 servers and when the box connects to our catalogue and receives the data, you are downloading everything off the Level 3 servers.
“Other common points with Play are the backend systems, the transcoding and the metadata workflows. The enhanced metadata is a step forward compared to what we were doing for the linear EPG. Those workflows have been pulled together with the Play workflow,” explains Billinge.
“From the moment the content arrives in the building to the time it is delivered to one of the delivery platforms, the workflows are as automated as we can currently make them. That content moves within the workflow and the metadata is added to this. This means the posters as well are now added. Once we have the correct transcoded video file and the metadata is brought together, we can push that content up the CDN for publishing to the Play platform or to OSN On-Demand,” adds Billinge.
However, Play is based on Microsoft Smooth Streaming while the new PVR is based on the MPEG-4 file format so different trancodes are required depending on whether the content is destined for Play or OSN On-Demand.
OSN says it has been fortunate that it already operates a file-based workflow, which made the integration and the movement of data to Play and the new box smoother.
Key solutions that are part of this workflow include the Harmonic Rhozet that transcodes all the content, the Harris Broadcast Master content management system that oversees the scheduling and an in-house system called Bob that manages the entire metadata.
From a consumer’s point of view, not much would have changed, according to the team apart from an enhanced entertainment experience and enabling connectivity to the internet.
“The installation team will look after that for the consumer,” explains Billinge.
Subscribers will have a choice within the library to download SD or HD assets based on their home internet connection. HD assets take longer to download due to the increased file size. Catering to the Arabic audience, the new PVR also includes an Arabic user interface and EPG.
The new service is available in the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Bahrain and requires a minimum internet download speed of 1MB. Although this box is likely to be the star for the next two years and way ahead of any competition in the market, the development team at OSN is not ready to rest just yet. There are several additions in the pipeline, according to Patel.
“One element we are hoping to add in the future is a WiFi connection. Timelines have not been decided yet. You have to choose specific WiFi dongle modules and integrate that with the box. All of that integration is proprietary to this platform.”