As virtualization has become important in the networking world, operators have also started looking at ways to virtualize CPE, particularly the set-top box (STB). Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), a pioneer in this space, was driven to do so by its portfolio of eight "natcos" or national telcos. The operator has a large base of 2 million TV subscribers spread across Europe with a broad range of STB profiles to manage. (See DT's Innovation Lab Leader Discusses Set-Top Virtualization.)
Telco Transformation discussed DT's STB virtualization efforts with Dr. Randolph Nikutta, leader of new media at DT's Innovation Labs. He said the decision to virtualize was driven by multiple factors. Firstly, it was the cost of the box as new features/functions needed to be deployed.
According to Nikutta, "In Germany perhaps we can get away with €150 ($168) boxes, but in countries like Hungary and Romania, customers will not pay that much. Maybe we can charge $30-40 for the boxes."
In order to guarantee a uniform, high-quality QoE DT needed a cost-effective solution. Nikutta pointed out that currently they have 200 STB profiles which are aging, can't support higher-end graphics and are expensive to replace. Ordinarily, this would lead to a fragmented user experience with big gaps across DT's footprint. It would also have affected service development, required more time and resources and would not have been able to match customers' OTT experiences.
Equally important, the cost for upgrades is high and if anything goes wrong, DT would have to do a client rollback -- which would require still more time, effort and expense.
Given these factors, DT looked at the move to NFV-based infrastructure, and the development of better, low-latency networks and decided it was time to "cloudify" the STB. Also, the technology was maturing; DT had a carrier grade, OpenStack-compatible platform.
Nikutta stresses that an STB is still required.
"The term 'virtual STB' is more correctly cloud browser-based streaming UI technology," he said. "This means we move media pre-processing into the cloud. We have an app engine and a streaming engine for preparing the guide interface as a video or picture and delivering it as a rendered output to the STB. And we have media adaptation and a DRM bridge in the cloud."
With this rollout, DT can provide a better QoE to customers. They can access an improved UI, consistent across all eight natcos. So product upgrades, new offers, marketing communication etc., are all easier to roll-out. It also allows DT to innovate more quickly as time-to-market is greatly reduced. And the initial capex investment in the STB is re-used as there is no need to replace it.
This approach is now being followed by a number of operators around the world, including Charter Communications and Cablevision in the US, CJ Hellovision, SK Telecom and SK Broadband in South Korea and Liberty Global in Hungary.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation