Over The Top (OTT): Pay TV services and platforms

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Over The Top (OTT) TV has become increasingly popular now. Many companies across the globe are offering their products and services related to OTT platforms. Generally speaking, this term is likely to have emerged within the telecommunications industry, as a way for ISPs to avoid becoming wide pipes. At the same time, traditional Internet companies have no idea that Web multimedia can be built otherwise, i.e., not over-the-top, but using a private IP network). In this article, we will discuss OTT, TV and the Internet, and how they all get along together.

Pay TV Historical Overview
The idea to sell video content to users is as old as mankind. Many years ago, cable operators entered this business providing the households with many TV channels not available in free broadcast. Cable television requires a cable laid to each household, which means additional video transmission networks. At the time of explosive growth of cable TV, the Internet connections were incapable to transmit video in high quality, so building of a dedicated infrastructure to deliver the signal was justified. Since that time, the Internet technologies have evolved dramatically, the connection speed has grown and chipset performance can now decode digital video signals at a high quality. Having realized that, the telecoms have decided to come to grips with cable operators. One after another the telecoms began to deploy IPTV solutions, offering multiple TV channels at an additional cost to their customers. However, the cable operators began to offer Internet access through their cable networks. Seemingly that would mean the final merger of the industries, putting an end to the story as the telecoms entered the TV price competition. However this is in no way the end of the Internet technology evolution, but rather its acceleration. Continuing to develop their core services, the ISPs accelerated user access to the Internet. At a certain point, an average user was provided with a sufficient bandwidth to play back high-quality HD videos on the public Internet links. Many startups took advantage of this, launching their own Internet video projects. Also, the business model of the startups was much more effective compared to telecoms. The customers did not need any additional devices or configurations. Only Web access was needed, and it was already there. Startups offered a click-to-buy model, without any tedious multi-page contracts offered by telecoms. Soon the operators noticed that the percentage of online video traffic of their subscribers was constantly growing, and the growth rate of Internet video companies was significantly higher than the rate of growth of their own IPTV products. As a result, Over-The-Top video platforms and Pay TV services have emerged.

This is our current situation. The experts are looking for answers at the nexus of several industries:

  • Content companies and media holdings seek to maximize their profits from the content they own
  • Telecom companies want to stimulate their customers to pay for the content using their telecom accounts
  • Internet companies are designing new multimedia services for the customers

On the other hand, a shared understanding is that pulling a bunch of cables to one household makes no sense. A single but very fast cable is quite sufficient. Gradually, as the wireless technology grows, we will be able to give up even this last cable. In general, the industry standards of video service development have come to a common understanding of the Internet video service architecture (OTT Pay TV) – cable TV networks, public broadcast networks, telecommunication services, and Web portals. Now we can say that everything has been reduced to Web development and integration. In my opinion, the term OTT Pay TV is promoted by the telecom equipment manufacturers showing the scale of their video platforms, while this is just a way to deliver video content. Still, Pay-TV success is driven by completely different factors, as follows:

  • Large selection of high-quality, preferably exclusive content
  • Ease of access and payment, along with compatibility with most consumer devices
  • Excellent design and ergonomics – now it is a trend to call it “sexy” 🙂

Each industry is strong in one of these three key factors, and each has a good starting background. Just the background has to be leveraged in a proper way.

Over The Top (OTT) Pay TV Structure
A typical structure of OTT video platform is almost identical to the majority of suppliers. Given the technological specifics, the Web projects have limited freedom in choosing the ways to build a video platform. Therefore, most vendors, exalting the unique benefits of their solution, hold back some details.

In its current state of the art, the Pay-TV service consists of the Over The Top (OTT) Pay TV platform and the Web platform. The Web platform is a set of tools to generate digital-content stores, navigation user interface (including databases, caches, frontends, and backends), and the content management system. This involves a standard Web development in PHP / Java / Python / Node.js / Perl / Ruby (whatever you prefer), using popular tools such as MySQL database, MemCached cache servers, NGINX / lighttpd HTTP servers . Over The Top (OTT) Pay TV platform consists of the following modules:

  • Content preparation system – video transcoding servers for different devices
  • Content delivery system (CDN) – video broadcast servers
  • Digital rights management system (DRM) – content encryption and access key management servers
  • Monetization system – servers implementing the business models (advertising, pay-per-view, subscription)
  • Video player – hardware tools and software implementations of video content playback tools

Most solution manufacturers combine different products and present them under their brand. In our field we simply call this a video platform, because it enables implementation of a video service to the subscribers. The popularity of hosted solutions has led to the emergence of many online video platforms, where you can implement a video service without being concerned in any way with the technical issues related to video platform implementation. Next we take a closer look at the main modules of Over The Top (OTT) Pay TV platform.

Content Preparation System
The system of content preparation provides transcoding of source video files received from the rights holders, to the proper profiles for all the devices to be supported. For the optimal playback, most devices need special codec settings (video profiles). In addition, you often need to support several bit rates for each video device to dynamically adapt video picture to the user Web access bandwidth. As a result, for a single source file you’ll need to generate more than a dozen of video files in different containers with different settings and codecs (mainly H.264). Knowing the amount of incoming content, you can assess the computing power needed for quick preparation of videos for the service.

In our work we use Rhozet Carbon Server, and ffmpeg freeware. Although freeware, of course, has a long list of shortcomings, it can be pretty helpful.

Content Delivery System
If third-party CDN providers are involved, this module may be absent from the platform. The Content delivery system transmits video content to the user device for playback. In the multi-platform environment, the content delivery system choice depends on the devices that you want to support. Currently, most common content delivery formats are as follows:

  • PC, Android – H.264 HTTP Dynamic Streaming via Adobe Flash (without the cost of media servers)
  • iOS – H.264 HTTP Live Streaming (new release of Flash Media Server should support it, performing fragmentation on the fly)
  • TV – H.264 HTTP Progressive Download

When building a content delivery system, you have to balance between the video platform flexibility (complexity) and a unified format of video delivery (video platform simplicity).

Digital Rights Management System
To distribute the content of major rights holders using your video service, you should enable reliable protection of the content. Choosing the applicable content protection systems is highly dependent on the devices used to display the video. Given that multiple consumer devices are used, at launching the Over The Top (OTT) Pay TV, multiple DRM solutions should be used:

  • PC, Android – Adobe Flash Access, RTMPE delivery. It helps to minimize user inconvenience related to the installation of additional plugins.
  • iOS – Widevine only.
  • TV – vendor-specific, such as Marlin DRM for Philips.

From the architectural viewpoint, the DRM system usually consists of two parts: content encryption module and license server. Adobe Flash Access 2.0 licensing logic does not differentiate between these roles, and they are determined only when installing and configuring the DRM server (if necessary, you may combine all this in a single server).

Monetization System
To implement the business model of your video service, a special system is required. The core business models are as follows:

  • Advertising (pre-roll, mid-roll, post-roll, banner, overlay)
  • Pay Per View
  • Download To Own
  • Subscription

In some cases, the monetization system closely integrates with DRM to make a decision on granting a viewing license. As a rule, the monetization system consists of three main parts:

  • Ad server (free models)
  • Billing (fee model)
  • Statistics and reporting server

In our work we use a solution based on the OpenX open source ad server.

Video Player
At the latest Web 2.0 Summit, the topics of discussions across the Internet industry were insightfully focused around the points of control. We have already discussed the Web 2.0 Summit and the most important ideas presented there. One of the important points of control is the end-user device platform. For video services, it is critical to be available at the most popular consumer devices. Currently, those devices are: Win/Mac PC, Apple iOS, Google Android, TV/STB. Depending on the devices on which the service is focused, you can easily identify the technologies to be used to implement a premium video service.

Flash platform is definitely the best choice for entering the Win / Mac market. Most users have the Flash plugin already installed. Other platforms (Silverlight, HTML5) are very far from the maturity of Adobe Flash featuring more than ten years of growth history. Moreover, the alternative platforms will require a user to install additional plugins (such as the Widevine protection module). Flash video player development is a pretty standard task to be easily implemented by a duly experienced developer company.

To enter the Apple iOS market, you should use either an HTML5-based video player or the Widevine DRM module (if robust content protection is needed). It is worth noting that if content protection is not mandatory, then you can compile the Flash content into the iOS applications.

To enter the Android market, it is quite efficient to use Flash video players, and RTMPE content delivery through Adobe Flash Media Server. For more details on the development of video applications for Android, please read this post. While developing video applications, please remember that the user taps screen with his/her fingers.

Implementation of video applications for TV and Set Top Boxes is highly fragmented depending on device vendors. Philips TVs support Marlin DRM, other TVs support Widevine or Flash, and some do not support content protection. While developing video applications, please remember that the user controls the screen with a remote.

We really do not recommend you to save on the development of video players, as it is actually your main interface used by your visitors most of the time. It is advisable to allocate resources for the development of your player corporate style and its implementation/adaptation to different types of devices.

Please feel free to ask your questions and share your experience with Over The Top (OTT) Pay TV platforms. Also, we will be glad to share our experience and answer your questions on the Pay TV services.

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