C Spire is the largest privately held wireless operator in the US, offering a 4G network and FTTH network. Under the C Spire Home brand, it offers a triple-play bundle with phone, pay-TV and 1Gbit/s downstream broadband service over its fiber network. It has more than 1 million subscribers spread across Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.
Recently, C Spire decided to adopt the newly launched MobiTV Connect Platform, an IP video delivery solution which allows cable operators to utilize popular set-top boxes and dongles designed for streaming Internet video. Using this platform from MobiTV Inc. eliminates the need for traditional set-top boxes and allows for new interfaces and apps to be deployed by the operator. It also switches C Spire's video delivery from QAM to IP, and makes it easier to integrate multiple video services.
Telco Transformation: What was your motivation for launching this new streaming service?
Jared Baumann: Perhaps it's best to start with a bit of background. We have been running an IPTV service over our fiber-to-the-home network for some time now. It's a traditional IPTV service, delivered to a set-top box in a multicast environment, we have middleware etc. It's a more traditional operator kind of TV service.
But there were several reasons for developing something new. Firstly, we find we are doing a great number of installs, and we needed a more efficient method to do them. We offer a 1Gbit/s downstream broadband service, and in order to deliver high quality of experience for the TV service, we needed Ethernet cabling. But Ethernet is not in place, so we have to do drops around the home. This is inefficient, time-consuming... we did look at wireless solutions too, and there are some out there, but we found that they were not quite right, especially in older homes. We needed a new solution.
Also, we are a sizeable provider but we're not a Comcast or AT&T. We can't really develop our own hardware or drive development like those companies can. But our hardware was not keeping up with our pipe. We couldn't do cutting-edge stuff without customer owned set-top boxes. We wanted our customers to get their own set-top boxes, devices such as the Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Android etc. But we had to offer them something different to get them to choose these set-tops.
Basically, we wanted them to choose what they wanted, and just provide a service to them. We become an app on their device, and they could bring their own device. The truth is no one likes STBs. Customers don't like them, we don't like them.
TT: Why choose MobiTV as your vendor?
JB: We approached a lot of vendors. Many were suited to unicast services, and specialized in them. We chose MobiTV because they were the most nimble in the way they addressed this, and they got our vision.
MobiTV is used to unicast environments, and started out with a focus on the mobile device -- hence the name. But they've been involved with Reliance in India for a unicast TV deployment. They are activating 60,000 subscribers per day there -- that's a huge number! So we felt they would be capable of doing what we needed.
TT: What's the current status of the service?
JB: We're in the development process now, working on getting it ready for rollout. We anticipate a small start -- maybe 10,000 homes passed this year, with about half taking the service. We could ramp it up but right now plans are for a relatively small play.
TT: What about pricing/bundling?
JB: We have not announced it yet, but it should be roughly comparable with our existing IPTV service. We'll be offering it like a TV service, as part of a multi-play bundle, and we're working on offering skinny bundles at launch for those who like them. We've found that skinny bundles are a fantastic option for some, but not for everyone. In fact, for people that like a certain set of channels, it can end up being more expensive when you end up adding up everything.
TT: Will the shift to unicast affect bandwidth usage on your network? Do you need to re-think capacity?
JB: Yes, it's something we are looking at. Multicast can be more efficient but customers are going to unicast regardless of what we do. They are going to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon. They are going to get it one way or another and it will go over our network. So we can do it, and have it go over our network; or they can get it from someone else, and we'll still have it go over our network.
But we are using CDN technology on our network, identifying hot spots and then deploying caches to relieve network bandwidth.
TT: So what is MobiTV bringing and what are you still responsible for in this service?
JB: There's no change in the way we gather and aggregate content, via satellite etc. And all storage, encoders all are handled by C Spire. We are currently working with the vendor to make sure it all works with their platform. I think the best way to look at it is that MobiTV is essentially middleware for C Spire -- it helps deliver the service in the way that we want, to a variety of devices.
TT: Any changes/new features planned -- like the guide for example?
JB: Yes, this will change dramatically. The user interface is something we are quite excited about. We have been asking, how do we improve the customer experience? How do we match the customer experience offered by Hulu and Netflix? We just don't find that kind of UI on set-top boxes.
This new product will bring the ability to cross-search, for example. All C Spire services in VoD, live TV, DVR and other apps which give us their hooks on the platform can be searched, so it's very much a blended search environment.
The interface overall is very slick, does a great job of merging those two worlds (OTT and pay-TV). It automatically combines all options to view, content is much more available and customers are more able to get the content they want.
In fact, sometimes we get complaints about C Spire not having shows customers want, but those shows are actually available on our service, they just can't find them. This interface will also have recommendation engines just like Netflix does -- that is also included.
TT: What's your long-term view on this space?
JB: Ultimately, traditional TV can't last. It has to evolve, start to fit into the way in which people want to watch video. That's the big advantage of this approach -- we can go OTT if we want to, it's an easy switch for us in the future.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation