The last few years have seen massive shifts in viewing preferences from audiences, and many broadcasters and pay-TV providers have struggled to adapt their business processes and technology to cater to these new video consumption behaviors.
As one of Europe's largest pay-TV providers and a major content company, with sports, entertainment and movie channels, Sky has been aggressive in its efforts to leverage new distribution platforms. Despite having a fully fledged pay-TV service delivered via satellite, in 2012 the operator decided to launch Now TV, a streaming OTT service aimed at non-subscribers. The company also offers Sky Go, a TV Everywhere service for its satellite subscribers, to be viewed on multiple devices.
Sky's brand is a powerful one in the UK, but also poses a challenge in terms of customer expectations, according to Jeff Webb, principal streaming architect at Sky. Sky customers accustomed to digital satellite quality are unwilling to endure low-quality streaming experiences on the Internet; they expect a high-quality experience regardless of device or access network. And it's Webb's responsibility to create the best experience possible for streaming customers, despite the vagaries of Internet connections. As such, his goal is to "close the gap" between the video experience a customer has on a private, controlled network like satellite, on one hand; and the open and unpredictable Internet, on the other.
Telco Transformation caught up with him recently, to discuss his role at Sky, the key priorities he is focused on, and his thoughts on what the TV world will look like five years from now.
Telco Transformation: What are your chief responsibilities at Sky?
Jeff Webb: I'm the principal streaming architect, responsible for architecture and strategy for streaming services. That includes Now TV, Sky Go and more recently, Sky Q, which was recently launched. I've always been in infrastructure, started out as a network engineer, then got into network design and then became a solutions architect, now principal streaming architect. Been at Sky 12 years now.
TT: What are the key areas of focus for you today?
JW: My job has two perspectives -- one is the operational one and the other is the product view. I spend a lot of time talking with the product owners and stakeholders, understanding their needs for the different propositions. It's about taking a customer view -- understanding their expectations. They are the ones who pay the bills at the end of the day.
They see the Sky brand and their expectations are that the service will be high-quality, maybe equivalent to the satellite experience. They see a Now TV box and they expect to just plug it in, and it should work. And of course, it should provide high Quality of Experience (QoE).
So that is the perspective that then has to drive the engineering. You can't have a single point of failure, you have to have redundancy, two of everything. You have to make everything work seamlessly across all the different little pieces of technology. Customers have to be able to access all Sky's propositions -- Now TV, Sky Go, Sky Sports, Sky VR -- lots of different areas. They are paying for their video experiences and want to enjoy their content whenever they want, wherever they want and on whatever device they want.
In a sense our goal is to keep trying to close the gap between the more traditional digital satellite world and the very young OTT world, which is not even ten years old. We want to be able to give our customers a satellite experience via OTT. So we have daily measurements, daily KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] for customer experience.
TT: How do you see the balance between the two services shifting?
JW: Well, let's see… we have had 26-27 years of DTH (Direct-To-Home satellite service). It's very mature, well understood. We've still got good growth but not at the percentages we have had in the past. That's the nature of the business, it's a mature market. So we look for new opportunities.
Now TV is a good example. It's a direct-to-consumer service aimed at people who don’t have Sky. Maybe they don't want it all -- the whole package. It's like with sports -- maybe you just want to pay to watch Arsenal, not anything else, because that's all you really care about. Or some people may just want kids content, and not anything else. Now TV provides those options and addresses that need in the market. We spend a fortune on producing and acquiring content. That's our offering -- now let customers pick and choose what they want at the right price.
But it must work. There must not be customer impact from any technology issues. The whole service should be transparent to the customer, and their experiences should not be affected if anything goes down.
TT: How do you see the video/pay-TV space evolving in the future -- let's say the next five years?
JW: Wow… that's a long way ahead. [Laughs] Five years… that would be 2022. That's the [soccer] World Cup after next.
If we look at 2006, that was the year the World Cup was held in Germany. That saw the introduction of HD -- a lot of HD sets got sold at the time. If we fast-forward to 2018, I think a lot of people will be moving to 4K. Four years beyond that, I think 4K QoE will be consistent. Quite a few subscribers will be consuming video in 4K. I think the question is, how many will be doing it on DTH? And how many over the Internet? It's hard to tell, so that's why we are doing both -- it's part of our strategy.
I also think we'll have the DASH standard adopted, common encryption will be in place. We will always have different DRMs -- different browsers will support different DRMs -- but we'll be able to take advantage of common encryption [to simplify our workflow].
Mobile consumption will grow. We will have commercially available 5G networks. Operators will offer very good throughput, especially in high-bandwidth urban areas. In some cases, it might be better than home broadband, so users may even have a better experience on their mobile device.
Virtual reality (VR) is another area. We are producing original content, and it is very impressive. I used the app to experience the Anthony Joshua fight; it was very real. It really felt like he was going to punch me!
We're looking at Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard and various approaches, but I think we are moving faster on mobile. Phones are getting noticeably faster; they can do more. At the same time, the idea of watching football [soccer] on a VR headset; Manchester City vs. Manchester United… who knows? Maybe that's [what will take hold.] Maybe -- it's hard to say.
(Look out for part two of this conversation, where Webb talks about CDNs, video compression and DRM.)
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation