By Andrew Sachs – VP Product Management
Because video operators are large, geographically diverse, and deliver complex services, the ability of the operator to check their QoE and view their service across their footprint is critical. Place-shifting is such a useful capability within operations that consumer-grade appliances, up until recently the only devices to offer this functionality, — have been deployed widely by networks and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs). What was intended to serve as a consumer device for consumer placeshifting streaming became an important part of their operations, for better and worse.
Consumer place-shifting devices were introduced in 2004 as a means of watching subscribed content when the consumer was not in their home. Using a small device located in the home, a single user could stream video over the Internet. By limiting the technology to a single user, the Consumer Electronics (CE) industry allayed the concerns of content licensors that the technology would lead to widespread violations of the time and place specific licenses granted to the broadcaster or MVPD. This, combined with the relatively low penetration of Slingbox, allowed the company to avoid being in the litigation crosshairs and grow, albeit slowly however, for networks and MVPDs, the place-shifting devices flourished for the operational reasons above.
While the benefits were clear, the deployment of a consumer product in an enterprise setting presented a number of different challenges. The first of these challenges was maintaining the system. Because the device was designed for a single user, with a single username and password, video service providers had no way to control or limit logins — who logged in, from where, when, and for what purpose — and no means of controlling what happened to the devices. Without a central management system, the provider was forced to login to each device separately, and only upon login was there any indication of whether or not the device actually functioned.
Reliability issues also plagued MPVDs that took this approach. With any piece of equipment engineered for consumer use, there is a compromise between cost and reliability, and this became a significant problem with using consumer-grade place-shifting devices. Issues caused by technical hiccups such as set-top reboots also threatened continuous operation. When these devices were deployed remotely, accessing and fixing them was an expensive proposition as many offices were dark, unmanned facilities. Whether repairing or replacing, each additional visit made this cheap solution expensive.
Many of the costs associated with this approach were hidden, but considered cumulatively, they added up not only in terms of actual purchasing and maintenance costs, but also in the price paid by not being able to troubleshoot an issue efficiently. Given other shortcomings with respect to limited access, control, management, and functionality, operators began looking at professional-grade alternatives that could facilitate both place- and time-shifting.
Professional Place- and Time-Shifting
To realize more flexible and reliable remote viewing and monitoring capabilities, MVPDs have turned to hardware-based single-channel systems built on components — the RAM, solid-state drive, processor, motherboard, and power supply — designed to be incorporated into an enterprise-grade device. Equipped to handle all common set-top box interfaces, this type of solution not only controls the set-top box channel setting and power through IR or IP link, but also provides from three to seven days of storage. With these features, the enterprise-grade solution overcomes the limitations of the consumer-grade device and far exceeds its performance.
Deployed as part of a larger system, the remotely positioned hardware unit can be centrally managed along with other tools used for monitoring and troubleshooting. Logging in just once through a central server, the user can view simultaneous streams from units in the field. Because this type of system can be deployed on a VPN rather than a less-secure Internet link, enterprises can eliminate concerns over access and security. Active directory integration enables enterprises not only to configure user groups and access privileges, but also to maintain a log of all use and activity on each remote unit. When used for both monitoring and troubleshooting, individual boxes can be set to deliver notifications —vie SNMP, email, or within the viewing interface — about issues with a particular channel.
Use Cases: Interactive Troubleshooting, Proactive Monitoring
To perform manual interactive troubleshooting within the browser-based system interface, the user can simply open up the live stream from a specific unit and pull up the virtual remote control, on which control functions are mapped much as they are one a common handheld remote. Along with these controls are buttons that may be configured to trigger commonly used command combinations.
In addition to providing control over the live stream, the virtual remote control gives the user access to recorded content. This combination of place-shifting and time-shifting capabilities, enabled by built-in solid-state storage, offers significant benefits to the enterprise. If, for example, the provider performed a test the day before at a specific time, a staff member working at the desktop interface can use the virtual remote to dial back the clock and watch the live broadcast from that time.
With the remote, the user can fast-forward, pause, and rewind video. For applications such as the troubleshooting of ad insertion or to determine the timing of specific ads, the user can employ an integrated frame counter to move forward and backward at the frame level. This tool allows users to get down to the point of counting black frames between ad insertion events. A tool for marking in and out points not only allows the user to define a problem area, but also to create and export clips for further review.
Key data, such as time code or loudness measurements, can be burned into the video frame-accurately to provide a more comprehensive picture of the problem. The resulting file, which can be played on the desktop or emailed for further review, helps to speed the troubleshooting and resolution process. Because streamed video is full-frame-rate video, the recipient gets all the detail necessary for effective visual evaluation.
Because the user can watch live or recorded streams from multiple boxes at once, he or she can evaluate multiple synchronized streams of previously aired content to determine if a problem affecting one channel in fact affected others, as well. Likewise, the user can monitor a single channel that is distributed across multiple geographic areas. In this way, identification of issues introduced at the local level becomes much simpler.
When manual mode isn’t required for close evaluation and/or troubleshooting, proactive monitoring provides continual scanning of live broadcasts. The system dials each channel in the lineup, spending a few seconds on each to check for issues such as static or black screen. The rotation across channels can include linear channels, as well as on-demand and interactive services.
To enable monitoring of interactive services, the system dials into menus and navigates applications in the same way the home viewer might use the remote control. In this manner, the service provider can proactively and automatically test provisioning, the deployment of software on the set-top boxes, the availability of interactive applications or video-on-demand, and other interactive elements.
Advanced Use Cases
The enterprise-grade place- and time-shifting system can serve as the foundation for numerous advanced use cases, thus providing value beyond interactive troubleshooting and proactive monitoring.
Scheduled recording allows the user to record a particular channel on a particular date and time. In this case, the system scans the channel lineup up until that event, stays on the specified channel to record the event in full, and then returns to scanning the full lineup. This is a very useful tool for looking at high-value events such as sports events or presidential debates. It also makes it easy for the provider to perform the 24 hours of scheduled recording now required for a spot check procedure.
The spot check is a new requirement for loudness compliance in the United States, and it tasks cable operators with performing periodic checks on uncertified channels to verify loudness. The test itself specifies a 24-hour period of loudness measurement. Leveraging the recording capabilities of the enterprise-grade place- and time-shifting system, as well as optional loudness measurement capabilities, the operator can very simply fulfill this requirement. Across the 24-hour recording, the user can navigate to particular points, look at loudness levels, determine if there is a violation, and see if a commercial spot is the content responsible for that violation. If a violation is identified, the user can create and export a clip that not only offers audio and video, but also the loudness measurements associated with the content. As loudness requirements continue to evolve, the system software updates can assure support for the latest loudness standards and measurement techniques.
When an API supports the running of scripts on the unit, a variety of functions can be triggered over IP, with SMNP, or via HTTP messages. As a result, the enterprise can integrate the monitoring system with other systems to achieve even greater visibility into the video delivered to customers. Integration with transport stream analyzers enables the user to look at the visual record of errors; integration with ad servers supports the logging of one or more specific ad insertion events; and integration with emergency alert or caller ID systems could be used to verify those applications.
Until the introduction of an enterprise-grade place- and time-shifting solution, operators were forced to deploy consumer-grade remote video troubleshooting solutions that left them limited not only by stringent user and network restrictions, but also by a lack of features, reliability, and management capabilities. Today, however, flexible time-shifting and place-shifting technology is available in low-cost, professional-grade alternatives that enable operators to reduce the time and cost associated with chronic network troubleshooting. Going beyond standard monitoring, this technology can be leveraged to support a variety of other valuable applications, such as loudness monitoring for compliance, spot check, ad monitoring, and interactive testing or applications.
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