Friday, 7 December 2012

Types of Digital TV Projects, Decision Factors & Typical Duration

In this post I will discuss the various types of Digital TV projects that I've come across over the last twelve (12) years. Although the DTV system is a complex one, and in theory, there are many different permutations and combinations of possible projects, we should not forget that on the part of the Pay TV Operator, it is quite an expensive affair, and therefore these guys are quite resistant to change. Initial costs in setting up the broadcast network must be made up in as short a time as possible (ROI in less than 5 years maybe), subscriber growth must be on the increasing trend, competitive threats kept at bay.

Depending on the market dynamics, some PayTV operators (especially Europe & North America) have strong competition, the market is quite open and those regions usually have a strong regulatory body that promotes a free market, competitiveness and most important of all, the right of consumers to choose. Whilst in other markets such as Africa and Middle East, the PayTV operators that were first to get in when the time was right, are usually market leaders, the dominant player and lack any strong competition.

Regulatory bodies in this region are either non-existent or immature in its abilities in governance and promoting a free market based on consumer choice (South Africa is a good example: not generally consumer driven, although recently this has seen a change with the introduction of the Consumer Protection Act but is still far from having an SA-equivalent of the UK's Ofcom for example ICASA doesn't come close). In the Asia/Pacific markets, there is a growing number of PayTV operators, where competition is rife, time-to-market more important over say, user experience or innovative features (I've seen this with my own eyes, for example - in India, there are some operators that have got products that look like they're built on eighties technology)...

I've set myself quite an ambitious task (as usual). The nature of DTV projects vary, depending on which side of the fence you're sitting on. Of course, all projects that generate revenue are driven by the PayTV operators themselves. If you're a software vendor, say Middleware or EPG Application, you will have a mix of customer delivery projects and internal R&D projects. Both projects have their own challenges, involve various factors that influence decision-making; and both can largely be estimated using general guidelines (that are usually based on performance of past projects).

In this post, I'll discuss projects from the PayTV Operator's point-of-view, in terms of typical use cases. In a future post I will touch on typical R&D projects and what drives primarily software vendors operating in the DTV product space.

My ultimate goal is to develop a projects matrix that shows the popular configurations of DTV projects, takes into account the various influencing factors that not only determine the time/duration for completion, but also the likelihood of success. This post is just the beginning, seeding the idea. I believe I can derive a Planning Formula that can be used by DTV Programme & Project Managers alike in the initial cost, scoping and impact estimation phase of starting a new project. I don't believe anyone has tried to do this before....
This is quite tricky because there are many systems impacted, although at the highest level we group them largely into Headend Projects versus Set-Top-Box (STB) projects. Each of these systems however, share a similar breakdown of project portfolios:
  • Maintenance Project: System is already deployed to a stable customer base, incremental releases aimed at improving performance, stability, scalability and some bug-fixes
  • New Feature Deployment: Enhancing an existing, deployed system. Typically introducing a brand new feature for the end-user, the viewer at home. However, sometimes can be used as internal feature development with deployed components that improves reliability and throughput of the system, the nature of the change quite significant to make it stand out from a Maintenance project. New features can be broken down into:
    • Minor Feature Enhancements - primarily to make the end-user's life happy. Not massively complicated
    • Major Feature Enhancements - still driven at user experience but with some brand new features
    • Massively Complicated - introducing an altogether new service, aimed at increasing revenues, touching on the end-to-end system
  • Greenfields - New Deployment: A fundamental change is required to the system. Introducing a brand new system replacing the old, or a major overhaul of existing system.
Notwithstanding the typical project analysis that includes risk/cost management, which all projects should perform from inception - there are some factors to consider at the high level, which at times is difficult to quantify, but not entirely impossible. In most cases though, there is already a deployed DTV system in place, in production and is servicing real subscribers. So projects inherit a lot of legacy, and also a lot of good or most likely, poor decisions that have been made along the way.

Again, taking the 50 000 feet view - there major players are: PayTV Operator, Software System/Component Vendors and System Integrators. Attempting to breakdown the influencing factors:

  • Quality & Competence of the PayTV Operator's Technical Team
    • What kind of operator are you dealing with? Is the Operator maintain a competent technical / engineering team that can make design and architecture decisions on their own?
      • Or is this the kind of Operator that depends on a complete solution delivery, from requirements, design, implementation, delivery & deployment - to the point of just having an operational team focused on maintaining business operations
    • How much design, development and innovation takes place by the PayTV Operator
    • Is the Operator a leader or a follower? 
      • A leader strives in the path of innovation, often introducing new features the rest of the world hasn't seen yet, including innovating on hardware?
      • A follower is a company who relies on leaders proving the technology first, and if its's successful, follow-through with a copy-cat implementation
    • Is the Operator decisive?
      • Some Operators renege on requirements and expect the original timeline / expectation to hold
      • Do they understand the impact of the technology / integration 
      • Is the Operator realistic with expectations?
  • What is the maturity of the product being enhanced?
    • Assuming the project involves adding new features, or even maintenance upgrades, the maturity of the product (in terms of stability, deployed customer base) is a factor that will impact your timeline
  • Vendors - Frequently asked questions
    • Is the vendor a new kid on the block or a seasoned player in the business?
      • New parties generally are more flexible and can bend to PayTV Operator's demands and expectations more easily, than a vendor who's got solid, entrenched processes and an independent view of its own product roadmap
      • New players are also more likely to make many common mistakes that a seasoned vendor will likely avoid
      • New players tend to have immature products, or products that really have just finished POC stage, and far from being ready for production-quality releases. Their technology might look and feel all whizzbang, be careful for smoke and mirrors
      • Is the vendor well known in the industry?
      • New players might offer disruptive technologies that don't integrate well with existing deployed systems and may force the Operator to bear additional expenses
      • Seasoned vendors are more likely to have integrated with more systems or deployed systems to more Operators than new players
    • How good is the product?
      • In the case of a CA vendor, how secure is the product? How many customers using it? How many security breaches had there been in last five years? What kind of security policy is in place? How many active smart cards? How does the CA solution scale for other domains: Internet TV, DRM, Smartcard-less systems, Tablets, Smartphones & Web browsers?
      • In the case of a Middleware Vendor:
        • What is the deployment base - how many deployed decoders, in active use are there? Less than 100k, over 1 million, 10 million, 100 million??
        • How many customers using this middleware?
        • How long does it take to get a feature to market?
        • What is the typical release and deployment cycle?
        • Does the product have a solid roadmap in place?
        • Are development processes sustainable?
        • Integrity of the architecture - does it scale?
        • Interoperability of the product - is it open to third party integration?
        • How much of IP / Patents have been filed under this product?
        • What is the product's position in the market place?
        • How strong a product development team assigned? Is it 5 engineers, 20, 50, or 700 engineers?
        • Strength of relationships with third party suppliers: Chipset vendors, STB Manufacturers, etc.
        • Iterations of the product?
          • Is this the first attempt at middleware?
          • Is this the first deployment of middleware?
          • Is this the fifth attempt?
          • How many man-years invested in the technology to date?
        • Open Source factors - Is the technology built on Open Source?
          • Is there an Open Source Governance process in place?
          • Will PayTV Operators be liable for Open Source infringements?
        • How secure is the platform?
        • What kind of support model is in place?
          • Are PayTV operators forced to follow with upgrades?
          • Is there enough of a support infrastructure in place to support legacy products?
      • In the case of Application EPG/Applications Vendor:
        • Pretty much the same as for middleware but geared towards user interface, user experience selling factors
        • How long has the vendor been writing EPGs for?
        • What is the deployed market base?
        • How tailorable or customizable is the product?
        • What primary technologies does the EPG use?
        • What is the average turnaround time to development a new feature?
        • How adaptable is the EPG to different middleware platforms?
        • How strong is the patent / IP portfolio?
        • Is the development team outsourced, off-shore and not part of core business teams?
        • What is the track record for this vendor?
        • How many applications deployed?
          • Popularity of applications?
          • Backend requirements of applications - is it heavy or light?
      • In the case of Drivers / STB Manufacturer:
        • Pretty inheriting much the same as above
        • Maturity, track record of past achievements: strong or weak portfolio?
        • Recall rate of set-top-boxes?
        • Mean-time-to-failure of STBs?
        • Incidence of flash/memory corruption resulting in boxes being unusable?
        • Strategies for resiliency, robustness and diagnostic tools?
        • Supply chain management quality
        • Track record for delivering to plan, on time and on budget
        • Number of times the hardware required a re-spin before final production hardware?
        • Quality of drivers - software base maturity?
        • Integration with Chipset vendors - best of breed or dead, distant partners?
        • Relationship / history with Middleware vendors?
        • Relationship / history with Chipset vendors?
        • Relationship / history with CA Vendors?
        • Turnaround time for support issues?
        • Size of team usually allocated for project?
        • Test methodologies and automation tools used for quality assurance?
        • World-standing - where does this vendor stand in comparison to rest of the world?
        • Sustainability of business model / customers - is this vendor going to be around for a long time?
      • In the case of Headend Components Vendor:
        • Pretty much inherits the same points as above
        • Scalability of the headend components
          • Is it easily extendable?
          • Is it built on open standards & protocols?
          • Is there a good redundancy & resiliency model?
          • The cost of maintaining and enhancing the system?
          • The speed at which new features are introduced?
        • Product development methodology
          • Are the processes sound?
            • Is there tight coupling with downstream components making System Integration difficult?
            • Do you get free tools as part of the package?
          • Is there a clear support model in place?
          • What is the procedure for decommissioning and de-support?
        • How many PayTV Operators using the Headend components?
        • Relationship with other third-party suppliers?
        • Relationship with well-established System Integration Partners
      • In the case of a Systems Integration Service Provider:
        • Past track record of SI projects - small, large, complex - time constraints?
        • Reputation in industry? Are they known to deliver?
        • Maturity of company? 
          • Have these guys been doing this for a long time, specialists?
          • Or have they recently jumped on the professional services bandwagon and offering consulting in SI?
            • This seems to be a trend these days. Just because you've been a good component vendor in the past, doesn't mean you will make a good systems integrator...
          • Trustability?
            • SI is a kin to the customer, the PayTV Operator
            • When SI talks, it's as if the customer is speaking - SI must be fully in tune and in sync with with needs and wishes of the primary customer?
          • Relationships?
            • Has the SI worked with all parties in the value chain before?
            • Are there any politics or bad relationships that could steer your project off course?
        • Engineering & Management Discipline?
          • Is it easily visible this SI adopts sound best practices?
          • Element of Realism, Practicality and Decisiveness
          • Talented, superior engineers - highly skilled?
        • Versatility?
          • Often SI is overlooked, some SI specialize just in Set-Top-Box integration?
          • Very hard to find an SI capable of the full end-to-end value chain
This is where the challenging part comes in. There are many different types of projects - in this section, I'm only going to touch on projects I've had direct experience with, since it presents my own knowledge portfolio. The last section in this post includes links to further reading where you can find more info on other types of projects.

The projects will be presented in headline view only. In future posts, I'll elaborate on each project through individual Case Study papers. I also touch on typical duration of the project, giving a range, depending of course, on the influencing factors mentioned in preceding section.

  • PayTV Operator wants to offer a single unified user experience across all deployed set-top-box hardware platforms, replacing the STB middleware, development unified user interface. Support the lowest common denominator STB, full software download, no physical swap-outs - legacy upgraded in field through software update, with no roll-back.
    • Impacts: Product UI/UX Specifications, Full-stack Software Development, Driver Porting, STB Integration
    • Typical duration: 1 - 2 years 
  • PayTV Operator Swap-out of existing in-field STB Software with Software from new Supplier, but preserving the existing UI/UX, keeping existing CA (Conditional Access), Drivers
    • Migration projects are becoming quite a common theme these days. There is increasing competition from new suppliers displacing & disrupting old, traditional suppliers. The convincing factors are usually time-to-market new features, transparency with intellectual property, and overall Operator ownership and influencing power on supplier's roadmap. OpenTV for example, is being massively displaced from the market due to strong competition. All the migration projects I've worked on involved replacing OpenTV with some other Middleware. 
    • If no changes required from existing UI, and only Middleware changes but Drivers remain the same, then it generally requires new adaptations at driver interface, and middleware interface re-engineering. 
    • If the replacement Middleware is very mature, this project could take between 3 - 8 months. This rough estimate is probably valid even if the Middleware hasn't previously been integrated with the STB chipset.
    • If the replacement Middleware is new and doesn't have a wide deployment base or hasn't been previously integrated with STB chipset before, you're looking at 1 - 2 year project, depending on quality of the team.
    • Migration challenges: If migration involves a PVR STB, it becomes quite complicated if the existing recordings, schedules & personal settings must be migrated, with the option of rollback. Migration testing & integration alone is usually a six (6) months activity for a reasonable size integration/test team.
  • There are a many combinations of Swap-out, I won't list them all. Suffice to say, I've worked with many kinds of swap-outs, and on average, based on my my experience estimates around 1 - 3 year project time frames.
  • PayTV Operator decides to wipe the slate clean and introduce a new supplier end-to-end: Headend Components, Brand new Set-Top-Box Hardware, New Middleware, New User Interface, Same CA
    • This is a massive undertaking - huge architectural & development programme, that must be delivered in stages as is best practice
    • Massive system integration activity
    • Can take anywhere between 2 - 5 years, depending on the influencing factors as explained above & features being delivered (end-to-end)
    • Three years is realistic if the team is mature, well-versed in the domain and have seasoned experience of system component development & integration
  • Software Vendor to create a new middleware from scratch and market to PayTV Operators
    • Depends on the complexity of the Middleware
      • Zapper Middleware built on well known reference hardware can take 3 - 8 months
      • Middleware usually is accompanied by reference User Interface that can be done in similar time frame
      • PVR middleware - depending on complexity:
        • Basic Two tuner support, Watch One, Record One: 2 - 3 years timeline
        • Advanced
          • Simultaneous records, tuner sharing, advanced conflict management: Add 6 months to above
          • VOD: IP-VOD or PushVOD: Add 3-6 months to above
      • Middleware product development is complicated by relationships with Chipset vendors and CA Vendors. If you're a small outfit, people generally don't pay attention unless your technology is compelling, or you've got a big PayTV Operator as your customer (large subscriber base)
  • Software Vendor provides EPG Application for multiple Middleware Platforms
    • Depends on complexity of user interface: Features, Scalable Architecture, etc.
    • Depends less so on implementation programming language (Java, C, C++, HTML5, Adobe ActionScript)
    • I've worked with C, Java & Adobe ActionScript technologies, some XML-based
    • Typically a brand new EPG UI, built on a robust Middleware can take between 6 - 24 months, depending on the engineering team.
      • I've seen EPGs implemented in C is around 6 months
      • Some more modern UIs on ActionScript 8-12 months
      • Java EPGs, in my experience is a 2 - 5 year project, depending on quality of architecture and engineering team
  • Other projects involve Headend Component Maintenance (3 months), New Headend Component Development (6 - 8 months), STB Driver development/porting (6 - 8 months depending on Middleware)
It's quite challenging to break the typical project as I've attempted to do so here. The common themes though, based on the age of most PayTV Operators (i.e. the ones that's been in the business for years) are looking for new technology partners, especially partnering with players who can offer modern features as being demanded by the convergence of technologies today (Web, Telco, Cloud, On-Demand, Mobile, Streaming, etc.). In order to have a flexible roadmap that takes Operators to the future (5 - 10 years ahead), most projects will typically cover the scenarios listed above.

Related Reading Material
Architect Roles
Role of System Integration
Typical DTV Programme Organisational Structures
Case Studies from Respected Sources
Overview of DTV White Paper

1 comment:

  1. Wow - you really do have some breadth & depth of experience. Looking forward to your modeling tool - recommend you stick with your gut feel & instincts, it's worked well for me!