GCI Starts Down Video’s IP Pathway

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Though legacy QAM-based video platforms will stick around for years to come, cable operators big and small are already migrating to live, on-demand and even cloud DVR services delivered over a more flexible internet-protocol path.

GCI, honored as the 2017 Independent Operator of the Year by Multichannel News, has already begun to blaze that trail in the wilds of Alaska, starting with video-on-demand.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the operator space that I’m aware of that … doesn’t believe that IP is the future for video,” Duncan Whitney, vice president of product management at GCI, said.

It’s a tricky proposition: GCI will have to push ahead to new platforms while supporting a legacy QAM video architecture that has significant headend, advertising and data management implications.

“You can’t flash-cut from legacy QAM video over to IP for every customer overnight. We have to be able to maintain both products,” Whitney said. “The challenge for us smaller operators is to trying to meet the modern customer need while not stranding our legacy customers who don’t want change. If you force change too quickly, you’re going to upset one side while you’re attempting to please the other.”

Adjusting to Changing Habits
But he also acknowledged that consumer viewing habits are changing as subscribers become more accustomed to options that allow on-demand access on a multitude of mobile and TV-connected devices.

To that end, GCI recently agreed to deploy Evolution Digital’s managed eVUE-TV IPTV platform in “select service regions,” including all markets serviced by GCI where VOD is available.

GCI’s eVUE-TV deployment is expected to begin this fall, and follows one announced last November in which GCI agreed to deploy the eBOX, a hybrid IP/QAM device from Evolution Digital that integrates linear TV, over-the-top apps, pay-per-view service and VOD on a common platform tied together with a TiVo-powered interface.

GCI, which ended Q1 with 106,100 basic video subs, will later expand that IP VOD offering to its more widely deployed base of IP-capable DVRs that also run the TiVo interface/platform.

GCI already offers a robust VOD service using QAM transport, but the move to IP-based VOD is “considered a first step in their [IP video] transition plans,” Marc Cohen, executive vice president of sales at Evolution Digital, said.

GCI’s QAM VOD platform will likely remain in place for as long as there are QAM-only boxes still in the field. But the transition will eventually have GCI move all of its VOD under the IP umbrella and to take more advantage of the capacity that’s fueling its DOCSIS network. That transition will also enable GCI to move on-demand services to a more advanced interface that offers the kind of look and feel and navigational features that consumers are getting with popular OTT services such as Netflix.

As IP video transitions go, VOD offers a great place to start, as it can be offered on a fresh interface and on both DVR and non-DVR boxes with IP capabilities, Chris Egan, Evolution Digital’s CEO and co-founder, said. It also opens new doors to dynamic ad insertion.

And GCI’s rollout of eVUE-TV eventually will extend beyond the set-top box. By leveraging IP transport, GCI will also lay the foundation for future offerings that, for example, will allow it to extend its VOD service to an array of other types of devices, including smartphones, tablets and PCs.

“We’re setting up ourselves architecturally to be able support customers so they can consume the content on whatever device they want as we work out the rights issues,” Whitney said.

eVUE-TV also provides the basis for future phases that could include linear channels as well as network DVR implementations.

On the linear side, GCI could create an IP-powered avenue for TV on authenticated mobile apps or to set-top boxes. And with proper rights secured, the underpinning technology could also become the foundation for operators to develop and deploy slimmed-down, OTT-based video packages that could be tailored to cord-cutters or to broadband customers who have yet to add pay TV to their bundle, while also employing a bring-your-own-device model.

OTT in the Content Mix
At the moment, GCI is embracing different sources of OTT content, starting with its rollout of the TiVo platform, which provides unified access to GCI’s video service alongside services such as Hulu, Netflix and YouTube.

Focusing on cord-cutters and cord-nevers, GCI has also teamed up with Sling TV on a unique promotion whereby GCI’s broadband customers can get a 30-day free trial of Dish Network’s OTT TV service (Sling TV regularly offers a seven-day free trial).

“We want to enable customers to have good experiences and get what they want, whether it’s our video product or somebody else’s,” Whitney said.

That promotion, which is being marketed online and featured at GCI stores that also offer Roku players and Apple TV devices that can run Sling TV, is “part of a recognition that there’s a multitude of ways customers may want to have a video experience,” he said. “We’re trying to modernize the video product offering so that it’s not a one-size-fits-all offering for the differing types of customers that exist today.”

GCI has also been speeding up the pipes that can deliver that OTT content as it now offers service at 1 Gbps across the bulk of its fiber and HFC plant.