WebTuner Developing ‘Virtual MVPD Service’

WebTuner, a startup run by a group of cable and video technology veterans, is emerging from stealth mode this week to reveal itself as one of a growing group of companies developing a next-gen, IP-based video platform designed to support a full range of live TV, video-on-demand and over-the-top services.

Founded in 2010 and based in Redmond, Wash., WebTuner is building its “virtual MVPD service” on a cloud-based infrastructure that is paired with a colorful line of miniature IP video clients and a fancy user interface.

Rather than developing its own virtual MSO that would sell services directly to consumers over highspeed broadband connections, WebTuner’s intention is to partner up and integrate with large and small multichannel video programming distributors, including incumbent cable operators. That approach appears to be similar to one that’s being pursued by Layer3 TV, a company founded last year that is billing itself as a “next-generation cable provider.”

The baseline in-home device that will run video services securely over WebTuner’s platform is outfitted with a dual-core ARM-based processor, a High-Definition Multimedia Interface port, and integrated dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth and Zigbee wireless connectivity, according to the company.

Although this adapter will be capable of streaming video, it’s really “a plug-in computer” that provides security at the chip level and will perform all the key functions found in a traditional set-top box, Bernee Strom, WebTuner CEO and co-founder, said.

The WebTuner remote control will have seven buttons on its front side, a full QWERTY keyboard on its backside, and the ability to speak to the TV over IR, as well as RF. The RF component means the system won’t require a direct-line-of-sight connection between the remote and the WebTuner video adapter.

On the software side, WebTuner’s platform runs on Android, and the company said it has developed a UI that can be personalized to the individual customer. Strom said WebTuner is also open to porting other UIs to its platform, if that’s the preference of its MVPD partners.

The device and the UI will also support an audience measurement system that could be used to deliver addressable and interactive advertising, Strom said.

Because WebTuner’s intention is to partner with MVPDs, it will rely on a bring-your-own programming and content rights model “for the most part,” Strom said, noting that WebTuner is also working on its own content deals.

It is also already holding talks with cable operators and industry organizations, including the National Cable Television Cooperative, a buying agent for about 1,000 independent cable operators.

While second- and third-tier operators will be among WebTuner’s key targets, because they likely don’t have the internal R&D resources to turn up a next-gen video project on their own, “there are still things we can do with Comcast,” Strom predicted. She said WebTuner is also open to working with virtual MSOs.

But how MVPDs or others will work with WebTuner is an open question and will be dependent on their distribution rights. That could pave the way for a full suite of services delivered over IP, or set up new types of “lite,” more personalized video tiers tailored to college students, cord-cutters and other consumer segments.

Strom said rights are starting to open up for such offerings, referencing the new deal between The Walt Disney Co. and Dish Network that grants the satellite- TV giant rights to deliver Disney programing via a multichannel service that is streamed over the Internet.

“It’s moving there; it’s time to prepare,” she said.

As for WebTuner’s readiness, she said the company will complete its UI by May (and is open to licensing it), with its video adapters ready by the end of this summer. Its full platform will be set for launch by the second half of the year, she said.

WebTuner has raised $12 million of an anticipated $20 million round of funding. It has 15 employees, with developers in Toronto, Ukraine and Israel.

Tuning Up

Bernee Strom, CEO and co-founder: A “serial entrepreneur” who is late of Gemstar International (now part of Rovi Corp.), Priceline. com, Infospace and Ibquity, among others. She serves on or has previously served on the boards of Benchmark Electronics, DirecTV and Software Publishing Group.

Edward Zaslavsky, president, CTO and co-founder: While at FourthWall Media, he developed the company’s EBIF user agent for interactive apps, and is a former exec of ITV pioneer Liberate Technologies.

Steve Santamaria, chief revenue officer and vice president of business development: During his 14-career at Intel, where he was most recently general manager of the Digital Store Front business, he held executive slots in sales, marketing, and soft ware and services. He also developed a graphics and media software business there that worked with such clients as DreamWorks, Pixar, LucasFilms, Technicolor, Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony and CBS.