Don't start the revolution without Node
Barely a week after the Times Media Group (TMG) launched the first South African online movie streaming service offering both subscription and rental options, yet another contender for the reinvention of home entertainment took the stage.
Hard on the heels of TMG’s VIDI, electronics conglomerate Altech this week announced Node, a combination of smart home gateway and entertainment service.
The fundamental difference – and one which underpins every one of Node’s differentiators, is the fact that it uses a data and satellite-linked electronic box of tricks not unlike a set-top decoder, as opposed to VIDI depending entirely on the customer’s own devices and Internet connection.
If anything, the Node box competes with DStv’s Explora, a high-definition decoder that has changed many South Africans’ experience of TV movies, series, sports and news, with its dazzling display quality. Altech claims it to be “the world’s first fully converged home gateway console”, going well beyond movie and TV series bouquets.
It is what the company’s strategy and technology executive Willie Oosthuysen describes as a “triple-play-quad-play” service. “Triple-play” refers to a combination of audio, video and data, while “quad-play”, as far as Oosthuysen is concerned, is about taking the service mobile.
“Why are no operators providing a triple-play or quad-play service in South Africa?” he asked this week.
“The main challenge is not having access to affordable broadband. So we designed a secure digital media delivery platform, where it doesn’t matter if you have wi-fi or 3G, and we added a 10 Megabit-per-second satellite connection.”
The concept is simple: the slowest of internet connections can be used to submit or upload requests for content or information, and the satellite connection is then used to download the most high-quality content possible.
Our test of the service was in a location with close to zero data connectivity, yet the signal was strong enough to process account details and request downloads.
“We use it as a big fat pipe into your house,” says Oosthuysen. The idea is that we’ve moved the last mile connection into the home. Any heavy lifting of multimedia content is via satellite: all you need is a 3G card and a satellite connection, and you can have a triple-play service delivered to your house.”
This dual-connectivity results in “smart entertainment” with more than 700 hours of movies, series and sports downloaded into the box, requiring merely a tiny piece of uploaded code to unlock specific content. The content can then be streamed to up to five devices – with each family member potentially able to watch a different movie, documentary or TV episode at the same time.
The Node is also part of a broader ecosystem of services and accessories, such as Smart Plugs that connect a TV set to wireless cameras and even light switches, allowing for monitoring and control of the home environment. E-commerce functionality is also built in, and will allow for airtime, data and electricity recharge services.
If it sounds as if Altech is the answer to entertainment-hungry consumers’ prayers, there is a hard-nosed business strategy behind the concept.
“We wanted to make sure there are multiple revenue streams from the consumer,” says Oosthuysen. “So it’s not a set-top box but an end-to-end system, which includes a content carousel, a content management system, a player server, and an encryption mechanism, so that we can encrypt content from the studios, and send it via satellite to all Nodes.
“There’s a [one terabyte] hard drive in the device, and 80% of that is used for content from the studios. The differentiator is that we can actually deliver DVD-quality high-definition movies. At the press of a button you can watch HD movies in 1080p, with no quality degrade based on the delivery mechanism.”
That feature is a clear swipe at VIDI, which uses “adaptive streaming” to adjust the quality of a movie based on the quality of a user’s Internet connection.
Like VIDI, Node has two viewing models, namely the TVoD (transactional Video on Demand) rental model, and the SVoD (subscription VOD) all-you-can-watch option. As with DStv’s BoxOffice, new rental movies cost R25 and can be viewed over 48 hours. As with VIDI, older movies will cost R15 to rent. The device itself costs R3 499, but will be available on a cellphone-style contract at around R190 a month. The SVoD service will cost R299 a month, double that of VIDI.
An Android app is planned both to control the device remotely and to enable downloads from a dedicated app store that will turn a Node-connected TV into a smart TV.
A mobile upstart
Lurking in the app stores is yet another claimant to the title of South African TV disruptor – and this one offers its services for free.
An app called Tuluntulu offers free streaming of broadcast TV via tablets and smartphones. It has launched with 10 channels, including Al Jazeera, ANN7 and the education channel Mindset Learn. The aim appears to be to become a TV version of TuneIn Radio, which provides mobile access to numerous radio stations across the world. However, it is severaly constrained by bandwidth.
Tuluntulu founder Pierre van der Hoven, best known for creating the private satellite TV advertising service Three Blind Mice, believes this will change.
“Smartphone growth in Africa has been way beyond expectations,” he says. “But the exciting part is that this is only set to grow exponentially. We are seeing a steady drop in the cost of smartphones, tablets and data costs fuelling this growth, and video streaming on mobile phones will soon become a part of the African status quo.” Tuluntulu is intended to be used either with low-bandwidth connections or on free wi-fI networks, which are beginning to proliferate in Africa.
Launched in June, momentum is building. The app has had 19 000 downloads in the past 30 days, of which about 85% have been from South Africa, while uptake in Nigeria is accelerating.
Clearly, the TV revolution is only just beginning.