Columbus Communications

Multiscreen Video Services with a Twist

Gone are the days when people crowded around the family television set, adjusting schedules so as not to miss the six o’clock news, their favorite sitcom or a rerun of a much-loved movie. Modern day consumers are demanding the ability to watch any TV show or movie at anytime of the day or night. They also expect to watch content from any device, including their television, PC, tablet or smartphone. As a telecommunications company that prides itself on “enabling the future,” Columbus Communications wanted to offer its cable subscribers unparalleled access to TV and video on-demand from a variety of Internet-connected devices. Yet, it also wanted to offer the new service in a way that simplified life for its customers. How is Columbus delivering high-performance, low-cost multiscreen video services while surpassing the competition?

Background: A ‘Build it Once, Build it Right’ Philosophy

Columbus Communications Inc. is a retail and wholesale telecommunications company in the Caribbean and Latin America. It offers cable television‚ high speed Internet access‚ digital telephony and corporate data services to 270,000 subscribers in 22 countries throughout the Caribbean, Andean and Central America regions. It also provides wholesale telecom capacity and IP services to large international telecom carriers, Internet service providers and other value added service providers through the operation of an undersea and terrestrial fiber optic cable network.

Formed in 2004, Columbus’s mission is simple: “Don’t predict the future, enable it.” Although a relatively new telecommunications player, Columbus has made significant inroads since its inception eight years ago. As Columbus continues to broaden its reach, it is positioning itself as the alternative provider of choice to the legacy telecommunications systems that currently dominate the region. Adhering to a “build it once, build it right” philosophy, Columbus is committed to the construction of a world–class technical infrastructure and systems that are technically superior to its competitors.

Challenge: The Right Encoding Technology at the Right Cost

Over the past few years, the consumer video experience has evolved at a breathtaking pace. With the advent of new services from Netflix, Hulu and others, consumers have come to expect to watch television and videos anytime from any device. To maintain its leading edge, Columbus executives decided to introduce new multiscreen video services. The goal was to offer its cable subscribers unparalleled access to TV and on-demand video from a variety of Internet-connected devices including PCs, tablets, smartphones and hybrid set-top boxes.

But Columbus executives didn’t stop there. As they considered how to package the new service, they decided to provide their customers with a single user interface from which they could access all of the company’s offerings. The idea was to make it easier for customers to manage their subscription services — including cable television, on-demand video, Internet and email — from a single location. So, for example, if customers want to program their traditional DVR, select a video to watch from their iPad or manage their email account, they could do it all from a single application that resides on their iPad or other smart device. “Many operations today disaggregate these individual service offerings into discrete components across multiple applications,” said Darren Richer, Chief Technology Officer at Columbus Communications. “This is not what customers want, and we plan to be different.”

As Columbus executives began researching encoding technologies, one of the key challenges was cost. The equipment required to deliver video to a critical mass of customers could have quickly exhausted the company’s budget — in the form of capital costs, power consumption and maintenance. Another challenge was selecting the right technology. In a market where the pace of innovation is measured in months, not years, it was important to choose a multiscreen partner whose technology would not become obsolete.

Elemental Server Workflow

  • Provide high-quality multiscreen video services
  • Keep costs low
  • Invest in technology that stays current over time
  • Stream video to any device with Elemental Live
  • Harness the flexibility of a hybrid solution
  • Use a phased roll-out approach
  • Achieve high performance and flexibility
  • Lower operating and maintenance costs
  • Integrate offerings into a single user interface

Solution: A Best of Both Worlds Technology

Columbus began evaluating technologies by conducting competitive benchmarking tests in several areas. In the video processing category alone, the company evaluated nine solutions, including hardware and software-based solutions.

Company officials soon found that hardware-only solutions based on digital signal processors (DSPs) and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICS) performed well, but were inflexible and would require too much time to bring the new service to market as they waited for the integration of the latest streaming technologies. On the other hand, traditional software only solutions were flexible but because of the lack of performance using central processing units (CPUs) as the core of the solution, required too much off-the-shelf hardware for the deployment Columbus envisioned.

In the end, Columbus chose Elemental® Live and Elemental® Server, software-defined video solutions that bring together the high performance of a hardware-only solution with the flexibility of a software-only solution into a compact footprint. Elemental Live is a video processing system that delivers the high performance required for streaming live video to any device. Elemental Server is a powerful file-to-file transcoder that is unmatched in the industry in terms of quality and speed. Both merge the benefits of general purpose processors with the flexibility and forward compatibility of intelligent software, giving unmatched price-performance for video compression. “Transcoding is a critical component of the architecture supporting our new multiscreen video services, and Elemental is strategic to the deployment,” said Richer.

Using Elemental Live, Columbus will convert more than 250 linear channels of broadcast content (as well as thousands of hours of on-demand content through its purchase of Elemental Server). The company is rolling out its new service in three phases. Customers using iPhones and iPads will have access to the new service beginning in the fall 2012. The service will then be rolled out to Android, PC and Macintosh users, followed by users of hybrid set-top boxes at a later date.

Elemental Live Workflow

“Many operations today disaggregate individual service offerings into discrete components across multiple applications...This is not what customers want, and we plan to be different.”Darren Richer
Chief Technology Officer, Columbus Communications

Benefit: A High-Quality Service at the Right Price

By choosing Elemental, Columbus will be able to deliver high-performance multiscreen video services to its customers quickly and at less cost.

Because Elemental systems are based on the Linux operating system, Columbus is able to take advantage of UNIX features to gain performance and prevent any single point of server failure. In addition, Elemental uses off-the-shelf hardware that can evolve, so the company doesn’t need to worry that its investment will become obsolete, as the systems are easily upgradeable with the evolution of technology.

Columbus has also benefited from Elemental’s ability to quickly produce the custom features the telecommunications company needs. This, in turn, has helped Columbus bring a high-quality service to market faster. “Elemental owns and produces a larger portion of its software code than any other vendor,” said Richer. “They just simply can’t be touched in terms of their responsiveness and innovation speed.”

Elemental Live will also save Columbus in operating and maintenance costs. It consumes one quarter the power of other solutions the company tested, Richer remarked. And it provides comparable performance at about one-quarter of the rackspace as well.

With solutions from Elemental, Columbus has been able to go beyond the competition by enabling their customers to manage all the parts of their subscription plan—from cable TV to Internet to on-demand video—from a single location. “We’ve created a way for our subscribers to view the content they want from any Internet-connected device,” Richer said. “And we’re allowing them to manage it right alongside all of their other services. That’s a first. No one else in the industry is doing this.”

“Transcoding is a critical component of the architecture supporting our new multiscreen video services, and Elemental is strategic to the deployment.”Darren Richer
Chief Technology Officer, Columbus Communications