Meeting Customer Demand With Live Streaming Video Services
DirectLink is a small but nimble independent telecommunications service provider located in Canby, Oregon approximately 25 miles south of Portland, Oregon. It strives to offer its 8000 cooperative members the highest quality experience across its triple play services – voice, high-speed internet and digital television. In recent years, DirectLink has worked assiduously to offer its members more robust video options – in line with changing consumer expectations and a fast-changing media landscape, all while remaining true to core cooperative values of being a good community steward.
What this has meant in terms of DirectLink’s offerings has been an expansion in the rural telco’s video services and overall service footprint, and the ability to bring more TV channels and a broader array of video content to subscribers.
To complement its IPTV service, which offers different television bundles with add-on HDR and DVR capabilities, DirectLink launched EZVideo, a live streaming video service. EZVideo enables DirectLink to extend live, local TV service to DSL customers located too far from the video headend to receive traditional IPTV service, and to subscribers who receive poor reception of off-air broadcast signals.
The EZ Video service delivers ten live, local broadcast channels to subscribers via a private channel on Roku streaming media players. Content is delivered to DirectLink’s high-speed internet subscribers over the cooperative’s managed last-mile broadband network. The EZVideo platform also offers video-on-demand (VOD) from its local community access channel, CTV 5.
How did DirectLink build out new video services quickly and easily to balance growing customer expectations, the need for new revenue streams and maintain an eye towards fiscal responsibility?
Background: A Cooperative Enterprise
DirectLink was founded in 1904 by farmers, ranchers and local businessmen in the Canby regional area to bring telephone service to the small, rural community in which they lived and worked. These founders pooled their resources to form the Macksburg Mutual Telephone Association, which initially offered a four-line switchboard. Demand grew precipitously and in two years, the switch was upgraded to support 50 lines. The company was renamed the Canby Cooperative Association, and since then, its name has changed several times including most recently in November 2016. The cooperative, now referred to as DirectLink, consolidated Canby Telcom and Mt. Angel Telephone Company into one organization serving approximately 8000 members in Canby and Mt. Angel, Oregon.
DirectLink is one of 260 telephone cooperatives in 31 states that brings voice, video and data services to 1.2 million Americans.1 DirectLink’s goal has been steadfast since the cooperative’s founding: to provide unlimited potential to the community. This encompasses the telco’s unwavering brand promise, “We’re here for you.” As a cooperative, subscribers are members with an ownership stake.
The ultimate aim of DirectLink is to “build a better world” that improves quality of life in the broader community. The cooperative is an active participant in the community, giving back through sponsorships and donations to over 60 local organizations. These range from boy scout troops, the Canby Arts Association, the Canby Fire District, St. Joseph Shelter, the Father Bernard Youth Center, sports teams and educational foundations, to name a few. DirectLink employees also participate in programs, committees and on boards, and volunteer in the community.
The leaders of the cooperative view the move into live streaming video services as another step in doing what is right for their community and their members, all while staying competitive in a fast-changing industry. According to SNL Kagan, pay TV operators have lost more than 1.3 million subscribers this year.2 Industry executives recognize that competition is set to increase dramatically in the coming years. According to Digital TV Research, global OTT revenues are expected to grow from $29.4B in 2015 to $64.8B in 2021.3 DirectLink has maintained its competitive edge and fended off subscriber losses as a result of innovative service offerings such as fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), high-speed internet services, office and in-home managed WiFi services, and EZVideo.
EZVideo provides popular free and subscription-based channels such as Netflix, Amazon Video, HBO Now, MLB.tv and more through the Roku streaming media player. EZVideo is another industry first representing generations of technical firsts coming from DirectLink. It is the first live streaming video service in North America to include 24x7 content from local broadcast affiliates. EZVideo is also a first-of-its-kind combination of off-air broadcast content and professional, locally-originated content.
All CTV 5 content is available from the EZVideo platform via VOD. CTV 5 is a community-funded and operated station which provides live coverage of city council meetings, planning council meetings and school board meetings; live high school sports, events and graduations; on-demand cooking shows; the annual classic car and hot rod show; and local music performances.
- DIRECTLINK AT A GLANCE
- Located in Canby, Oregon, this telecommunications cooperative reaches 8000 members
- DirectLink, formerly Canby Telcom, was founded in 1904 by farmers, ranchers and businessmen to provide voice services for the community
- DirectLink averages a 95 percent positive customer satisfaction ratings in third-party surveys
- DIRECTLINK INDUSTRY INNOVATIONS
- First digital telephone switch west of the Mississippi River
- First “gigabit” community in the Pacific Northwest
- First Roku live streaming service to feature local broadcast affiliates
Challenge: Versatility at Minimal Cost
Achieving this level of service for the community has taken time and fiscally responsible investments. It has been especially critical to work through the cooperative’s greatest challenge, which, according to Derrick Mottern, VP of Network Operations at DirectLink, is the organization’s small size. “We pay more for our content than another company with a greater subscriber base.” As competition ramps up from live streaming services, and consumer behavior changes to include cord cutting and device-driven viewing, the cooperative needed a solution that would address these challenges and help it reach consumers limited by bandwidth constraints and distance. Finding the right vendor to enable the cost-effective launch of live streaming video services was key.
“When DirectLink sought to build out a live-streaming video service that offered live, local broadcast channels,” says Mottern, “we considered the main providers in the market. Elemental was one of the leaders both on the broadcast side and the service provider side. Elemental offers carrier-class equipment with five nines of reliability, scalability and flexibility.”
As Mottern explains, the relationship between DirectLink and Elemental has been two-fold. “One, Elemental partners with us to make sure we are successful in the video industry and two, they are local and have been an advocate for us to collaborate on innovative projects.”
Solution: Unified Video Architecture
Using software-defined video solutions from Elemental to power both IPTV and EZVideo with a unified video architecture has been a progressive deployment. First and foremost, the deployment had to accommodate the many ways that DirectLink receives video content. Local off-air channels arrive as MPEG-2 signals via an antenna, and national linear cable channels come in as MPEG-4 signals via satellite. DirectLink transports local public, education and government channels over a direct fiber connection. Other community-based content, such as local high school sports and events, community cooking shows and municipal events, is transferred as MP4 video files.
Initially, DirectLink deployed Elemental Live video processing to support its EZVideo platform because Elemental Live could ingest video content in multiple formats and operate within DirectLink’s existing video infrastructure. DirectLink expanded its investment in Elemental Live encoders to “cap and grow” the cooperative’s aging single-purpose, single-stream IPTV encoders. This was a logical complement to support new IPTV channels, offering greater channel density, lower per-channel cost and the added benefit of being a multi-codec encoder. DirectLink committed to converting all of its legacy MPEG-2 video to MPEG-4 video to reclaim network capacity.
“We moved into the Elemental solution as part of the transition to a unicast adaptive bitrate environment,” says Mottern. “This enabled DirectLink to offer an app-based video service. We found that it managed traditional MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 multicast video very well and as a result, we converted all of our IPTV services to Elemental solutions.”
Ultimately, DirectLink replaced all of its legacy single-stream, single-codec encoders with Elemental Live video processing and deployed Elemental Conductor to simplify management of the Elemental Live instances. This unified infrastructure reduced costs and future-proofed the telco’s video network as new technologies become available.
"Being a small provider, what we look for in our vendors is making sure we can partner and that they have made sure we have been successful. Elemental has been that and more." Derrick Mottern
VP, Network Operations, DirectLink
Benefit: Streamlined For Technology Improvements
“Our cooperative is short on resources,” says Mottern. “Having a unified headend ensures that we can train our personnel.” This is especially important because the DirectLink video headend includes 37 different platforms, which imposes a tremendous learning curve on the cooperative’s lone headend technician. “More importantly,” continues Mottern, a unified video headend “has financial benefits. We no longer have to invest in different technologies. Software-defined video processing from Elemental allows DirectLink to use the same box to support different video workflows as we pursue emerging technologies and capabilities.”
DirectLink is now considering an expansion of its EZVideo platform to offer a larger selection of channels to its subscribers. This, together with its fiber network buildout – which the company plans to complete within four years – is part of a broader vision to provide the bandwidth and services necessary for subscribers to future-proof their homes and businesses for the next century.
“Elemental solutions have helped us accomplish our goal,” says Mottern, “and we know that when we need to build out new capabilities, DirectLink can achieve that without a large investment or capex outlay.”