EchoStar hasn’t been very successful in breaking into the US STB market. They, of course, continue to supply hardware to sister company Dish Network, but one of the objectives of splitting the companies apart was to allow EchoStar to provide hardware to other MVPDs. So far they’ve mostly come up empty, though they’re still pushing CableCARD SlingLoaded DVRs. But it looks like they’re trying a new angle – a network DVR (nDVR).. With a network DVR nothing is ‘recorded’ at the users home. There is no storage in the STB. Rather all of the storage lives at the head end and is streamed, generally via IPTV, to the STB ‘on demand’.
The user still has to request specific recordings, and a separate copy is kept for every user. If you and ten of your neighbors record the same program, eleven copies are kept on the head end. While this is inefficient and, frankly, stupid, from a technical standpoint, it is due to legal requirements. Cablevision is deploying nDVRs in some of their territories in NY and CT. They were sued by content providers over the nDVR – and won. But the ruling hinges on the fact that the nDVR works just like a ‘normal’ DVR with each user recording their own content. The functionality is the same, only the storage has moved from the customer’s home to the central office. Making one copy and providing access to multiple users would be redistribution, legally, and is a no-no. Hopefully someday the law will catch up to reality, but I’m not holding my breath.
There is one point in the Light Reading article reporting on this that I’m not sure I agree with:
That means EchoStar’s system will be built to store the individual programs a given customer sets to record, and won’t back up that data. So if a hard drive fails, all of the recorded content on that drive goes poof.
My understanding is that, while the ruling does require separate recordings for each user and would not allow backups, it doesn’t forbid using modern storage technology such as RAID. Indeed, there are some home DVRs that use RAID today. For the non-geeks, RAID is Redundant Array of Independent Drives. To over-simplify, picture to physical hard drives acting as one logical drive, with two copies of everything – one copy per drive. You only have the storage capacity of one drive, but you have redundancy – if one physical drive fails you don’t lose any data, it is safely on the other drive. And you can swap out the dead drive, copy everything over, and restore redundancy with nothing being lost. Since I’m sure EchoStar’s system will be using commercial grade storage arrays at the central office I’d be a bit surprised if they didn’t use some form of RAID or the equivalent.
Beyond the possibility of offering some form of redundancy, there are also economies of scale. Since a storage array will be shared across many users, even with redundant recordings the total raw storage space required to support a number of users, for the same number of recordings, is less than with individual drives in every home. It just works out to be a more efficient distribution with less wasted space. The environment in a data center is likely to be better for the drives than the average home too – clean, reliable power, good environmental controls, minimal vibration, etc. And since the recordings are already in the ‘cloud’, and EchoStar is of course the owner of placeshifting pioneer Sling Media, I would expect them to include the ability to stream your recordings to other devices. And that would be without requiring you to buy a Slingbox or use your broadband connection to send the data out of your home.
EchoStar says they’ll deliver the nDVR to their first customer by the end of 2012. While sister company Dish Network normally gets first dibs on new EchoStar products, I’m not sure that will be true this time. The problem with nDVRs is that they require sending different streams, possibly multiple streams, to every home. Imagine watching one show in the living room, while three other household members watch other recordings in other rooms. That’s four data streams into your home. Now all of your neighbors are doing the same. Satellite doesn’t do this well, it is best suited for sending the same content into multiple homes because of the fixed number of transponders. Even satellite data systems are more bandwidth limited than cable, fiber, or even DSL systems. They could have something tricky up their sleeves, like a wireless data play for delivery, but I think it is more likely that this will show up with a cable MSO. Very likely a second tier MSO looking for a technical edge, much as RCN & Suddenlink have turned to TiVo.
And speaking of TiVo, many view the nDVR as a threat to TiVo as their business has been built around placing ‘conventional’ DVRs into homes. But I disagree. TiVo’s main selling point is their UI, not the fact that the hard drive is in the STB. TiVo could just as easily split their product and create an nDVR. In fact, something like the TiVo Preview could easily be the STB client for an nDVR system. Right now it is designed to stream from a DVR in the home, but that data stream could just as easily be delivered into the home from remote storage. Exactly the same way OTT content is delivered to TiVo today. If demand for nDVRs takes off I’m sure we’ll see an nDVR from TiVo. The Virgin Media TiVo in the UK already has a DOCSIS modem and it looks like the upcoming 16.x software includes DOCSIS support, which could be hinting at future US products as well. And there is MoCA as well, which could communicate with an MSO gateway unit. Saying ‘data is data’ is a bit simplistic, but not too far off the mark.
In any case, it will be interesting to see if EchoStar gets more traction with their nDVR than they’ve achieved with their SlingLoaded cable products to date.
Via Light Reading.