Chorus wants to be the new Kordia

Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers says UFB was always designed to deliver TV and broadband service from separate providers.

Chorus hopes its 4K live TV over fibre trial,  under way in Auckland, will lead to a whole new line of business.

The company's network strategy manager, Kurt Rodgers, gave NBR a tour around the company's trial site: a studio; mockup up living room and content delivery network (CDN) all housed next to each other in a Chorus office in Grafton.

Unsurprisingly, everything works perfectly in this controlled environment as a static image of objects on a desk was fed, via the CDB and fibre, to a big screen TV plus two tablets (a handful of Chorus staff can also get the picture at home).

The next step will be to get trial participants Sky TV and Freeview to agree on the shape of a live trial in the field.

What's so different?
If that goes well, how soon could Chorus deliver 4K TV over fibre for either of the broadcasters? As soon as the New Year, Mr Rodgers says – though he adds that it's dependent on Sky TV and Freeview making the commercial decision to come on board. He concedes that process will have a much longer timeframe. Nevertheless, it's interesting this option is on the table.

Receiving video over fibre, or any type of broadband connection is nothing new. Many Kiwi households have been using TVNZ on Demand, Lightbox, 3Now and other streaming services for a few years now – and some, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video offer 4K (or ultra high definition video).

The difference with Chorus's proposed service is that it wouldn't be over the top "; it would physically plug into a Sky TV or Freeview decoder or set-top box. It's also geared for the demands of hundreds of thousands watching a live broadcast stream at once. You could think of a live sports event but essentially Chorus is looking for fibre to be the main way that broadcast television is delivered, replacing the satellite and Kordia transmission tower setup of today. Mr Rodgers acknowledges that, in effect, Chorus is looking to replace what Kordia does today in broadcasting.

Kordia is no stranger to internet-delivered video. It was Sky TV’s original partner for its Go service but was dumped after a series of glitches. The state-owned company later rebounded by winning the contract for Parliament TV. 

However, Kordia is effectively a content delivery network provider (or CDN). Chorus owns most UFB fibre and the ONT in most UFB homes (that box that gets put on your wall during a UFB install).

That ONT (optical network terminal) is the crux of things. 

Unrealised potential
When Chorus signed its UFB contracts with the Crown, a key element was that each ONT would have six ports (plugs for connecting to other devices).

Crown Fibre Holdings (now Crown Infrastructure Partners) thought this would be a good way to encourage competition. Two of the ports were for phone services, one of the other four was for a broadband connection via an ISP (which could be different from a phone provider) while TV could be delivered through one of the spare ports – again potentially by a different provider.

In reality, the multiple ports have not fostered competition. Nearly everyone gets their phone and broadband through the same ISP, and TV via the ONT has been a non-event.

Chorus is looking to switch that up by utilising port 4 on an ONT for broadband-delivered television.

The idea is that the ONT would plug directly into a Sky TV or Freeview decoder. 

No direct consumer cost
There would be no direct cost to the consumer. Sky TV and Freeview would pay Chorus to deliver their channels into homes, just as the pair pay Kordia today for terrestrial transmission.

And it would not count toward a user's monthly data cap because it would be a completely independent feed from a broadband connection via the user's ISP.

Mr Rodgers concedes an increasing amount of viewing is via smart devices but he sees "cultural appeal" of the ONT-to-decoder solution to Freeview and Sky TV managers, who have grown up with decoders, which are still central to their plans (even if Sky is now opening up to a decoder-less future).

Part of Chorus's trial setup is a one-rack CDN, using commodity hardware from Dell-EMC, running industry-standard transcoding software. Mr Rodgers says Chorus could potentially put CDNs in all of its exchanges to "get content as close to the consumer as possible for performance." However, this isn't the central element of his company's plan. He acknowledges that all broadcasters are likely to want to use multiple CDNs, as is typical in the streaming world. 

Everything looks hunky-dory with Chorus's trial, as Mr Rodgers demonstrated three different 4K streams running over one mock-household connection (via an Android TV box; the real thing would have a Freeview or Sky TV decoder in play). A technical team of three from Maori TV (which, along with TVNZ and MediaWorks makes up Freeview) seemed impressed. Channel changes were instant. And, unlike scarce terrestrial or satellite bandwidth, everything can be in HD or 4K.

Political and market complications
There's no real surprise in that. Chorus isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here. A fibre connection to a set-top box is not radical in global terms.

However, as with any new technology development, politics and commercial manoeuvring will come into play. It will be particularly interesting to see who Sky picks for its new chief executive to replace the departing John Fellet. Mr Fellet and his team sometimes seem emotionally attached to the Optus D1 satellite and the way monopolising its capacity was once such a path to successful. Will the board opt for an internal promotion, or bring in an outsider who could be more willing to get a wriggle-on with fibre?

And inside homes, Chorus recently lobbied hard to able to install a modem and router as well as an ONT with a UFB install. However, it lost that Telecommunications Amendment Bill fight. That means the two tablets in its trial are using retail ISP data — something that consumers will have to bear in mind for their smart device viewing, and something that will loom larger as an issue as decoders start to disappear from the landscape. Each tablet was hogging about 25Mbps of bandwidth at 4K, which Chorus estimates will increase to 30Mbps for live sports (which have more movement that news, drama etc). That means chewing off around 7GB of your data cap per hour, per device. 

Then there's the complication that, while UFB fibre will cover an impressive 87% of the country by 2022, that still leaves a decent wedge of households requiring a satellite feed.

And, while Chorus controls most of the UFB network, it would still have to get Enable (Christchurch), Ultrafast Fibre (the middle North Island) and NorthPower Fibre (Whangarei) on board with its plan.

That means at some point Chorus's trial technicians will have to hang up their lab coats, and turn the project over to the company's lobbyists. 

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