Q&A: Alcino Lavrador, Altice Labs
Altice Labs’ general manager, Alcino Lavrador, discusses IP delivery, the advent of 5G and unpicks some of the biggest technical challenges facing the TV industry today.
What television or broadcast projects are currently occupying most of Altice Labs’ time?
At Altice we want to offer the best and most unique user experience to our television customers. For that, Altice Labs is working on an “Altice User Experience” supported over a unified platform for all access networks: FTTH, Cable, xDSL, Wi-Fi, 3G/4G. This means, among others, and not to mention the technological challenges of merging platforms, presenting content in a more thematic way, less siloed in channels. On the mobility side, our efforts are to bring more and more functionalities previously restricted to fixed-access IPTV, namely better personalisation and seamless continuity between platforms.
What do you think are the biggest technological challenges facing the TV industry in 2017?
Customers today want to watch TV not only on the big screen but also on the move and on more and more portable devices, even at home and simultaneously. So, WiFi delivery inside the home, supporting multiple streams with the same quality that the customers are used to, is probably the biggest challenge. To deliver 4K TV consistently over WiFi is no small feat today. 802.11ac with 4×4 and mesh extenders will help and will have a big push in 2017, but compatibility issues with existing STBs will come up. In addition we will see growth in data mining and analytics about customer behaviour – aiming at a better personalised offering and also a new revenue stream for advertising. Not least, as digital content availability is growing exponentially, new and easier ways to discover real-time and stored content must appear in order to enhance the customer experience.
How useful is full duplex DOCSIS 3.1 for maximising cable bandwidth and what technology or technologies will come after that?
Full duplex DOCSIS 3.1 and other such evolutions for cable can represent additional tools in our toolbox for delivering the best possible bandwidth to our customers as a very efficient value-for-money proposition. It’s possible that it will be used in some places, and in other places maybe GPON is a better solution. Or we could keep the cable plant as it is or with small improvements and just do a selective subscriber migration, putting the most eager customers on FTTH/GPON, which leaves more bandwidth for the remaining ones. We need to remember that FDX DOCSIS 3.1 comes at a price, with added complexity, without MPEG-TS Video and an all new silicon solution required. At Altice Labs we are working on NGPON2, developing our own equipment and technology, because we believe this will be the future for next-generation access networks.
What challenges will arise from the greater move towards IP delivery of content?
At Altice Labs we don’t see this move as a set of challenges but more as a new opportunity. In Portugal we have, for a long time, had a full IPTV solution in place and we think that IP delivery of content is a significant improvement. For instance, as a multi-national group, Altice can leverage our data networks in completely different geographies to allow us to produce content in one place, complement it in another, and deliver it to all the group operators. To do that in a non-IP network can be a nightmare, but with IP it just leverages our existing infrastructure, knowledge and investment. Most cable operators are already using IP delivery of content as the back-end for QAM muxes, for VOD or catch-up TV, so most times you just remove the QAM muxes. You need a correctly dimensioned CDN. However, you should have it in place anyway since most of the growth in consumption is in on-demand and is happening in additional devices that are already IP-only.
How important do you think 5G will be to the future of TV, as viewers increasingly stream content on the move and to different devices?
Although the big screen TV will continue to be a staple of our day to day life, and people still want to see the hottest content on the biggest screen, there is no doubt that personal and mobile video consumption will continue to grow. 5G will have an important role in that respect. According to research, by 2020, more than half of all mobile traffic will be video. People are watching it on small and not so small screens with increased resolutions, some with 2K and 4K screens, so video quality really matters. What also matters is latency and buffering time, all areas were 5G promises to improve the customer experience. We also expect that in the future, people will increasingly broadcast self-produced content as has been demonstrated by trends like Periscope, Facebook Live and YouTube Live. 5G will allow for this kind of experience in crowded spaces, like music festivals, where today’s technologies have a huge challenge. These are only a couple of examples. We expect new uses cases in line with the increasing digitisation of our society enabled by current 3G/4G with services like Uber and other digital platform-based services.
Do you think traditional over-the-air broadcast will eventually become obsolete? If so, how long until that will happen?
If you’re talking about DTT, yes I think that it will become obsolete. The main reason is that these frequencies are a prime asset for telecommunications and there will be a point in time that people will place more value on this spectrum being used for ‘mobile data’ than for broadcast TV. People will get all the TV they want as ‘mobile data’ anyway. It will take some time but it will happen.
What do you think about the long-term viability of DTH satellite TV as a mass-market delivery mechanism?
I don’t believe that DTH will go away anytime soon. It’s a completely different proposition than DTT, there are countries like Brazil that have a massive area with people scattered all over the place that will only be able to get broad, good quality content this way. In these countries it will still be a mass-market proposition. In other countries, like in Europe, it will be used more as a complementary solution for places that the fixed network will not reach. Even the foreseen 5G will not be suitable as an alternative to deliver 4K, 8K or whatever resolution we will have at that time. DTH will always be able to solve this.
How does Altice Labs divide its efforts between its teams in Portugal, the US, France, Israel, Brazil. Do you all have different remits and responsibilities?
We try to take advantage of what is being done better in each geography avoiding overlap and duplication of work. If we have a good application developed in France, the United States, or whatever geography, we’ll try to use it in all the group operations. The origin of Altice Labs dates back to 1950 with over 66 years shaping the telecommunications evolution not only in Portugal but also in all the places where our technology has been deployed. Achievements like mobile prepaid services that we pioneered in 1995 have been of worldwide benefit. Over our 66 years of history, much more could be highlighted, like one of the first commercial interactive cable TV service in 2001. More recently, in August 2015, we did a field trial of NGPON2 technology with Verizon, the first with tuneable optics offering symmetrical broadband speeds of up to 10 Gbps, with the potential to go even higher – up to 40 or even 80Gbps in the near future. An existing innovation ecosystem in Portugal, supported by strong partnerships with universities, industry and startups, and complemented with R&D collaboration projects under European Union Framework Programmes like H2020, enables a continuous flow of innovation. This is feeding the process of developing new and advanced products that are being deployed in over 40 countries in the world, not just in Altice’s geographies. We do not simply follow the technological evolutions; we are part of them!
What are Altice Labs’ key aims for the year ahead?
The first objective is to support Altice’s aggressive expansion providing state-of-the-art technology enabling a clear differentiation to competitors. Besides being an R&D lab, we have a solid product orientation strategy with a market positioning and growth ambition. We believe we are a key factor that can help turn Altice into the most innovative CSP in the world. We are committed to evolving our products for the most efficiency practices, incorporating the results from R&D exploratory projects in network architectures – like SDN and NFV for our product lines of network systems, OSS, convergent charging and policy platforms, and TV solutions. Of course, maintaining the creativity culture that has been in our DNA for years, in parallel with the committed and quality delivery of solutions to the market, is the main challenge in a fast-paced industry.
Alcino Lavrador will speak at Cable Congress in Brussels this week. He is due to appear on the ‘Fostering Innovation’ panel at 16:45 on March 8, 2017.