Captain’s Blog: Guest Entertainment – Time to Pause & Catch Up?

Hospitality VOD: a dwindling market?Hotel guest entertainment

With usage of traditional movies-on-demand by guests gradually dropping as more of them watch video on their own devices – laptops, tablets, phones – and the installed base of Video-on-Demand (VOD) reaching saturation in some areas, guest entertainment providers and systems integrators might be forgiven for worrying what will sustain their businesses in the years ahead.  Once the current renewal to LCD TVs and HD video is complete, what comes next?

Follow the home

Hotels and other hospitality providers are in the business of creating a temporary home for their guests, and guests expect the same level of comfort and facilities as they have at home – in every aspects of their experience.  So when it comes to entertainment we need to look at what is already happening in the home, and what is just around the corner…

The shift away from schedule

In parallel with the rapid shift to flat-screen High Definition TVs there has been another, quieter, revolution going on in the way TV is watched in the home.   It is increasingly the case that apart from “event TV”people are still watching linear broadcast TV but “off schedule” – either recording it on a Digital Video Recorder (DVR), just pausing it for a while (and then using the time gained to skip adverts!) or using an online catch-up TV service such as the UK’s BBC iPlayer on a connected TV, laptop or tablet, or the latest YouView or HbbTV set-top-boxes.

Once you have started to watch TV that way, it is very hard to go back – who has not reached for the fast-forward button when adverts appear in a live stream and had a momentary shock of disappointment that it didn’t work!  As these features become universal, guests will start expecting them in their rooms as well.

A DVR in every room?

DVR - Hotel guest entertainmentSo how can we replicate this functionality in the hospitality home-from-home? One option could be to provide a cheap DVR in every room, but there are of course numerous problems with this:

  1. Cost – £200 (€240, $300) per room just for the hardware makes this extremely expensive for large properties.
  2. Physical – Where will it sit in the room?  DVRs are large devices and unlike IPTV set-top-boxes are not designed to be hidden away.  Will the TV have a spare HDMI port?  Are there enough power sockets?
  3. Usability – the guest will need to use a different remote and will have to have some way of switching inputs on the TV – this is bound to lead to confusion.
  4. Length of stay – with the average length of stay only a few days, often only a single night in business hotels, the guest is not going to be able to pre-programme recordings or use series links as they would at home.  It is really only the ability to pause live TV or catch up on impulse that is of any use to them, and DVRs can only provide the first of these.
  5. Maintenance – a hard disk-based device in every room, with a multitude of configuration options that can be fiddled with?  A recipe for a maintenance nightmare.
  6. Privacy / Protection – what one guest records will be immediately available to the next.  It doesn’t take long to think of some really bad scenarios here.  Would housekeeping have to wipe the hard disk on every check out?
  7. Theft – the DVR is recognisable and useful at home – how many will go missing?

All in all, an entirely impracticable proposition!

Connected TV or Internet set-top-box

Connected TV - Hotel guest entertainmentAnother option to at least provide catch-up TV services (but not live pause) would be to use “Connected TVs” or consumer Internet set-top-boxes such as Roku or Digital Stream to access “Over The Top” (OTT) services such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix or LoveFilm.  For external devices many of the problems with DVRs above still apply, although they are a lot cheaper and are easier to maintain.

However, the big problem with this idea is bandwidth, and the same applies if the hotel doesn’t provide anything at all and the guest decides to use their own laptop or tablet to access catch-up services.  Let’s do the maths:

  • Number of rooms: 100
  • Percentage of guests using catch-up TV at one time: 20% (assumed higher than VOD because it’s free)
  • Typical bandwidth per stream:  2 Mbit/sec (BBC iPlayer)
  • Total bandwidth required:  40 Mbit/sec

There are very few properties anywhere in the world with that kind of bandwidth going spare, and that only delivers a fairly low-resolution stream which will not look good on a large HD screen.

Extending the existing IPTV / VOD system

So what is a viable option for hospitality providers wanting to provide pause and catch-up services?  Use the existing investment in IPTV and/or VOD servers, network infrastructure and set-top boxes and extend it.

All that is required is additional IPTV recorder software on the property’s existing (or newly installed) VOD server, and a standard IPTV feed delivered by gateway products such as Exterity.  The property doesn’t have to use IPTV to deliver TV to rooms, although the experience will appear more integrated to the guest if it does.

What the IPTV recorder does is continuously record a selected set of channels in a moving window of the last 24 hours, 3 or 7 days, however much disk space is available.  How much disk space?  Again, let’s do some sums!

  • Number of channels to record:  10 SD and 4 HD
  • Typical broadcast channel bandwidth:  4 Mbit/sec SD, 8 Mbit/sec HD
  • Total bandwidth: 72 Mbit/sec
  • Storage space per hour: 32GB
  • Storage space per day: 768GB

So a reasonable spread of channels can be continuously recorded for 24 hours on a single 1TB drive.   To optimise this it is possible to record different channels for different window lengths, and/or to only record them during peak periods.  Or just throw some more inexpensive disks at it!

The same IPTV recorder also captures the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) data from the incoming broadcast signal, providing the basis for an on-screen programme guide both for live and recorded content.

The guest experience

So how does a guest benefit from this?  Perhaps this is best told as a story:

John Smith is Sales Director of a medium-sized engineering company and is on a short business trip, staying at the hotel for just one night before moving on.  John likes to watch football and is addicted to Homeland.

On arrival at the hotel he turns on the TV and finds that the grid-style programme guide (just like his home TV) not only shows him what is on now and what is about to come on, but also allows him to ‘rewind time’ and see what has been on over the last 24 hours, and even longer for some selected channels.  He is very pleased to see that the football match he thought he would miss is available for him to watch – and that he can now skip over half time and rewind the best goal action.  This is even better than his setup at home because he knows he had forgotten to schedule his home DVR to record the match and would have otherwise missed it entirely.

After dinner he decides to watch Homeland live, but in the middle of it he has to take an important phone call, so he just presses pauses like at home and continues when the call is finished.  He is also pleased to find he can fast forward over the adverts until he is back to live time again.

On checkout, John makes a mental note to book this hotel next time because of the great TV system!

Legal issues

Although a consumer can pause and rewind TV and make recordings for their own use at home under Fair Use rules, the provision of a service in a commercial environment – even if free to the guest – may be legally problematic.  Different jurisdictions will have different rules, and we cannot give any legal advice on this matter.  However, a number of companies in the industry are researching this and taking legal advice, and I intend to publish any news on this in a further Captains Blog post.

Taking the next step

If you are a hospitality service provider or systems integrator interested in offering pause and catch-up TV as part of your solution, please contact Packet Ship to discuss our Timeline IPTV Recorder product.  This is a Linux software server that installs in parallel with our Streamline Video Server and provides both recording to disk which can then be streamed out by the video server and an EPG database which can be queried through SOAP.  We can also provide a Javascript API and example code for a simple grid EPG.

Packet Ship is ready to support you to add 21st Century TV to your solution – ask us for an evaluation kit today!


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