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Broadband

UPC takes new direction with Horizon set-top box

Wednesday 12 September 2012 | 12:09 CET | Background

Cable operator UPC has launched the Horizon, its next-generation set-top box. In terms of hardware and user interface, the box offers the latest developments in the market. The company is also planning other innovations, such as expanded content services and CI+.

UPC's parent company Liberty Global (LGI) presented the Horizon at the International Broadcasting Conference (IBC) in Amsterdam. Last year at the show, CEO Mike Fries gave the first details of the box, and this year CTO Balan Nair showed the final model, ready for launch first on the Dutch market.

Horizon will be the standard box for the triple-play market, first in the Netherlands and shortly thereafter in other European markets. According to Nair, LGI outlined its specifications in late 2009 and designed Horizon from scratch. The company wanted a future-proof device, with the key components flexibility, semi-open and standards-based.

Hardware

LGI developed the device in cooperation with NDS (using its Snowflake user interface), Nagra, Intel and Samsung (for assembly). The box features six tuners, a 500GB hard disc and a specially developed Intel Puma processor. The remote control works over Wi-Fi and features a qwerty keypad on its reverse side.

The six tuners support various functions. When changing channels, a second tuner is used to prepare the next channel. Other features such as picture-in-picture and pausing live programming also require a second tuner. In addition, users can record up to four programmes at the same time.

The box has a coax input, four Ethernet ports and two telephony ports. It can replace the cable/Wi-Fi modem if the local set-up allows, providing a Wi-Fi network on its own, or be part of a two-device set-up, in the home or in a utility cabinet. (UPC always sends a technician for the installation).

The Horizon box comes with Wi-Fi and MoCA 1.1. MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) is a standard to deploy digital networks over existing coax cabling in the walls. An adapter at the coax connection converts the signal to IP. Other devices with an embedded chipset can also be developed.

The Horizon was made with Flash, a technology no longer being developed. However, Nair refused to talk about end-of-life technology. The box is nevertheless compatible with HTML.

User interface

Completely new for UPC, the user interface was developed to support a variety of content, such as live TV, DVR recordings, the VoD library and the subscriber's own media, such as films, music and photos.

Menus appear over the screen image, and a variety of features are offered, such as picture-in-picture and a schedule of films starting on various channels. The EPG has also been expanded from eight to 15 days.

Changing channels is quick. According to LGI, this could have been even faster, but at a certain point, this becomes confusing for the viewer, who may think it's occuring within a programme. As a result, a 'fade'' is built in to the system.

While the Horizon project suffered almost a year of delays, it is just the start of a series of developments planned. At the same time as the set-top box launch, the new site www.horizon.tv was unveiled for PC and Mac users to watch a selection of TV channels.

The content ecosysteem is clearly still under development. Horizon comes with a recommendation engine, which suggests similar programmes as well as additional information on what's being watched. However during the presentation at IBC, the programmes recommended had little in common, suggesting the algorithm behind this still needs some work. 

UPC also built a link to Wikipedia, so for example when watching a programme on Discovery, the viewer can look for additional information on the subject of the programme. Apps voor TV Buzz (UPC’s social media guide) and Facebook are still under development.

Later in September the Horizon will get iPhone and iPad apps. These can completely replace the remote control, with virtual buttons. The iPad app can also be used as a second screen. UPC Netherlands said it also has apps in development for other platforms, such as Android, but did not say when these would be ready.

Currently, the box offers just 14 apps, including well-known names such as Buienradar, Telegraaf, Autoweek and Nu.nl. These apps are still much easier to use on a smartphone or tablet than on a TV though. The box does not have a web browser, and probably won't get one either.

UPC is offering two Horizon triple-play subscriptions, with 60/6Mbps for EUR 54.95 per month and with 120/10Mbps for EUR 62.95 (first six months half price). The price includes one box. With other susbcriptions, the Horizon costs EUR 7.50 per month, versus EUR 4 for an older box. The Horizon web application and other apps are free for subscribers, but only work on UPC broadband connections in the Netherlands.

UPC's plans are similar to what's offered by the competition. KPN offers a triple-play with 50Mbps for EUR 56 per month, and Tele2 charges EUR 47.50 for triple-play with 60 Mbps, but without mobile apps and with fewer channels. Smaller players such as Lijbrandt (now part of KPN) and XMS offer triple-plays at 50Mbps for EUR 45 per month.

Future features

In the first quarter of next year, a ‘client box’ will launched, that can be linked to the Horizon. This box does not include any tuners, but receives the IP signal over Wi-Fi or MoCA, so a second TV can share the same functionality, including live/time-shift and DLNA sharing.

UPC is sticking to its rental model for set-top boxes, and the client box will als be leased for a fixed fee per month. In the course of next year, a CI+ module based on Horizon should also be introduced, a source familiar with the matter told Telecompaper. This should give a big boost to the new system's reach, as all the latest flat-screen TVs can use the module.  



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