April 29, 2024

The FAST track to aggregation: Lessons learned from adding FAST to Pay TV Set-top boxes 

By David Brown, CTO, 24i 

Super-aggregation and FAST continue to be two of the top streaming industry buzzwords of 2024. At 24i, we’re proud to have combined the two trends in a single, ground-breaking customer project. Together with our friends at Amagi, we helped the UK’s Virgin Media integrate a range of new FAST channels directly into the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) on its in-field set-top boxes (STBs). 

In this blog post, 24i’s CTO David Brown reflects on the key considerations for other operators considering adding FAST channels alongside their existing TV offering. 

We all know that Pay TV has been changed forever by streaming. Many operators have pivoted from fighting streaming providers as rivals, to embracing partnerships with the likes of Netflix, AppleTV+, and SkyShowtime, hoping to cement their position as content aggregators and retain their pole position in household viewing. But integrating third-party streaming apps into your in-field STB population can be a time-consuming and costly technical challenge. 

Simpler, cheaper, FASTer super aggregation 

FAST channels offer operators the opportunity to fast-track their super-aggregation ambitions. With FAST channels they can super-size their content offering without the usual expansion concerns

such as bandwidth constraints and fixed infrastructure investments in encoding and delivery. At the same time, the content owners behind FAST channels are keen for wider distribution and the revenue-share possibilities are good for the bottom line of all involved. 

But how difficult is it to pull off? And what pitfalls should operators look to avoid in the process? 

Working with Virgin Media to add an initial selection of 16 FAST channels to their in-field boxes (which has now grown to 27), here’s what we learned together with our partner Amagi. The challenge here is not just technical. Ad-funded streamed content requires rethinking UX, reporting, privacy and QoS. The right solution can dramatically reduce time-to-market. 

1. A uniform UX is essential - except when it’s not 

The reason to add FAST channels is to delight consumers with a wider range of content that enhances the value of their monthly subscription. But consumers don’t care that some channels come from your cable head-end and others from a separate source. To avoid a jarring user experience, it’s important to keep content discovery, playback and trickplay as seamless as possible between traditional and FAST channels. 

This requires a single EPG covering all channels, plus a focus on limiting the time required for channel start-up, playback and zapping. Considerable attention is needed to optimize software so that the FAST channels deliver a comparable quality of service to your flagship channels. You also need to consider the robustness of the platform that underlies the FAST content to ensure it can match the premium QoS your consumers are used to. Key mapping is another consideration to ensure that STB remotes work exactly across FAST and cable channels.

In the Virgin Media project, we deployed an optimized lightweight player for the FAST channels, which was based on our standard application framework but customized to match the existing TV UI and UX when launched directly from the Virgin Media EPG. 

But when you’re looking at adding ad-funded channels on a revenue-share basis, it’s important to ensure the adverts are both seen and reported. More on the reporting aspect in a moment, but the “being seen” element requires an important divergence from the “uniform UX” rule. Most Pay TV operators allow pause, restart and trickplay on their linear channels, either using on-board PVR capability in the STB or Network PVR. FAST providers are going to want reassurances that your implementation of their channels won’t allow users to skip the ads that fund them. You may wish to disable recording and trick-play completely for the FAST channels, as we did for Virgin Media, but you’ll probably want to display a message to the end user that explains why the UX is different on certain channels. You could also consider a hybrid approach that allows trick-play during the content but not during the ads. 

2. We feel the need, the need for speed 

Established Pay TV operators typically have a range of different STBs in-field and this always adds complexity to any new feature deployment as you’ll want uniformity across your subscriber base as much as possible. The solution used to add FAST channels to this varied environment must ideally avoid configuration adjustments for the STB devices. Going for a software-only solution without any fixed infrastructure is also a time-saver, as well as helping to limit costs. Together, these approaches can dramatically reduce the complexity of the project and have a tremendous, positive impact on the time to market. 

In the Virgin Media project, we were able to rapidly prototype our solution and trial concepts in response to business requests without engaging the entire development organization. This agility was

extremely valuable in achieving Virgin Media’s ambitious timelines for this project, but it’s still relatively unusual when working in STB environments. Any operator considering rolling out FAST should look to work with a partner who’s willing and able to engage with them on rapid prototyping and proof-of-concept development. 

3. Reporting and analytics are essential to revenue and content strategy 

There are thousands of FAST channels now available around the world, but that doesn’t mean every Pay TV operator should be looking to add as many as possible. Choosing wisely and focusing on discovery, ideally including personalized recommendations, is essential to helping subscribers really feel the value of the additional channels. The secret here is data. 

Without adequate analytics that reveal what’s happening in the player itself, an operator can’t track the performance of their new FAST channels or the individual shows within them. This is essential to determining the value that subscribers are getting from the new channels and to inform future content strategy decisions. 

As previously mentioned, many FAST channels are looking to syndicate to Pay TV platforms on a revenue-share basis, but in addition to raising challenges around ad-skipping, this monetization model also requires detailed reporting. Server-side reporting has limitations, it can’t tell you what ads were actually consumed, only what ads were requested. So you’ll need to think about client-side reporting as part of your solution. Once again, if you’re looking for speed to market (and who isn’t?), then you’ll also need a solution that can meet the data reporting needs of both your own business and the FAST supplier without requiring a huge project to upgrade your existing Pay TV reporting systems. Consider carefully how you’ll integrate the data gathered into your existing business intelligence tools and reporting workflows.

4. Privacy matters 

Another critical element of ad-funded ecosystems is privacy control. For the best CPM and highest revenue, you’ll want to have some level of ad-targeting, which means you’ll likely need to share some user data with the FAST channel content owner and their technology supplier. And that means asking your consumers to give their consent. This is more complicated than a simple, one-off yes or no event, because ad inventory can come from many vendors. 

Once again, you’ll want a solution that can effectively handle the consent-gathering user experience without having to extend your existing Pay TV platform UX. For Virgin Media, the 24i custom mini application was configured to prompt the consumer to agree with and customize their data sharing settings - saving the operator from having to extend its existing Pay TV platform. 

Want to know more? 

You can hear more from Amagi and 24i on our ground-breaking project for Virgin Media in this excerpt from our webinar, Tales from the FAST Frontline

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