Twofour's MEDIAFREEDOM Brings Smooth Streaming to Europe

At 2007’s Streaming Media Europe conference a major US network shopped for suppliers to design and build its new European catch-up TV service. After a year of negotiation and another another 12 months of design, build, and technical deployment, the project is on the verge of going live just as Streaming Media Europe 2009 comes round.

Although we are under embargo from naming the network at this time (an announcement is expected imminently), it is believed to represent the first large-scale live deployment of Microsoft’s PlayReady DRM and Smooth Streaming capability in Europe. The UK’s Twofour Group customised its media asset management platform MEDIAFREEDOM to include the new Silverlight capabilities and will be presenting its key learnings at Streaming Media Europe.

“We’re just beginning a live demo of HD video using Inlet Spinnaker encoders for what to our knowledge is the first significant European project to support live DRM for a VoD HD store,” says Phil Haggar, Director Twofour Digital, part of Twofour Group.

“The client wanted to deliver HD video as a catch-up TV service to homes already subscribed to cable TV,” Haggar says. “Instead of using a third-party CDN from a Level 3 or Limelight ,we’ve inserted our own smooth streaming servers into various telco POPs around Europe so viewers can receive high-bandwidth, high-value, HD video. We’ve integrated into the client’s existing VoD content management for broadcast and its encoding and encryption systems but the whole workflow is linked to MEDIAFREEDOM. By building out a mini-CDN to support this particular business model we’re demonstrating that MEDIAFREEDOM has the flexibility to talk to dedicated servers as well as handshake with conventional CDNs.”

A software as a service offering, MEDIAFREEDOM is a web-based broadcasting platform for corporations, publishers, or broadcasters to build channels for distribution of content to mobile, IPTV set-top boxes, and online. Its features include multiple languages and character sets; geo-restriction and syndication control; multiple ingest options; and the ability to support numerous video formats including H.264 and mobile.

The technology emerged in 2007 after the Plymouth and London-based Twofour won the contract to build a web TV platform for the European Parliament, then arguably the largest and most complex such service in the world. EuroParlTV incorporates live and archived streamed programming in over 20 languages (voice over and subtitles) ensuring that Europe’s citizens can follow the latest debates.

Crucially, according to Haggar, the European Parliament also demanded technical agnosticism. “They insisted it had to work in Windows Media and in Flash,” he says. “It went far beyond simply embedding video on a web page and had to integrate into active directory systems. Instead of a bespoke solution which we might have done had they wanted just Flash, we designed a platform we could take to the wider market. The philosophy is simple: we don’t care what media format requires managing or what device you consume it on, you have the freedom to run your business and make your own technology choices about formats.”

Twofour is one of the UK’s fastest-growing media companies, with a solid background in TV and corporate video production spanning more than two decades. Rarely, it is also a technologically savvy production house with extensive post-production facilities. It employs 300 people, 40 of whom are dedicated software engineers and with Fraunhofer Institute and Adobe it designed and installed a major encoding farm to process all the audio files for BBC iPlayer which it continues to do.

“Twofour has a broadcast production background and comes to file based video asset management with that mentality,” says Haggar. “We think about programmes and schedules. MEDIAFREEDOM is primarily a way to manage programmes as files by being able to take programmes and create flexible playlists or VoD groupings and apply schedules as required.”

“We’ve made it integratable so where you have existing web or content management systems we can roll up our sleeves and connect to any workflows and provide all the hooks and APIs to tie into it. MEDIAFREEDOM supports live streaming out of the box, and unlike Brightcove or Ooyala we are more focused on the corporate and public sector rather than trying to monetise content for media owners with pure Flash.”

Twofour first came into contact with Silverlight at Streaming Media East around time of the inception of the EuroParlTV contract. As the product matured it gave Twofour the opportunity to enhance MEDIAFREEDOM, which in its 3.0 version released alongside Silverlight 3.0, sports a new Administration Interface and supports Smooth Streaming. Using HTTP-based adaptive streaming this adjusts video quality in real-time based on local bandwidth and CPU conditions. The company is now a Microsoft Gold Partner, recently invited to present the application to Microsoft’s international sales force.

“They have been very supportive but not massively engaged until the last three months when at IBC we were suddenly on their radar,” says Haggar. “We were always hovering around the periphery but I think as Silverlight matured and we’ve become recognised as a player with a 20 year history with some serious clients rather than a small start-up we tick all the boxes.

“If you want to broadcast HD content then Microsoft is the way forward but while the Silverlight plug-in is growing fast you can’t ignore the fact that Flash remains a very significant technology.”

A week ago Premier.TV, a web TV channel for London radio station Premier Christian Media (previously a Narrowstep client) went live on MEDIAFREEDOM using Flash. “They wanted embeddable, virally syndicated Flash players and we can’t turn around and say ‘no you want to be in Silverlight’. We take a neutral view. You tell us what your business model is, and what you want to achieve and we’ll adapt MEDIAFREEDOM to succeed for you.”

Two Four Digital CT, James Burt and MD Paul Tarplee will be presenting the session Secure HD Smooth Streaming for Online TV at 14:45 on Friday 16 October at Streaming Media Europe.
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