Deepak Upreti, is Head-Consumer Devices, Reliance Digital TV Ltd

India is a huge market for set-top boxes (STBs). It is reinforced with the digitization drive by the government. According to a study, more than 200 million STBs are shipped globally in last couple of years. The Digital India program has motivated many Indian as well as Chinese manufactures to set up their plants for STB manufacturing. However, the poor quality and grade of STBs being shipped to India puts a big question mark on its future.

Currently, the STB is perhaps the first and most important device that determines the quality of a consumer experience of a TV service. The STB and its accessories such as remote control is the front door to the operator's complete line of service (TV, interactive services, VOD). Because it is what users see, touch, and feel in their homes, it is a representation of their services and, therefore, strongly linked with brand image.

One of the important questions that being raised is, "Do we need STBs in future"? This question has arisen due to advent of cheaper smartphones, smart TVs, and multiple OTT apps but the straight answer is YES! Small screens can never replace the joy of watching the content on big screen. Moreover, broadband networks in India need a big overhaul to cater to the high bandwidth requirements for high-quality 4K audio video, including covering the vast Indian geography.

Let us look at some of the promising features which may define future of STBs.

Personalization – The STB will be personalized as your mobile phones are! Multiple logins for multiple home users, seamless channel and time-shift handoff to other devices. STB shall have analytics engine to understand the customer viewing patterns and suggest different options and that too on user. This feature is not available even in the high-end 4K boxes available in the market today. Also, language is one of the most neglected areas in this domain. India is a language-rich country and, if used properly, can be major source of customer acquisition as majority of actual consumers of content are housewives who would love to handle the product in their own language

Consumer Experience – It starts with products, which are ergonomically designed, followed by a user interface which has easier-to-use menus! With many years of experience and with will to innovate something new, some Indian operators seem to be working in this direction. Good-quality STBs, which can last for years without need for repair and maintenance, shall also define the consumer experience.

Lower Deployment Cost – With advancement in chip technology, chipsets are getting more powerful and cheaper. This would drive low deployment cost for advanced STBs with features like STB SoCs with 4K/8K video decoding capabilities, inbuilt Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other connectivity chipsets.

Interoperability – Unlike smartphones, STBs today are tied to operator's network and need to change STB means changing all related CPEs. In future, regulations will be brought in, which will allow seamless migration from one operator to another.

Connected Home – How does it sound...setting a reminder/recording using your phone's Siri or Google Assistant kind of service in STB? Recording videos on your STB and playing them on your tablet/smartphone while travelling. IoT is a buzz word and almost every technology company is working on it. Since the operator has already captured the customer home, STB can act as a gateway device in the IoT ecosystem and can open doors for more revenue generating services, such as home automation for the operator which can also include customer retention!

Security will be one of the major considerations in future. Security measures will be required at hardware, software, and content level, thereby needing a competing system-level security.

The above may appear very exciting and vibrant, but it is not something Indian operators do not understand. Getting the above done shall require lot of efforts in backend which ultimately requires CapEx. There is a heavy software work required to make the product tailor-made to user requirement. The threat of development of high-end multiscreen devices shall also continue to haunt STBs' role and position as a prominent pay-TV consumption device. However, it may act as a boon too, as the operator can work to develop a multi-home multi-services gateway STB concept, which can deliver services to any number of screen devices! Finally, it is the operator who needs to take a call depending on its market position, product roadmap, and funds availability.