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Optus unveils its English Premier League app, set-top boxes

Optus has showcased its soon-to-be-launched EPL app, revealing additional details about its functionality, technology, and who helped build the back end.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Optus has taken the wraps off its three set-top box options and its app for delivering the English Premier League (EPL) for the next three seasons, revealing the methods in which home broadband and post-paid mobile customers can access the content.

During a series of media briefings on Thursday, Optus' head of TV, Mobile Video, and Content for Marketing and Products Paul Rybicki unveiled the functionality of the company's app and 24/7 football channel.

The app, available across iOS and Android devices upon its launch in early July, makes use of adaptive bitrate technology in order to optimise performance for what screen and broadband quality it detects -- whether it be on a smartphone, a phablet, a tablet, a laptop, or a widescreen TV.

"It takes a couple of seconds before it [starts the stream], so what it does for those couple of seconds -- there's an adaptive bitstream technology which looks at your speed, and what connection you're on, it looks at your device, and then it effectively pushes the best profile signal to you in order to watch that content," Rybicki explained.

"So it takes a couple of seconds to do that, then it renders, then it's in."

According to Rybicki, Optus consulted with the EPL itself when it came to choosing a partner to help build the app, with the final choice, Bergen, Norway-headquartered Vimond, made due to the company's experience in delivering football content.

"The partner that we're working with that sits in the back end is called Vimond," he said.

"They're a company that delivers the Premier League in Norway for the broadcaster there, they also deliver content for Reuters in the US, and they do some things for the Premier League as well in the UK, so they've got a really strong history of delivering content. They also deliver [video-on-demand platform] iflix in Asia."

Vimond also has offices in Sydney and New York, with plans to open further offices in San Francisco, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur.

Up to four devices may be registered per account for a single customer, but only one can be used with the account at a given time. However, this does not include the Yes TV by Fetch set-top box, Rybicki said, which may be used concurrently alongside an app running on a smart device.

The set-top box options include the Yes TV by Fetch, which was made available earlier this month; the Yes TV by Fetch Mini, launching next month; and the Apple TV. For the latter two options, a broadband service on Optus is not necessary; only a post-paid mobile service.

"The Yes TV by Fetch Mini device ... this is connected to your home broadband service -- it doesn't have to be an Optus service, it can be connected to Telstra or whoever you have set up in your home -- and that's available to customers for AU$5 [per month] on top of their mobile post-paid plans," Rybicki said.

"Included in that is the Premier League, included in that is access to Stan and Netflix, as well as the ability to buy other on-demand content."

The third-generation Yes TV by Fetch does require an Optus broadband connection. This larger set-top box has "very similar functionality" to the Mini, but it has a PVR and allows customers to record. Rybicki conceded, however, that as every game is on-demand after being broadcast, there is limited need to record.

"The third option is the Apple TV setup," he said, because "we know many homes have that in their setup in the living room." The Apple TV option has the same functionality as the app, with users only needing to log in once.

Optus, whose satellite division owns the highest number of satellites covering Australia and New Zealand with six satellites in orbit providing coverage to the region, is also offering this option to those living in regional areas without access to reliable, high-speed fixed-line or mobile broadband.

"For customers who just cant get very good internet service, we've got a satellite option for them ... it's a box similar to the [Yes TV by Fetch box], it requires a satellite dish, a bit of cabling, and it delivers that 24/7 channel to them."

Optus is set to announce pricing and plans for those relying on satellite services for EPL delivery during July.

While Optus is spruiking these options for watching on the big screen, Rybicki conceded that customers could simply use the phone or tablet app to cast to their TVs using, for example, an HDMI cable or Chromecast.

However, due to the adaptive bitstream technology used in the app, he said this would not provide an optimal viewing experience.

"People sometimes plug an HDMI cable into your laptop or your PC; there's different setups in the home. What we've done is effectively tried to give choice, but also we've designed this so back to the adaptive bitrate technology, the way that we've designed this is we're streaming a high-definition signal, which then optimises for whatever your end device is," he explained.

"So if I'm optimising for this mobile phone, then it'll render and it'll show me the best screen size and quality for this; if you then push that onto a big screen, you may not get the best experience because it's optimised for this.

"We would encourage customers to then get the best device for their need ... [but] customers and fans, they'll find a way to get it."

According to Rybicki, Optus chose to develop an app for Apple rather than Google, meaning there is no designated functionality specifically designed for the Chromecast device.

"Chromecast works similarly to your Apple TV in that it needs an app ... we haven't done that for launch, we've done that for Apple, but customers have various ways of doing stuff, and we can't control or stop that. We certainly would encourage them to watch in the way that it's designed to be watched to get the best possible customer experience."

While he would not be drawn on the number of subscribers currently signed up for the EPL packages, Rybicki did say Optus has seen "really strong interest and good engagement so far", from both individual customers and pubs.

"We started selling to consumers last week, we started selling to pubs and clubs a couple of weeks ago, and we've had really strong interest from them as well," he said.

Optus last week announced that it will be giving away subscriptions for the 2016-17 EPL season for free to those with eligible plans who sign up by July 31.

Optus' newly minted managing director of Marketing and Product for its Consumer division, Ben White, marked his first week in the job with the announcement of the free offering.

White's promotion to the consumer role, which includes responsibility for Optus' TV and entertainment services, was announced by CEO Allen Lew, who called it a step towards ensuring the company is "well-placed to lead the next phase of our transformation, starting with the launch of the English Premier League".

Optus in April announced a series of redundancies allowing a "reshape" of its workforce amid its transformation into a multimedia company rather than a pure telecommunications carrier. The transformation was kicked off by its acquisition in November of the exclusive Australian broadcast rights to the EPL for the next three seasons.

As part of its media bid, Optus also announced 10-year deals with the Australian Olympic Committee and Paralympic Committee, and a FIFA World Cup broadcasting sub-licence.

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