New OTT Media Player for A1 Austria's Xplore TV Platform

Austria's largest communications service provider continues to improve its TV offering

With the rise of streaming services and ever-advancing technology, the habits of TV viewers have changed considerably. Today, there are more options than ever, with greater supply and even greater competition. It’s therefore essential for communication and streaming providers to ensure their product technology is reliable, to stay competitive and offer their customers a flawless TV and streaming experience. A1, Austria’s leading communications company, has decided to further improve its TV platform Xplore TV to become a focal point. A1 has chosen to partner with TARA Systems for this venture.

About A1 and Xplore TV

As a leading communications provider, the A1 Group serves a total of approximately 24 million users across seven countries. It’s the European arm of América Móvil, the world’s third-largest mobile communications operator. The associated European division, A1 Telekom Austria, originally emerged from the Austrian Post and Telegraph Administration founded in 1887. Since 2006, A1 has been transmitting digital TV via IP-based connections. In 2019, A1 in Austria rolled out Xplore TV: a modern platform that combines a huge variety of TV and streaming services. 

The Role of the Media Player

The core component of the A1 Xplore TV product is the TV media box, which allows viewers to watch TV content, live and on catch-up, as well as video-on-demand (VoD) content. Live TV is transmitted via an IPTV signal and played back in the ”live-player”. The ‘OTT-player’ offers catch-up content, allowing restart, replay, digital video recorder (DVR) functions and VoD.

By using the A1 Xplore TV box, viewers can access over 260 TV and 300 radio stations, as well as video-on-demand content, catch-up TV and recording functions.
Image Source: A1

Features of a Proficient Media Player

A proficient media player is characterised by excellent performance and stable playback. This is especially important when a viewer suffers from patchy internet bandwidth. The HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) protocol provides a solid foundation for A1’s Xplore TV platform. This enables the use of adaptive streaming, where the HTTP protocol acts as the basis for data transmission. This means that the media player supports uninterrupted TV viewing, despite temporary bandwidth lags. A valuable media player also has various fail-safes to ensure uninterrupted streaming in the event of errors, such as failed download requests, restarts, or automatic switching between quality levels. Of course, how well all these fail-safes work depends on the quality and implementation of the media player used.

Strengths of Our Media Player

Our Inaris Media Player supports the HLS streaming protocol and is a modern, high-performance media player developed for use with set-top boxes (STB) and TV platforms. Its core strength is the ease of adaptability to the specific operator product and infrastructure. It also offers a variety of analysis options for the media player behaviour and the backend. Insights gained from this monitoring of the entire streaming route can lead to improvements to the player and the backend, to smoothly optimise user experience.

Replacing the Media Player in an Existing Product

It is always a challenge to replace a media player in a product already on the market, requiring complex intervention at all system levels. Since the existing system is already established, customers are naturally used to how it works. To fully support the replacement process, TARA Systems offers the Inaris Media Player as a complete end-to-end service. The development team accompanies the customer from the specification phase, all the way through to the preliminary project, software integration, the alpha and beta test groups, to the final product launch at all levels. This service includes an analysis of streams and the existing system, as well as test evaluations, and adapting the media player to the specific needs of the operator’s infrastructure.

Partners in the Project

New Media Player Selection Process

The selection process for the new media player to be used with the A1 Xplore TV platform began in the summer of 2021 with a call for bids. TARA Systems was amongst the many internationally leading providers of media player solutions. An important selection criterion was the robustness of the media player when in use, alongside the ability to analyse streaming or network problems as they arise. Above all, the new media play should significantly improve user experience on the A1 Xplore TV platform.

Ultimately, TARA Systems’ media player offered the complete solution. The first phase was prototype development, planned from October 2021 to the end of the year. The start of this development and integration project sparked a valuable long-term cooperation.

Pre-project Phase and Start of Product Integration

The first project phase aimed to build a prototype integration that would confirm the estimates and conditions for the next phase of product integration. To do so, the player’s initial bringup was done on the target platform to play productive streams protected by the Verimatrix content protection system. TARA Systems’ analysis system was crucial in this phase, enabling detailed analysis and monitoring of the media player and the received stream. The prototype phase lasted until January 2022, creating various concept documents and system demo videos to document progress. By the end of the prototype phase, the Inaris Media Player was fully integrated, end-to-end, into the STB application, allowing streams to be played from A1’s production system. This was the green light to start further product and feature integrations.

Project Team Cooperation

For such an agile development project, it’s crucial to build a solid team across company divisions. Dietzel Consulting led the team management, with Thomas Prinz as project manager. As well as organisational planning, he also took on implementation and compliance factors to suit this agile work style. In addition to A1 and TARA, another core project partner is Zappware, a provider of entertainment solutions for telecom operators and content service providers. Zappware is a dedicated system integrator responsible for the overall A1 Xplore TV application. The planned replacement required the application to be optimally adapted to the new player. Both teams from Zappware and TARA worked closely together thanks to regular meetings and an agile work style with short release cycles. Verimatrix was also part of the project, providing the DRM system.

Visit to the A1 Headquarters in March

After the first successful integration of the new media player into the STB app in March, the TARA team met with the A1 team in Vienna. The meeting was held in the A1 headquarters in Vienna’s 2nd district, in their project rooms, with the aim of capturing the current integration status. Together, the teams planned the next vital steps for further integration in Q2/2022.

The project rooms in the Vienna headquarters have become the central meeting place for everyone involved, hosting lively discussions for the TARA and A1 teams, who had previously only met through online meetings. Image source: TARA Systems/A1

Beginning of the Alpha Group Tests

For all software, a proven and tested quality assurance method is the use of test groups. These groups receive new software versions at early phases, to test them for functionality and stability in daily use. Testers can directly report bugs to the development team.
The “alpha group”, the first of these test groups, was launched in April 2022, primarily made up of the developers and project managers themselves. As testers, they received an image with the new media player on their A1 Xplore TV box.

Our Monitoring and Analysis System

During the alpha group tests, evaluations were also carried out using our in-house-developed monitoring and analysis system, using the “Player as a Service” approach. A major strength of our media player are the comprehensive and detailed logs generated during use. All logs from the box are sent straight to our Splunk-based monitoring service to be stored. This allows for the implementation of behaviour, performance and error scenario assessments. In fact, the comprehensive logs for all test group boxes are readily available, meaning that any anomalies can easily be analysed in detail and then fixed. The advantage is that this doesn’t just provide a clear overview, but also allows for a full system analysis, from the media player to the back end. Throughout the project, this end-to-end function was indispensable, with the monitoring and analysis system constantly being improved.

Meeting With the A1 Team in May and August

While planning and concept meetings were held at A1’s Lassalle Street headquarters, R&D happened at A1 laboratories in Vienna’s Arsenal building. Two technical workshops took place there during the integration phase, with developers and project managers working together on a wide range of topics. In May, the focus lay on the planning and analysis of the beta test group. In August, the teams determined the final adjustments, extensions and integration necessary for the releases, and to set the launch date.

The project group at A1’s Vienna headquarters.
Image source: TARA Systems/A1

The Arsenal

Originally designed to be a central military facility, the Arsenal was built in 1848 after the defeat of the March Revolution. Following the World Wars, residential flats and various firms were relocated to the vacant building, while maintaining the historical ambience. A1’s predecessor, the Austrian Post and Telegraph Administration, soon found a home for its telecommunications centre at the Arsenal site. The over 500 ft-high radio tower was completed in 1975, along with further expansion in other buildings. This landmark has since become a popular addition to Vienna’s skyline, visible from afar.

The Arsenal Technology Centre is the focal point of Austria’s telecommunications infrastructure in Vienna’s 3rd district. 
Image source: TARA Systems/A1

Test Expansion with the Beta Group

In June 2022, a beta group was launched in addition to the alpha group. This time, A1 employees without technical backgrounds formed the participants. 120 users throughout Austria brought a vast diversity of internet connections, available bandwidths and network installations to the test. The set-top boxes of the beta group participants were evaluated by the Splunk-based monitoring and analytics tool. With the larger participant pool, version-comparative assessments could finally be carried out, with the benefit of a broader range of usage behaviour.

Verimatrix Integration and Certification

The A1 Xplore TV box offers viewers a large variety of high-quality content – and of course, this content’s protection has to be assured from a technical and licensing perspective. The Verimatrix DRM system provides A1’s STB product with exactly this protection. At its heart is the Verimatrix “ViewRight” software, integrated with the media player. Full and correct integration enables the media player to show encrypted content. Lastly, certification is vital, and this was successful in August 2022, reaching the highest security level: “Ultra”.

The replacement of the HLS TV Player in the A1 XploreTV Set Top Box is a serious intervention in the system of a TV box. I was contracted to lead the vendor selection, to set-up and lead the project and to coordinate all involved parties. During the past months, we established a great working environment and relationship. The results were SW deliveries in very high quality. Also, due to the fact that the whole team lived the SAFe agile framework, we could set up a fast-paced decision and SW delivery process. As all project members showed high engagement and commitment to the project, we could meet the tough timeline to roll out the HLS Media Player in November 2022, right before the FIFA World Cup. Thanks to the whole team that we made it in time and in superb quality!
Thomas Prinz — Senior Program Manager
Dietzel Consulting
TARA Systems delivers a technically outstanding HLS Media Player solution to equip modern streaming devices, like our A1 Xplore TV STB. The engineering team of TARA did an excellent job by tailoring the player to our needs and integrating it with Zappware and other project partners into the existing product. In addition to the technically particularly mature product and the sophisticated engineering performance, I would like to emphasize the following circumstance. The whole team succeeded in forming a team from four different companies, which had only one goal: To improve the XploreTV product. This proposition simply becomes true. They thought outside the box and solved problems regardless of who caused them. The integration project was run very smartly and reached a high credit not only in A1 Austria but also in the A1 Group.
Christian Lamp — Lead Converged Platform & Services
A1 Telekom Austria AG
During the Media Player integration project for the A1 Xplore TV STB, A1 established a relationship on par with TARA Systems, which even reflects on the management level. From the beginning, the teams of both companies were fully committed to achieve a significant improvement for our customers. Today, when looking back, this worked exceptionally well as TARA cultivates an engineering-driven passion by always putting the end-user first. That is how we work at A1 and why we highly appreciate that we found TARA Systems as a partner.
Marc Federspiel — Business Lead IT Multimeda
A1 Telekom Austria AG

Feature Extensions for A1's Xplore TV Product

Alongside ongoing tests and the Verimatrix integration, A1’s Xplore TV specific features were developed. Here, the aim was to prepare the integration of the monitoring and analysis solution provided by Agama, allowing for later assessment of media player performance. This would enable for crucial playback metrics for the Inaris Media Player. The team also worked on support for advertising block markers in the SCTE-35 format – with these, certain broadcasters can prevent viewers from fast-forwarding or skipping ad blocks. The implementation of such product-specific extensions emphasises the end-to-end approach chosen by A1 and TARA.

Launch Preparations

September and October 2022 saw the test phase of the Inaris Media Player’s fully integrated version in the Zappware TV app. Zappware, A1 and TARA’s QA and test teams, as well as the active alpha and beta groups, were an essential part of this. This phase marked the planned field launch for November 2022. The media player’s release candidate was approved by the end of October. A final test was carried out on the STB image, as well as TARA’s monitoring and analytics system. All systems were gone for the launch.

Impressions of the A1 TV Box in operation. 
Image Source: Screenshot A1 Xplore TV Box

Market Launch

From the first week of November, the launch could finally take place. This happened step-by-step, with user groups ranging in size from 15-30 thousand users each, meaning that comprehensive intervention at central software points was still possible. Excellent playback of media is the core function of the product and changes at this point are therefore extremely sensitive. With more STBs in the field containing the new software, the monitoring group was also expanded. From the project’s beginnings in October 2021, the entire team is now about to embark on the next part of the journey, having completed this important milestone: the continuous improvement of the media player product and the addition of new user features.

Story Update 2023: Further Feature Developments

The next important milestone in the further development of the A1 Xplore TV product for the Austrian market is the support of premium UHD content. In order to be able to transmit and display this content securely, increased security requirements apply to encryption and the integration of the player with the STB hardware. In doing so, it is also necessary to expand the supported media formats of the OTT player to include the Fragmented-MP4 container format. Preparations for this step were already started in Q4/2022 and successfully completed with certification in Q1/2023.

HEVC and Fragmented-MP4 Support for HLS

A prerequisite for the implementation of the new security requirements is the support of the video codec HEVC. This is significantly more efficient than its predecessor AVC and is therefore indispensable for UHD content. In order to stream HEVC-encoded content with the intended encryption method “Sample-AES” and HLS, the container format “Fragmented-MP4” is necessary. Sample-AES and Fragmented-MP4 was implemented in our media player in a platform-independent layer to be finally integrated with the Verimatrix encryption system.

Project meeting at A1 with a visit to the Vienna Arsenal radio tower, a famous landmark of the city.

Verimatrix Ultra Security With Sample-AES

The core requirement for premium UHD content playback is the protection of the media stream, according to the Verimatrix Ultra Security requirements using Sample-AES as the encryption method. This method allows the media data to remain encrypted until the last possible moment, making unauthorised access even more difficult. Decryption only takes place at the hardware level shortly before decoding. The implementation of this security level for UHD content was completed at the beginning of 2023 and was finally successfully certified by Verimatrix. This opens up a new and wide field for A1 Austria to offer content with even higher resolution and better protection.

Player Maintenance and Monitoring Extensions

In addition to the development of support for UHD content, the maintenance of the features rolled out in November was continued. The implementation of some functional improvements as well as various performance optimisations is an ongoing process. Many improvements were already brought into the field in a new software version via the alpha and beta test groups. The first upgrade for existing customers took place at the end of February, including the feature extension for the Sample-AES encryption support. In parallel to the actual player development and maintenance, we are continuously extending our monitoring and analytics system to get an even better view on the situation in the field. Besides robust and performant playback, this is the key to ensure a unique streaming experience with our player on the A1 Xplore TV STB.

Header image source: Screenshot A1 Xplore TV Box, The Minions, TARA Systems

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