Austar developing local media "wonder box"

Pay TV industry "well placed" for National Broadband Network and post-convergence media world

Regional pay television operator, Austar (ASX:AUN), is developing a cross-platform user interface that could aggregate and beam content to multiple devices simultaneously, in an effort to maintain the company’s viability under the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Chief executive, John Porter, said the company was exploring options to control cost and content discipline among subscribers as its products attracted lower revenue margins.

One of those options was a local version of the Horizon set-top box developed and released last year by Austar’s parent company, Liberty Global, and currently being marketed by its European subsidiaries.

The content device would aggregate content from a range of multimedia devices owned by the user, as well as existing IPTV and pay TV services, and allow them to be viewed on each of those devices including smartphones, TVs and tablets. Each device would play the content simultaneously, or pick up from another device left off.

The device has been labelled a “wonder box” by some in the industry.

Though Porter didn’t confirm plans for a local launch of the box, he said plans were in development for a user interface that could apply to several platforms, in similar style to Horizon.

“There is no doubt that the mix between linear channels and on demand content will change over time, so we must be ready to continue our evolution in a way that meets consumer demand,” he said.

Presenting to a business briefing held by the American Chamber of Commerce in Sydney this week in the face of mounting rumours of a possible buyout offer from Foxtel, Porter warned that the NBN - though “visionary” in scope - would pose risks for businesses and the Federal Government alike, particularly around regulation of the communications industry.

“The irony is that 30 to 40 billion dollars of taxpayer money is now being spent to correct what was a long history of failed government policy in the first place,” he said.

“While I believe there is incredible opportunity, equally a lot of businesses will be put at risk as a result of the NBN and it does have the potential to disrupt and ultimately undermine more traditional types of media.”

He claimed publishers and free-to-air television operators would likely be some of the NBN’s victims of a post-convergence media world. In contrast, he pointed to the Austar’s release last year of the MyStar digital video recorder as an example of the company’s ability to adapt to changing business models, allowing them to be “well placed” in a new media world.

However, the company was looking to other strategies to remain afloat in the face of continued increases in Web-based content and particularly internet protocol television (IPTV), which he said would mature more quickly under the NBN.

“We are not going to swim against the tide with this, as we see huge potential in developing access to content across platforms via the NBN,” he said.

However, he said Austar’s plans were focussed around different content delivery methods.

“Technology is an obvious enabler for the media, but it is not the main game... other than the small percentage of technophiles out there, consumers do not care about the specifics of technology, they only care about how it makes their life easier, how it increases their choices and expands their access options.”

Questions over the future of Austar and its direction as a company have continued in recent months, with the pay TV operator’s parent company engaging in “preliminary negotiations” with Foxtel over a possible acquisition by the larger company.

It also forfeited its mobile customer base of some 15,000 subscribers in a $2 million sale to M2 Communications and last month sold its remaining spectrum licenses to NBN wholesaler NBN Co for $120 million.

Porter said despite continued talks with Foxtel, there was no progress on an acquisition to date, and the company was operating in a state of business as usual.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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