Market Watch

Intel Atom Set-top Box Launched by Free

December 17, 2010

Daniel Simmons Daniel Simmons Executive Director, Enterprise & Residential Communications Technology
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French IPTV operator Free will ship its new set-top box (STB) and gateway in January 2011. Dubbed the Freebox Player, it's the first pay-TV STB to contain the Intel Atom CE4100 processor. The box augments traditional content services with support for a web browser, HD games from French developer Gameloft, motion-sensing remote controls and integrates a Blu-ray Disc (BD) player.

Subscribers are supplied with a separate gateway: the Freebox Server. The gateway connects to both ADSL and fibre and supports 802.11n WiFi home networking. 250GB of network attached storage (NAS) resides in the gateway, moving DVR storage away from the STB. The gateway also contains speakers for playing streamed music and can connect to up to eight DECT phones.

Subscription to the accompanying triple-play service is €29.99 per month. Existing customers can migrate to the new box for a fee starting at €119.99 but reduced by €30 for each prior year's subscription.

The Freebox Player and Server demonstrate Free's strategy to adapt it's IPTV offering to suit the growing connected device landscape. Firstly, the gateway, with its NAS drive, enables Free to offer services beyond the TV. Secondly, the feature-rich Intel-powered STB makes the TV the focus of Free's connected home offering.

It's the STB, with the services it enables, which is the most interesting of the two devices. Currently most web access via pay-TV STBs occurs via tightly integrated applications with functionality tailored for the traditional remote control and the passive nature of TV viewing. Free's use of an open web browser with motion-based controls contrasts heavily with this approach, giving access to the full internet. It's unclear at this stage whether web services can have TV-optimised applications launched directly from Free's user interface. Additionally, the power of the CE4100 and the motion controls should allow for more compelling games than have previously been available via pay-TV STBs.

The inclusion of a BD player is an interesting proposition. Just 4 per cent of TV households in France will have BD players at the end of 2010, so their provision could still be a significant opportunity. As well as being a differentiator, it could prove an anti-churn device, providing subscribers use it to build a library of BD titles. Integrating the BD player into the STB will mean that subscribers will remain within Free's user environment and control for physical media as well as TV and Web consumption.

These new features could potentially cannibalise traditional pay-TV revenue generators such as package upgrades and video-on-demand. Therefore, the move to offer them suggests that Free is less concerned with what content is consumed as long as it's consumed through Free. This brand persistence could prove important as connectable devices increasingly compete for eyeballs.

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