US satellite pay TV operator Dish Network will launch a UHD set-top box (STB) in Q2 2015. Branded the 4K Joey, it will be a thin client design to be used in conjunction with its Hopper multimedia home gateway (MHG) and is compatible with all second generation UHD TVs: those with HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2. The 4K Joey is based on a Broadcom system-on-chip (SoC) and supports UHDp60 with 10bit colour, as well as simultaneous decoding of two side-by-side HD streams. It connects to the Hopper using Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) or Ethernet. Connecting by Wi-Fi will not be offered. It is anticipated that UHD content will first be made available on an on-demand basis and later via satellite broadcast. Details on pricing and available UHD content are expected to be confirmed closer to the launch.
Dish Network will also introduce a new user-interface (UI) and two new remote controls, available to all Hopper and Joey STBs. The Hopper Voice is a 17 button remote with voice recognition technology powered by Rovi, it is to be shipped with all Hoppers and 4K Joeys. The Hopper Voice also features a dual mode touchpad enabling swipe and scroll gestures and the ability to switch to the traditional numerical keypad. The Hopper standard is a traditional remote with the numeric buttons rather than the touchpad; it will be included with other Joeys. Furthermore, the operator announced its new OTT service, the Sling TV, accessible through all connectable devices. Based on a $20 monthly rolling contract systems, subscribers will have access to both VoD and live channels such as ESPN, Food Network and Cartoon Network.
Dish Network is the third US operator to announce UHD plans, but unlike its competitors, it has chosen a box-first approach rather than Comcast’s app and DirecTV RVU approaches. The 4K Joey thin client extends the functionality of Dish Network’s Hopper MHG system by enabling UHD content decoding, and providing scalability and quality of service (QoS). The operator’s strategy has long revolved around using thin clients to augment the functionality of the Hopper having previously deployed a Wireless Joey, Super Joey and Virtual Joey. The thin clients could also be seen as a means of controlling churn and encouraging Hopper adoption by improving accessibility and usability of the pay TV service. The Wireless Joey is a wireless version of the original Joey enabling the client box to be located away from wired connection points. The Virtual Joey is an app-based thin client that enables LG Smart TVs and PlayStation3 and 4s to view Hopper content and the Dish UI directly, without needing Joey hardware. Lastly, Super Joey adds two extra tuners to the Hopper system, enabling the subscriber to record up to 8 programmes at one time. Although, the 4K Joey’s main role is to deliver UHD content, it also improves the UHD experience by using HD content in an innovative way: the two simultaneous side-by-side HD streams could position Dish Network advantageously giving the 4K Joey another purpose until more UHD content is available. By being the only US operator currently considering aspects beyond just UHD content delivery, the operator could improve its market position in this saturated pay TV landscape.
Dish Network is following the industry-wide trend whereby operators are deploying products that can highlight the value and fullness of pay TV. The operator’s new UI and remote controls aim to simplify and shorten the content discovery process for subscribers. The new UI does this through its new home screen, which aggregates content through recommendations based on historical viewing data with airing and upcoming programmes of the day as well as recently recorded content onto a single home screen. Both of the new remote controls have been designed with smartphone-like dimensions and ergonomics. The Hopper Voice goes further with its touchpad and enables smartphone-like interaction: swiping and taping commands. The addition of voice control is another smartphone design cue that many pay TV operators have been experimenting with recently. They believe that it can be used to eliminate the customer-frustration generated by large number of button presses to find content and by typing long text strings in content searches. The major downfall of voice control is that it often requires the user to learn specific voice commands; also a frustrating process for customers. Dish Network aims to minimize this by using natural voice recognition technologies, which should enable customers to issue voice commands using conversational language.
Whilst Dish Network is launching an OTT service, these improvements to its Hopper ecosystem demonstrate a continued focus on stabilising its core pay TV business. The operator has gone to great lengths to show subscribers the advantages of having or adopting a bundled premium pay TV service over an OTT service. Its strategy is focused on maintaining its traditional pay TV subscribers; the inclusion of simplified and smartphone-like content navigation often found in OTT services could attract consumers beyond its traditional segment.