Arkena outlines journey from OTT livewire to systems integrator

There are few better examples of consolidation gone awry in the OTT video industry than Arkena, a French vendor knocked down from its peak perch of 500 employees years ago to around 180 today – a company which rose to prominence through piecing together technologies from a number of valued vendors. There are countless reasons why the fairytale didn’t pan out, commoditization of certain technologies perhaps being the most prevalent, yet Arkena insists that its native market remains a customer stronghold among broadcasters, speaking to Faultline Online Reporter for the first time in two years.

Our conversation with Arkena’s CMO Jean-Baptiste Darras came about following an email exchange regarding the recent announcement of the new Canal+ Series streaming service launching in France later this year. Given that Canal+ Series is essentially a relaunched version of the CanalPlay streaming service, we assumed the underlying technologies would remain fundamentally the same, of which Arkena remains a staple for handling cross-platform content preparation. Arkena explained that Canal+ is using its in-house platform with little public detail about third party vendor involvement, although Darras said Canal+ could potentially be using elements of Arkena’s transcoding capabilities for the new Series+ offering. That might explain why Harmonic has not responded to our queries.

Yet the Arkena of today looks decidedly different. The video technology developer, owned by French TV transmission services firm TDF Group, had put together a CDN platform with its own origin server, by merging Cognacq-Jay Image (CMS, playout) with PSN from Poland (radio playout), Qbrick from Sweden (hosted online video platform, which hosted HBO Go Nordics) and SmartJog (CDN, cloud storage and asset management). Qbrick has since been sold to a company called IP-Only and is again operating under its own brand, while PSN operates separately under TDF. The CDN part of SmartJog has been dropped and Arkena even now uses third party suppliers for playout services.

So, essentially, Arkena has been reduced to a product portfolio comprising transcoding technologies, a CMS and media asset management service, and a live head-end system. Yet still the company describes itself as “end-to-end”. Attempting to grasp an idea of what the future holds for Arkena, Darras suggested the vendor is heading towards becoming more of a systems integrator than technology supplier, having recently decided to operate customer platforms which has meant working with a lot of third party and legacy technologies.

Despite Darras’ best attempts to drum up excitement, Arkena’s market sounds stagnant. It hasn’t won a major contract since beIN five years ago and not issued a press release since September last year. To add insult to injury, in January of last year, the country’s largest broadcasting group France Télévisions scrapped its plans for a solo SVoD service, for which Arkena was selected to transcode its entire catalog of 120 million minutes of video assets. Arkena spent about 14 weeks completing the entire development for what Darras described as a “very complex” project, which was hindered by France Télévisions’ arrogant attempts to achieve too much with little outside assistance.

Ultimately though, it seems the nail in the coffin for Arkena’s France Télévisions contract was a general acceptance of how the only shot at rivaling Netflix required rallying with rivals, leading to the creation of Salto – the joint SVoD platform from French broadcasters France Télévisions, TF1 and M6 set to launch later this year. This has become a notable theme already for 2019 with the Britbox SVoD service launching recently in the UK.

Even before launching, Salto has caused more disruption than expected. It scuppered Arkena’s potential for winning a bigger share of the Canal+ Series deal, as the vendor bid for the project after receiving an RFI in 2018 requesting a rapid time to market, only for Canal+ to decide to go it alone after realizing Salto was not due to launch until late 2019 and therefore getting a head start on this new rival wasn’t necessary.

A small victory came from our conversation, getting Darras to finally admit that Arkena dropped its CDN business back in mid-2016 following a highly suspicious announcement in partnership with Akamai. At the time, Arkena vehemently refuted Faultline Online Reporter’s suspicions of a CDN cull after we got in touch. Darras confirmed that maintaining a CDN simply became too expensive. “At the stage when we first developed a CDN we were charging about €0.60 per GB, but this soon became something closer to €0.01 per GB – so we set up migration deal with Akamai,” he said.

While the onus going forward is on home soil, Arkena’s beIN deal was significant in that the contract applies globally, supplying its Cloud4TV back-end technology, comprising content ingest and transcoding, as well as developing the web player. Arkena has also been dipping its toes in IPTV, picking up a deal with French telecoms operator Bouygues Telecom for 150 IPTV channels and the company has expanded its work with Netgem-owned streaming service Videofutur from OTT to IPTV. We referenced our coverage of Netgem from last week and how the French video software supplier has a somewhat convoluted and hard to follow roadmap. “Netgem is confusing for us to follow too,” admitted Darras.