AT&T’s launch of Android TV Operator Tier will extend market outside Europe

Wireless Watch’s sister service, Rethink TV, recently published a forecast on Android TV. AT&T’s interest in this technology is well documented, but less well known, especially in the USA, is the Android TV Operator Tier.

This is something that Google has led with in Europe. It is essentially a version of the platform which allows an operator, or third party specialist, to build a separate launcher (3SS and Accedo are specialists), so that nothing of the Android brand is seen anywhere, and the layouts and functions are defined and branded by the operator.

The Android team launched this option back in September 2016, but it took until January 2018 before implementations began to appear in Europe. The AT&T deployment, which has just gone out on limited release, for a six-month trial, seems to be the first time this approach has appeared in the USA, and suggests it will be launched in anger in the country in spring 2019.

Operator Tier is a compromise to get operator buy-in for Android TV. It has to be configured for voice control and must include Play, the Google app store – but none of the other Google apps are obligatory, by contrast with the Open Handset Alliance rules that govern most Android smartphones.

AT&T now seems to be using this with DirecTV Now, as a consumer testbed. This does not mean that it will be limited to working with that service in future, but it could be that as early as next spring, the telco will revamp DirecTV Now, perhaps putting a little more content in it and having a variety of options. That would push it to being a more a mainstream service, moving towards a higher ARPU when it is fully configured.

The box, as delivered, boots straight into live TV streamed via DirecTV Now and there are other tabs for the Guide, Watch Now, other live options, My Library, for DVR content and Discover (recommendations), while another tab shows Apps.

One of the reasons for Android TV being so popular outside the USA is because of the change of heart by most pay-TV operators around Netflix and Amazon. Whereas once they thought of these over-the-top SVoD services as the enemy, now they want the easiest way to integrate them into their service. Using Android TV means that the app is ready to lock and load, taking all responsibility away from the operator. This can, in the USA, be extended to include Hulu and YouTube TV.

None of the reviews in the US has mentioned that the AT&T DirecTV Now service has voice control, but we are sure this will be in the system at launch. Reports say it runs on a Broadcom BCM7271 chipset, running Android TV 8.0.

In the forecast on Android TV – ‘How Android TV finally won the set top wars – Report and Forecast 2018-2022’ – Rethink TV forecast that over 99m devices would be running the system before the end of 2022 globally – virtually all new set-tops. These calculations assumed that AT&T would launch it in 2020 and ship 1m devices in the first year, rising to 5.4m devices running Android TV in 2022. It now looks as though that forecast can be brought forward by six months.

Most cable companies in North America, including Canada, are unlikely to go down this route in the short term, with the possible exception of Altice, as other cablecos have all signed up to use Comcast’s Xfinity technology built around RDK. Other telcos may break ranks, and favorite to do this is Bell Canada, which currently uses Mediaroom (MediaKind) middleware. That has already been certified to work with Android TV devices.

In Europe, there are installations which rely on Operator Tier or AOSP (the open system version you have to support yourself) such as Swisscom; Bouygues, Free and SFR in France; Telia, Telenor, DNA and Com Hem in the Nordics; and Telecom Italia; as well as LG+ in South Korea. Some 4m devices have already been shipped worldwide.