Free deploys the first Android TV set-top box with UHD French telco Free has launched its UHD offering “Mini 4K” as the new default entry-level TV package, succeeding the HD Freebox Crystal. The package is composed of a set-top box (named Player), running on Android TV with Google Cast functionality and a broadband gateway (named Server) with an integrated Femtocell. The STB can be connected to the gateway wirelessly using 802.11n or wired Ethernet or via FreePlug power-line home networking adapters. The Mini 4K package is available to new subscribers for €29.99 a month on a rolling contract, whilst existing subscribers with a Freebox Revolution can get the Mini 4K STB as a second box for an additional €1.99 per month.
Free’s Android TV deployment, is the first implementation of Google’s latest attempt at partnering pay TV operators to gain a foothold in the living room. Google’s first attempt, Google TV, suffered from software incompleteness as well operator-hesitancy in partnering Google, and as such uptake was insignificant. The platform omitted the Play Store/Android Market and instead used a browser with a selection of in-built apps. Google TV also suffered from only being able to run on expensive STB silicon from Intel, who was also trying to enter pay TV technology supplier market. This platform did not appeal to operators enough, to negate concerns over allowing Google into the pay TV ecosystem and tempt them away from traditional suppliers. Android TV differs from Google TV in that it is a re-optimised platform for the TV screen, with in-built apps, access to the Play Store, Google cast, and voice search capabilities, and is not limited to running on Intel silicon.
Whilst Google has been largely unsuccessful at entering the pay TV STB ecosystem, its Android OS has been more successful, but is still not widely embraced. Operators such as Bougyues Telecom, NTT Plala and Swisscom have implemented custom versions of Android as a STB middleware. These implementations don’t have access to the Play Store, but have allowed operators to port optimize or unify their Android mobile apps to, for or with the TV screen.
Free’s alignment with Google is a logical strategy. Considering it is positioned as a content aggregator, adopting Android TV will mean access to a wide variety of content, third party apps and to a well-established developer community. Free’s proposition is to attract mobile subscribers – existing or new, by choosing technology and functionalities that appeal to smartphone users. First and foremost, its Mini 4K gateway is integrated with a Femtocell, improving cellular reception for subscribers around their homes. Google Cast will allow subscribers to use smartphones as a means of controlling the TV, and the iteration of Google’s voice control technology into its traditional remote control replicates smartphone functionality. Ultimately, Free could build an app combining its mobile and TV platforms, thereby optimising its user experience by providing a consistent experience across various platforms. An app would move the telco towards a unified environment/ecosystem and will minimise the need to implement changes for a variety of devices.
Also interesting is the implication regarding how Free views UHD. The telco has chosen the Mini 4K as its default package, leaving its Freebox Revolution as its premium offer owed to the inclusion of a hard drive, network-attached storage (NAS) functionality, Blu-ray player and faster 802.11ac WiFi. To not market UHD as premium is reasonable in Free’s position, considering that Smart TVs already have access to 4K content through apps. Free’s rationale may be similar to Vodafone Germany’s: it is a move designed to be future-proof and at this scale, using Android TV could be economical and provide interoperability especially if Free develops a cross-platform app. However, all things considered, the UHD aspect in Free’s package is a noticeable differentiator when compared with competitors such as Bougyues, who has a similar package with its custom Android OS Bbox Miami, but lacks the UHD capability of Free’s Android box.
The French telco market has typically been characterized by heavy price competition and much was instigated by Free. Its new offering is not a step away from that model, but rather a redefined low-cost entry package designed to appeal to mobile-led subscribers.