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Tales of Tivli: Taking TVE to School

Mari Silbey
7/11/2013

IPTV startup Tivli got a major boost Wednesday with the close of a US$6.3 million funding round that includes seed money from such high-profile investors as Home Box Office Inc. (HBO) and Mark Cuban's Radical Investments fund. (See College IPTV Service Makes Grade.)

But Tivli's origins story is far less glamorous.

When Tivli co-founders Tuan Ho and Nicholas Krasney were undergraduates at Harvard University several years ago, they covered their dorm room walls with aluminum foil to improve TV signal reception.

“Nick and I were super-avid watchers of television," says Ho. "But Harvard didn't actually have TV service, or cable service to speak of."

So Ho and Krasney found a way to boost the reception of free broadcast channels and then create a TV service of their own. The two students piped over-the-air signals to "a little server that we had built," Ho says, and then streamed that content straight to their laptops.

It was a home-grown version of TV Everywhere, even though TV Everywhere didn't really exist anywhere yet.

Ho and Krasney were on to something. But at the time, they didn't know exactly what. It wasn't until Harvard administrators took an interest in their pet project that the tin foil experiment took on an entrepreneurial air. The two got an offer to stay on at the university after graduation to incubate their technology. It was then that Tivli was born. From dorm room to boardroom
Tivli has come a long way from its dorm-room origins. Since prototyping the service with students at Harvard in 2011, Ho and Krasney have learned a lot about how the TV market works, and why they might have stumbled on a profitable niche.

It turns out that other college campuses have some of the same issues as Harvard when it comes to television. Even schools with full-fledged pay-TV services often can't offer all the perks and features available in a typical residential cable TV package. TV Everywhere, for example, usually doesn't come with the bulk subscriptions universities pick up from local service providers.

"Right now the TV Everywhere services are not available because students can't authenticate," says Christopher Thorpe, president of Tivli. "For example, ABC just launched a TV Everywhere service, and if you're a Comcast subscriber you can watch Watch ABC if you have a single-family subscription to Comcast. If you're a bulk subscriber to Comcast like … a university, Comcast doesn't currently … authorize individual bulk subscribers … so this is one of the ways in which we make sure that the broadcasters' content remains available."

Because of the promising opportunity in the university market, Ho and Krasney decided to branch out beyond Harvard's borders. They hired Thorpe to lead the company, and they now have field trials running in universities across the U.S. A cloudy view on content rights
The Tivli service includes a cloud-based interactive program guide and digital video recording (DVR) capabilities. Student subscribers typically sign in with a university ID and their Facebook login, and then have video delivered over a closed network to their IP-connected devices. On the downside for students, their TV service can't be carried outside the boundaries of the school. But on the plus side, that same closed-network restriction gives Tivli more freedom to retransmit both over-the-air and subscription video programming.

Tivli uses a hybrid approach for securing content rights, and it's exceedingly complex. In some cases, the company simply retransmits signals from a master antenna owned by the host university. As long as Tivli makes the content available to everyone, and it stays on a closed network, the company doesn't run foul of copyright laws.

"It has to be accessible to everyone. It has to be without additional cost. And it's all on university-owned property," says Thorpe.

In other cases, Tivli works closely with the local service provider. Because those cable and satellite companies have already paid retransmission fees, the extension to Tivli subscribers is covered.

In still other cases, the Boston-based company has started to interface with programmers directly. Tivli is negotiating with some broadcasters, and it has already signed an agreement with HBO to give Harvard students authenticated access to HBO Go. What it means for cable
The Tivli approach could be seen as a competitive threat to local service providers in university towns. For now, however, Tivli offers more opportunity than threat. Cable operators want to get students hooked on pay TV, particularly because today's college cohort grew up on Internet video. To do that, operators need to offer a service that's compelling; one that will make younger generations want to shell out cash for TV even after they graduate. Tivli may be the answer.

Ho says he's been "fairly pleasantly surprised and delighted" at how easy cable and satellite providers have been to work with. In theory, these providers could use Tivli as a branded extension to their TV services. Why go through the headache of building out a system specific to college campuses when someone else has already done the hard work?

But even if a formal partnership isn't on the cards, it looks like cable and satellite operators are willing to let Tivli do its thing, i.e. recruit students to the wonders of paid television. Tivli today
Tivli officially kicked off service at Harvard in May 2011. On that first night, 25 percent of the student body tuned in with Tivli to watch President Barack Obama announce the death of Osama bin Laden. Two years later, Tivli has additional trial deployments at Yale, Wesleyan, Texas A&M, the University of Washington and several other schools, along with its new cache of $6.3 million. Ho says the company might look at the multi-dwelling unit (MDU) market, or even the hospitality market in the future. But for now, universities are by far the first priority.

"The response in the university market has been so strong," says Ho.

It turns out college kids still like TV. And Tivli might even convince them to pay for it once they leave the dorms. Wouldn't that be something?

— Mari Silbey, Special to Light Reading Cable

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