'U' looks to provide new, unplugged TV offerings

By Amrutha Sivakumar, Deputy Statement Editor
Published November 25, 2014

University Information and Technology Services doesn’t want students to rely on Netflix for catching up on their favorite shows. Rather, it’s ready to bring live TV on-campus — delivered directly to students' laptops and smartphones.

Philo is a service that allows students on campus to stream and record live TV over the web. First launched in 2011 at Harvard University, Philo now provides a way for universities with existing cable TV contracts to transmit their content to popular devices.

Currently, any University affiliate with a uniqname and Kerberos password can log in to the University’s subdomain on Philo. The service is available anywhere on campus — excluding the University of Michigan Health System’s facilities — on either a desktop or a mobile device.

In its trial phase beginning in early November, Philo is being tested on Ann Arbor’s campus, free of charge, to determine whether students would be interested in purchasing subscription plans to the service in upcoming years.

Philo CEO Andrew McCollum, a Facebook co-founder and Harvard University alum, said he predicts Philo will be popular among University students because the service provides more flexibility in how they consume television.

Universities can purchase Philo for use on their campuses and offer un-plugged television programming to their students and faculty members. The service itself is based off the television subscription the University maintains with traditional content providers. McCollum said individuals not affiliated with a subscribing institution can’t access the channels.

“The service is basically to get more people and more students using it because we think that once people try it, they’ll realize it’s a much better way to watch TV, and make the University make this (cable TV) service that they’re paying for more accessible to students,” he said.

Philo's main benefit to universities is that it doesn't require a high bandwidth to operate — giving it an advantage over popular conventional services like Netflix and Hulu. However, McCollum said there are many other indirect benefits from employing Philo services on a college campus.

For instance, he said, making Philo available to students might minimize Internet piracy by allowing users to record segments of television programming from any of the available channels for later viewing.

“When students try Philo, they’ll realize it’s a great way to watch TV,” McCollum said. “That’s why universities originally decide to bring Philo to campus and they decide to keep it — it’s the only way they can have a DVR-like service.”

Andy Palms, executive director of communications systems and data centers at the University, said ITS realized that students want an alternative to “plugging a cable into a wall” because of the declining number of students who paid for cable TV subscriptions through University Housing.

“Generally what’s going on, certainly people are not as frequently signing up for cable TV service,” Palms said. “We’re very much in trial right now with the technology and also trying to figure out what kind of service model and pricing model works”

If all goes according to plan, the University will offer Philo to students on a pay-per-subscription plan starting in Fall 2015. All University students, staff members and faculty will be able to purchase individual subscriptions, though the service will only be available within the physical boundaries of the University.

“Generally, the way that people have gotten access to the cable TV content in the past, it’s been based on your physical location and you connect a cable to the wall,” Palms explained. “In the future, you’ll be accessing that content by who you are instead.”

Pradip Patel, a data engineering manager at ITS, noted that the service would pose a change to the way cable TV is purchased in residence halls. With Philo, instead of sharing the costs of cable network between the two or three students who live together in a dorm room, individual students would be responsible for purchasing their own television service.

Forty-eight channels are currently available on the University’s pilot service, but Patel estimates 96 being available once the final service is offered for subscription.

A survey on the University’s Philo site aims to gather student input on what channels should be available and what they would like to see improved — such as playback quality or appearance — with future versions of the service.

With the help of University Housing, ITS will continue to advertise the service to students living in on-campus residence halls, as Palms said he believes students living on-campus would be most interested in subscribing to Philo. For instance, he said initial surveys had found that students wanted more sports channels.

“As more and more students use this next semester, we should have a pretty good idea on what’s the right service lineup,” Patel said.

Palms said ITS is not ready to release what it will charge students for the service, and that research is currently underway to ensure accurately pricing.

“Our intent is not to make money; our intent is just to cover our costs,” Palms said. “That’s how it is with all of the networking services on campus.

“(ITS is) trying to make estimates about what acquiring the content will cost and then making estimates about how many people will sign up and how many people can we then allocate that cost to,” he added. “That’s a piece of the trial — trying to find out about it.”