Swisscom Upgrades TV With Inhouse Voice And WiFi 6 From SoftAtHome

Swisscom’s upgraded TV service is a bold play to seize control of the digital home and repel invasion from the big tech players with the help of an in-house developed voice assistant.

As the country’s dominant telco holding 60% of the mobile market, 67% of fixed broadband and 33% of pay TV, Swisscom is hoping to exploit unique aspects of its customer base, including loyalty and a strong regional dialect that challenges existing voice recognition systems. It is also hoping to make a strong play for the digital home on the back of the latest version of wireless LAN called WiFi 6, the WiFi Alliance’s brand name for the IEEE 802.11 ax standard.

For WiFi, the Swisscom TV box will be deployed in conjunction with another new device from the operator, the Internet-Box 3 Home Gateway. The operator claims the latter to be one of the world’s first routers to support ultra-fast Wi-Fi at up to 4.8 Gbit/s, enabled by WiFi 6, which has only just emerged from ratification and been adopted in the first connected devices, including the Apple iPhone 11 and Samsung Galaxy S10.

Swisscom credited the role of SoftAtHome, a French developer of software for smart home and TV services, in underpinning its WiFi 6 connectivity for the gateway. As well as enabling higher bit rates than its predecessor WiFi 5, the new version is also more robust and offers superior coverage with less chance of encountering dead zones where there is no signal. The box incorporates SoftAtHome’s Wifi'ON software, designed to combine the flexibility of wireless with some of the robustness and always-on connectivity of fixed lines. It uses band steering technology which forces devices to select the optimum Wi-Fi channel and switch between the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands according to varying signal conditions.

In smaller homes, the gateway alone enables complete coverage of all areas but for larger premises, or those with challenging signal conditions resulting from building construction, it would be augmented by one or more repeaters that re-generate the signal. The WiFi software is also designed to dovetail with higher speed external fixed line broadband options via the gateway, supporting 10 Gbps XGS-PON access network when there is fiber to the home (FTTH), as well as DSL flavors, including G.Fast and VDSL2 profiles, when the final access loop is copper.

A key attribute of the WiFi software is the ability to separate hardware and software, which makes it easier to introduce new enhancements while minimizing costs. "SoftAtHome's approach lets us keep our hardware and software separate, to continuously extend the connectivity experience on existing products and enable the latest innovations as 10 Gbps XGS-PON and Wi-Fi 6 on our new Internet-Box 3 and WLAN-Box 2,” confirmed Marcel Burgherr, Head of Gateways, Phones and other Devices at Swisscom.

The other critical aspect of Swisscom’s box is its voice assistant, where the operator has differed from most of its peers by developing the technology inhouse in partnership with a local specialist research group. Like other voice assistants, the box is activated via a wake-up command, in this case “Hey Swisscom!”, leading to familiar functions, such as switching channels, launching an app, searching for content to activate the radio function, or asking for a local weather forecast. The voice assistant can also be used to control smart home devices such as intelligent lighting, or activating pre-programmed home functions.

But Swisscom stands out by focusing strongly on voice for competitive differentiation, as Dirk Wierzbitzki, Head of Residential Customers and Member of the Management Board, indicated. “Voice is the remote control of the future,” said Wierzbitzki. “With the Swisscom Box, we are laying a strong foundation on which we can build in the future, successively rolling out additional services and added convenience – for Swisscom solutions, but also for devices from different manufacturers, especially in the smart home sector.”

For development of the voice assistant, Swisscom teamed up with researchers from IDIAP, an independent research institute for artificial intelligence (AI) based voice algorithms in Martigny, Switzerland. One reason why Swisscom was emboldened to go it alone is that the Swiss German spoken by a significant proportion of the country’s population is a strong dialect which even many native German speakers find hard to understand. It is therefore challenging for voice assistants and IDIAP specializes in technical implementation of Swiss German voice recognition.

Apart from expertise in linguistics and implementation, this requires lots of data for the algorithms to learn on, which is a handicap in this case given that systems such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have required thousands of hours of speech for training, able to draw on a much larger base. Swisscom’s employees provided initial training but the operator recognizes it will have to conduct extensive further tuning in the field if there is any hope of matching the big players in quality, although of course the latter are not so good at Swiss German.

It is though a risky strategy going it alone over the crucial aspect of voice recognition where the operator is betting not just on the peculiarities of Swiss German, but also a solid reputation among the 1.5 million households that use Swisscom TV, offsetting the advantages the big tech players possess.

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