Tony Hill, product marketing director, Telsis, explains why the company’s futureSMS architecture could hold the key in enabling true interactive SMS voting in the lucrative television programming arena
Imagine a television programme where contestants don’t just ‘ask the audience’ — they ask the whole country and get the results immediately. Imagine a programme where viewers vote repeatedly for their favourite contestant as they watch the results update in real-time. Everyone can participate and every vote counts — viewers feel engaged with the programmes and the operators and broadcasters generate significant revenues. A five-minute voting period could generate five million votes, and even at just 25p per vote the gross revenue would be over Â£1 million from a single five-minute voting event.
his is true ‘Participation TV’, and will be achieved if operators work together towards national-scale SMS voting.
Proven demand — voice voting shows the way
Televoting, where audiences call during a television programme to enter a competition or register a vote, has continually grown in popularity over the last ten years. It is now a well-established and popular service.
Telsis has played a key role since the outset, having supplied the world’s first ‘mass calling’ system to Singapore Telecom in 1993. The system was initially used for large charity events such as the National Kidney Foundation fund-raising event, which regularly received calls from the equivalent of over half the population.
Telsis understood the unique demands that mass calling places on network infrastructure. Telephone networks are designed around statistical calling patterns, but with television events calls are synchronised — when the presenter says “Call now!” a huge number of calls arrive in a very short period. The Telsis mass calling system is designed to handle these traffic peaks by answering the calls before they reach the core of the network.
From these early beginnings, mass calling has now become a regular feature of broadcasters’ schedules. Installed by Telsis in 1997, Swedish incumbent Telia’s mass calling system handles an average of 2 million calls per week from a population of approximately 9 million.
New television formats, such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Idols’ and ‘I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!’, enable viewers to control the show by voting to keep or evict contestants. Mass calling has become ‘mass participation’, and is now an integral part of the programme format.
The advent of text voting
As SMS became the world’s most popular form of personal communication, it was inevitable that subscribers and broadcasters would want text voting as well as voice voting.
To date, text voting events have demonstrated a clear demand — but they have also suffered from a lack of real-time capacity.
Quote: “Capacity problems on the side of the mobile networks is the main hurdle that has to be overcome before this market can be exploited to its full potential. The SMS Centres (SMSCs) are not equipped to handle large peaks of in- and outgoing SMS messages. There are numerous examples of SMS networks that crashed because of high peak traffic during television shows.” — SMS-TV: Interactive Television Reinvented, Van Dusseldorp & Partners
This lack of capacity is a direct result of the unsuitability of current SMS network architectures. Devices known as Short Message Service Centres (SMSCs) store messages in queues before gradually delivering them to the voting system. With this current ‘store and forward’ architecture, votes have to be counted slowly over a period of time as the SMSC queues gradually empty. This often means that voting results are presented later in the programme, or even in a separate results programme later in the evening. This type of delayed feedback can hardly be described as ‘interaction’. When a subscriber sees ‘Message Sent’ on their handset, all it means is that the message has arrived at the SMSC — they cannot be certain that their message will reach the voting system in time to be counted.
High-performance text voting
Telsis has devised a futureSMS architecture to overcome these limitations. Voting messages are intelligently routed to a directly connected, high-capacity voting system. Offloading the voting messages avoids the SMSC bottleneck and enables voting throughput to approach the radio bandwidth of the mobile networks — in many networks this is more than 100 times the current peak rate. In addition to immediately increasing capacity and therefore revenues, this two-orders of magnitude improvement offers the opportunity for further innovation and creative programming. A virtuous circle is created, as broadcaster confidence and a positive viewer experience lead to increased revenues and increased promotion of mass participation events.
With the Telsis futureSMS architecture, the subscriber knows that ‘Message Sent’ equals ‘Vote Counted’. TV programmes can introduce live feedback of voting results, with graphs changing as each vote is sent. This makes full use of the immediate feedback channel provided by TV, and results in a far more engaging, interactive experience. Viewers vote more often, as they compete with other viewers for their choice of winner.
Instant competitions can be held — for example, every voter’s number can be entered into a ‘lucky dip’, and the TV presenter can call the winner live on-air to award a major prize. This is only possible when messages are processed immediately. If a viewer has spent Â£1 to enter a competition then they must have a fair chance of winning — it would not be acceptable for their message to be stuck in an SMSC.
In order to maximise voting rates, the voting system resides in the mobile operator’s network. This avoids the need to transfer raw messages across low-bandwidth links to service providers, and enables the broadcaster to deal directly with the mobile operator. Technical and commercial agreements are simplified, and revenue share for both parties is improved. A powerful three-tier management model enables the broadcaster to manage voting events directly — promoting innovation and reducing the operator’s management costs.
Alternatively, for operators who wish to deal with service providers rather than broadcasters, the mobile operator can send regular vote count updates to the service provider. Compared with sending individual voting messages, this requires far less bandwidth and results in a better service.
National-scale SMS voting
When UK operators cooperated to provide person-to-person SMS across networks, traffic grew 7.6 times in nine months. Similarly, with SMS voting the biggest benefits will be realised when operators cooperate to enable national-scale SMS voting events.
Fortunately, mobile operators have a tried-and-tested model to follow — they can use the same three principles that make voice mass calling a success.
The first principle is that messages should be terminated in the network that owns the destination number. This host network receives all of the voting messages — the other networks simply route the messages to the host network.
This is unlike the SMS voting model currently used in many countries, where individual operators terminate messages to shared short codes. Terminating messages in the host network ensures that technical and commercial agreements are simplified and a consistent level of service is provided.
The second principle is that clearly defined interconnect agreements should exist between the operators. As with voice, these agreements define how messages should be routed, and when they should be billed.
In conjunction with the first principle, this ensures that subscribers are billed when their votes are counted in the terminating network. This is a subtle and yet vital difference to some current models where subscribers are billed when their messages are processed in the originating network. In these current models, a subscriber can be billed even if their message arrives too late to be counted, and in some cases even if their message is never successfully delivered — this is clearly unacceptable, particularly if there was a large competition prize and the subscriber was not included in the draw.
With national-scale SMS voting, subscribers know that ‘Message Sent’ equals ‘Vote Counted’. Votes are counted and are available for display on the television as soon as the messages are sent — this positive confirmation and immediacy of participation drives revenues to their peak levels.
Finally, the third principle is that accounting rates should be agreed between operators so that the cost of voting and the revenue share between operators is clearly understood.
By applying these three principles, high-peak voting with millions of votes in a short period becomes possible. Broadcasters can finally produce the type of programme they want to, with a high-volume vote held in a short period towards the end of the programme.
Based on Telia’s experiences of voice voting, and taking the increased potential of SMS into account, a country the size of the UK might expect to generate almost 1 billion text messages a year from national SMS voting events — potential revenue of Â£300 million to Â£500 million to share between the operators and broadcasters.
One number, text and voice
Many television programmes allow voting by text or voice, but they use different numbers for each. For example, a recent UK event asked viewers to call 09015 160 102, or text 07797 808 500. This is confusing for the viewer, and takes up a lot of space on the TV screen.
The Telsis futureSMS architecture enables subscribers to vote by either text or voice, using the same telephone number. This simplifies on-TV screen instructions and encourages votes, audience involvement and revenues.
The simplicity and widespread usage of SMS makes it the ideal medium for participation TV events. The Telsis futureSMS architecture enables operators to immediately increase SMS voting revenues, and also provides a framework for cooperation between operators, based on the proven success of voice mass calling.
With potential revenues of Â£1 million from a single five-minute voting event, national-scale SMS voting offers significant revenues and new opportunities for creative programming.