After 18 months of development and testing among 3,000 of its employees, Videotron launched its Helix IPTV platform on Tuesday.
Based on Comcast’s X1 platform, Helix joins the Ignite TV platform by Rogers and the Blue Sky TV platform by Shaw, also based on the same technology. Three of Canada’s four largest cable companies (Cogeco uses a TiVo-based system) now have products that can compete with Bell’s Fibe TV, offering features like restart (watch a currently airing or recently aired program that was not recorded) or cloud-based PVR.
I went to Tuesday’s launch event to report on it for Cartt.ca, and asked the people there a bunch of really technical questions. Here, based on their answers and my own opinions, is some analysis of the features in the new Helix system:
It’s probably the feature Videotron seems most excited about. Its employees spent months issuing 2.4 million voice commands to Helix systems to help train it, making sure it not only translated properly into French, but could understand various Quebec accents.
I will admit to some bias here: I’m not big on voice commands. I don’t use Siri a lot. I don’t have Alexa or Google Home. I don’t dictate text messages. So personal preference is probably the biggest reason this doesn’t wow me. And it definitely has uses for people as an accessibility tool.
But the way it’s described by Videotron, it sounds like the second coming of home entertainment technology. Its website even makes it seem like a new element of the bundle, along with TV and internet.
I suspect the amount of effort required on this front is a big reason why. Comcast has already developed the X1 system, so Videotron didn’t need to start from scratch. But Videotron did need to adapt it for a French-language market, and that took a lot of work.
It’s nice to be able to dictate what channel you want to go to if you forget the channel number, or search for a program or movie without having to type it in using arrow keys on a remote to find each letter. It’s cool that you can tell it to advance or rewind a given amount of seconds or minutes, or ask it what song is currently playing so it can Shazam it for you. But these sound more like bells and whistles than killer features worth spending hundreds of dollars on new equipment for.
Streaming apps (or lack thereof) and integrated search
Helix will be your one-stop shop, they said. Just search for a program or movie (using your voice-controlled remote) and it’ll search live TV, your recordings, video on demand, Club Illico and YouTube and Netflix all at once, simplifying your life.
That sounds great. But what about Tou.tv? Or Crave? Or Amazon Prime Video? Or DAZN? Or iTunes?
Videotron points out that most video watching happens on Illico, YouTube and Netflix combined. And they say they plan to add other services quickly, though there are no dates yet.
I’m worried, given Quebecor’s history of dealing with its competitors, that it might be a long time before Tou.tv and Crave get added to Helix. (To be clear, the “Crave” TV channels, formerly known as The Movie Network, and associated video-on-demand channels, are available, and even have the Restart feature. I’m talking about the Crave streaming app.)
Unlike a platform like Roku, where groups can also create their own apps, Helix is a closed system, and so Videotron has to choose which apps to add. As much as they’re billing this as a one-stop shop, it’s hardly comprehensive.
Of all the features that would make me want to switch to Bell, this is at the top of the list. With a cloud-based PVR and IPTV distribution system, Videotron now has the ability to replay content for you even if you haven’t recorded it. If you forget to record a show, or you hear on social media about some outrageous thing that just happened, you can tune in and go back.
Videotron’s Restart feature can go back up to 72 hours, which is great. But it’s hobbled by legal issues. Enabling the feature requires rights agreements with broadcasters, and some of them aren’t there yet. Or they may only allow you to go back to the beginning of the program currently airing. I don’t have a full list (Videotron didn’t provide one despite multiple requests), but I did notice in testing the system that TSN and RDS don’t have the feature enabled. They are, of course, owned by Bell. AMC is another one without Restart.
Videotron says the Restart feature is available with 173 channels (including, of course, all the TVA ones) — 74 of those channels can go back up to 72 hours.
No more hard drive in your home. Everything is stored at Videotron. That doesn’t give much more in terms of PVR capacity, though. You can record 8 shows at once — the same as with the current Illico X8 terminal — and up to 100 hours of HD recording. Adding another 100 hours costs $3 extra a month.
The biggest advantage, though, will be the ability to watch your recordings through the app, even if you’re not home.
Download and Go
Going on a plane ride soon? Helix lets you download some content to a device and access it without an internet connection.
Videotron says 1200 titles are available this way, and more will be added, especially as the TV season begins. There are various limits — 15 downloads per device, 5 devices per account, and a 30-day maximum. And you have to use the Helix app to watch them. But it’s a nice added bonus.
Smart home controls
Videotron’s Helix commercial talks about being able to control lights, door locks and other intelligent systems through its Helix app. Setting aside the fact that a lot of people don’t have these things and rely on old-fashioned switches, the feature isn’t available at launch. Instead, it’s “coming soon.” I’m also not sure how many smart home appliances are compatible with the platform.
Another focus of a lot of Helix hype is their new wifi system. Replacing your old wifi router, the new box offers a bunch of features centred around control. You can setup profiles for individual family members, link them to individual devices, monitor how much internet they’re using, limit the amount of hours they spend online (not including low-bandwidth activity like push notifications), and cut the off individually, either manually or on a schedule.
These features are available in other wifi routers, so you don’t really need Helix for this. But for people with families who want to restrict their kids’ internet usage, it’s useful. The fact that it can be controlled via an app, even away from home, is even more so.
Of course, kids are smarter than us, and will probably find a way around restrictions you place. Which brings us to…
Let little Kayden watch his Paw Patrol in peace without getting worried that he’ll accidentally get exposed to porn. Use a PIN control to lock him into a child-friendly TV environment, and set your Helix to block access to unwanted websites.
At least that’s the theory. And while it may work for your five-year-old, your 15-year-old will find a way around it.
It’s understandable that they haven’t talked about this yet because there’s nothing much to talk about, but because Videotron is changing its technology, it will no longer be limited by how many channels it can offer.
With analog cable, a 6 MHz frequency block is assigned to each channel, and there are a limited number of such blocks available before the frequency gets too high to be reliably transmitted through its network.
With digital cable, the 6 MHz blocks are instead given digital signals with multiple channels. Some on-demand video is possible, but capacity is still limited.
With Helix, each channel is delivered individually via the internet. Videotron doesn’t need to add capacity to make another HD stream available, it can just add it to its library.
Staff tell me that the plan is to offer much more on Helix than is available on Illico, but so far the only thing that I could see on their demo TV is additional local stations. For example, I could tune into CHCH TV in Hamilton, which is normally only available in Ottawa-Gatineau. This is good news for people who want to watch local newscasts for different regions, but the real potential is future expansion.
One employee told me it was her favourite feature, which seemed kind of odd to me. Helix offers a feature where you can bring up an on-screen guide showing the standings of your favourite league, highlights of recent games and the upcoming schedule of your favourite team.
Illico’s second-generation terminals have a couple of these on-screen apps. One for weather and another for lotteries. I’ve never used them.
But one use I think I might get out of it: the upcoming schedule links directly to the option to set a recording for a game. If you follow a team or league whose channel assignments are all over the map (like, say, the NHL), this can be very useful to you.
Look at the back of the two boxes, and you’ll see they’re a lot simpler than the old Illico terminals. The Helix wi-fi box has two telephone connections, two ethernet connections, the coaxial cable connection and a power connector. The front has only a wifi protected setup button and an LED status light.
The 4K TV terminal has ethernet (if you don’t want to use wifi), HDMI in (which doesn’t appear to be used), HDMI out and power via USB-C.
No more component cables, or digital audio, or that USB port that you’re not sure what it does. This also means you won’t be able to change channels or volume on the terminal itself.
The boxes are also quite small. The TV terminal is about the size of a couple of CD cases (130mm x 130mm x 23mm), and can be mounted on a wall behind a TV if desired.
I asked if there’s a plan to eventually be able to connect additional TVs without the expense of a Helix terminal, like Bell has with Alt TV. Videotron’s CEO said there aren’t plans for that in the short term, in part because features like voice remote won’t work without the terminal.
You can watch lots of content on the app (and even watch shows as they’re being recorded if you’re at home), but you can’t cast from the app to a screen yet.
Previously, Videotron offered the ability to either buy or rent their TV terminals and cable modems, and would often offer free rentals of both as an incentive to subscribe.
Under Helix, that changes. There will be no rentals. Instead, you can either buy the equipment outright or pay them over 36 months. (If you leave before those 36 months are up, you pay the balance and keep the equipment or try to sell it to someone.) It’s the same price whether you pay up front or over the payment plan, so might as well do the plan.
Prices are as follows:
- Helix gateway/wifi router: $252 ($7/month)
- Helix TV terminal (one per TV): $180 ($5/month)
- Helix wifi pods (extenders): $216 for a pack of three ($6/month)
- Additional or replacement Helix voice remote: $20
The equipment will likely be available in stores for outright purchase, and around the holidays there might be sales that will make them less expensive. There’s also a plan to sell the sleek wifi pods individually (though they estimate only 1 in 10 households will need them).
The prices of the plans are about the same as under cable internet and Illico, but the internet speeds are much higher on Helix. It starts at 60 Mbps.
Bundled TV+internet plans are offered with 12-month discounts of $20-$40 a month.
Pruneau also announced that Videotron will be simplifying its billing system, to make it less confusing for clients. Gone will be the jargon-filled itemized lists and partial months, replaced by a simpler breakdown of prices for services and equipment.
The future of Illico
The old Illico system isn’t going anywhere, at least not in the short term. Videotron will continue to support it, and even continue to sell it, for the time being. It’s hoping that people will move organically to the Helix platform. Pruneau wouldn’t share targets, but said they were ambitious.
It’ll probably be at least a few years before enough people switch and Videotron is comfortable pushing the rest of its client base over and dismantling Illico like it did analog cable.
Even Videotron’s CEO knows this new system won’t stop cord-cutting. Helix isn’t much more expensive than the old system, but it’s not cheap either. The best they can hope is that it helps stop the bleeding, not only from people leaving subscription TV entirely, but people leaving for Bell Fibe.
Videotron is betting its millions that the more Helix can be integrated into people’s lives and habits, the harder it will be for them to do away with it.
Only time will tell if that bet pays off.