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My 10 does-the-emperor-have-any-clothes-on questions for IBC17

To get the most out of my annual pilgrimage to Amsterdam, I’ve sat down and had think about the big questions I don’t believe we have answers on in late 2017.

I came up with 10, which only represent what I’ve been working on not necessarily the complete picture. Clearly we need to take ourselves less seriously sometimes. I for one would never trust an expert who has straightforward answers to all these questions, because the honest truth is that we don’t know.

From new to old topics:

1.   What will mainstream HDR look like in 2018?

Continue reading My 10 does-the-emperor-have-any-clothes-on questions for IBC17

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Continuing broadband boom heralds arrival of the home gateway at last

The home gateway has been talked about for long enough, but how many have actually been installed so far? Not a lot, and meanwhile its future appears to have been imperilled by the spectre of cloud services offering a safe and cheap place of unlimited capacity to store all that music and all those home videos, as well as providing the source of on demand pay TV content. But this negative equation between the gateway and the cloud is a false one, for actually the two are going to march forward together. The cloud may well be the place where personal and recorded content is stored, but the gateway will be the point of control, mediating between the external network based services and the increasingly diverse functions executed within the digital home.

This point has not been lost on the more astute vendors of both hardware and software for home gateways, as can be seen from a clutch of recent product announcements. One that stands out for me came from Arris with the introduction of its Touchstone family of wireless voice and data gateways. Arris deals in CPE and infrastructure for the cable TV industry, although now prefers to set out its stall as a broadband services company. Touchstone therefore is for cable operators only, but for the first time Arris is making as much play about the features on the home network side as on the HFC (Hybrid Fibre Coax) front. Arris describes it as a game changer, presumably both for itself and its cable TV customers. Such rhetoric can often be dismissed as marketing puff, but on this occasion it is about right. Whether the Touchstone family itself proves to be the game changer remains to be seen, but the shift in emphasis that it represents on the CPE front most certainly is. It is no coincidence that some of Arris’ largest customers such as Comcast of the US, the world’s number one cable TV operator with over 20 million subscribers, have been clamouring for this product and plan to start deploying it before the year is out.

 

On the HFC side, Arris is touting its channel bonding, which increases available bandwidth by aggregating up to 24 channels together. It was notable the strong emphasis Arris is placing on upstream bandwidth to meet increasing demand, generated partly by cloud services, for uploading content rather than just consuming it within the home. On the home networking side, Arris was trumpeting its inclusion of Celeno’s CLR260 3×3:3 chipset, which is pretty much state of the science for home Wi-Fi technology with various enhancements to the standard MIMO technology, including transmit beam forming, which involves coordination of multiple transmission antennae such that radio waves from each interfere constructively at the receiving end to boost the overall signal and hence increase both range and bit rate. Other important add ons aimed more at dealing with interference both from physical objects and radio signals are Tunneled Direct Link Setup, designed to focus available bandwidth on the actual point to point links in operation at the time, and real time channel hopping, aiming to find the best part of the spectrum at a given moment for transmission.

 

The underlying message behind developments such as the Arris gateway is the continuing proliferation of broadband services, as confirmed by the latest data from the Broadband Forum indicating that global broadband subscriptions have soared to over 624 million by the end of Q2 2012 compare with about 565 million a year earlier. The Forum itself argues that this presents a huge opportunity for broadband operators to exploit the connected home, as they control the means of service delivery. This must all be music to the ears of the few software companies that have specialized in the home gateway, notably French based SoftAtHome, which was ahead of its time with its SOP (Software Operating Platform), but it now looks as if the rest of the industry is catching up. SoftAtHome has a modular platform that is hardware independent, and supports not just existing broadband delivered services such as TV, but also what the company believes will be big emerging applications in the digital home, such as home security, environmental control, and eventually remote healthcare. This is a good place to be if, as Arris claims, the game has indeed changed to one favoring the fat home gateway as an equal partner with the cloud.

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UAE incumbent goes OTT – IP&TV World Forum MENA report – Part 1/2 – Etisalat

This year’s IP&TV World Forum in Dubai was another show that could easily have been called the OTT forum – which begs the question of whether it’s worth going to the show with that title: as all the TV related gigs have gone over the top. In Dubai this year, most of the presentations during the conference and almost all the booths were full of it.

To learn what was talked about at the conference, check the #IPTVWFMEA hash tag on twitter or follow me @nebul2. My highlight was Thierry Fautier’s enthusiastic presentation of MPEG-DASH and my “”OMG what’s that?” moment arrived just before the close when we had an evangelical presentation from JOY LUXE IPTV in a gospel style on the 10 stupidest things not to do with apps. I was so amazed I stayed till the end, but don’t remember a single thing that was said.

However, overall the conference was of a good quality with variety and much local issues addressed. As last year, the MEA version of the show brings in a small, but a very focussed and powerful crowd with quite a lot of decision makers up to CEO level. Together with the genuine 5-star location, that lends a feeling of importance to the event. Decisions seem to take a long time in the Middle East and I heard it quipped that that was why the big guns had to come several times.

The exhibition floor

This year, I only stopped by in booths I haven’t visited before, leaving out for another time the likes of Motorola, Bridge or NDS that I have written about before. This first installment only covers Etisalat. Selevision, Mariner Partners Anevia and some others will be covered in part two.

The Etisalat booth took-up about a quarter the complete show floor space and it also housed small demo pods for a dozen key suppliers making up both its IPTV and its OTT ecosystem. These include suppliers large and small like Harmonic (encoding), SoftAtHome (middleware), Phxx (OTT solution developer), Airties (device manufacturer), Consona (OSS/BSS), Alfalak (Integrator), Pace (STB), etc.

I asked Jamal Bnari, one of the key project stakeholders to give me the guided tour of the Etisalat OTT demos.

Jamal first joked with me about how little IPTV there was at the show despite its name. The vast Etisalat booth echoed his feeling just like the rest of the show floor, with OTT occupying most of the space and pure-play IPTV relegated to only a few small booths.

Jamal explained to me that Etisalat’s new OTT services were initially planned as new commercial services to run alongside the existing IPTV service. The OnDemand service available on the web is actually the IPTV VOD library made available outside of the traditional IPTV suite (Live TV, Catch-up TV, etc.). The intent is to allow non-IPTV Etisalat subscribers to consume high-quality VOD content. Since this is still a managed network service (the service comes from the ISP), these customers are provisioned for IPTV but not allowed access to the other services in the IPTV except for VOD of course. This approach overcomes the usual QOS issue with OTT.

For Jamal, the business benefit is this – “OTT either adds real value (ARPU) to existing TV subs or perceived value (stickiness)”. It also enables Etisalat to upsell heavy broadband users towards the complete TV story including the core IPTV solution. There’s a parallel here with big DTH platforms that use VoD primarily as a recruitment tool with extra ARPU providing a nice secondary benefit.

The OTT eLife service called OnWeb is already commercially deployed in the UAE and available to subscribers of all ISPs. Of course, there’s no guaranteed QOS here.

We then whizzed through all the eLife OTT demos (eLife is the brand used for all new services delivered over fibre). Jamal was adamant that Etisalat is going to be selling services NOT devices with this new approach.

The goal is to have the same user Interface on all devices (simplified but not changed on smaller screens). We discussed whether a same navigation paradigm can actually work for devices as different as a smartphone and a 47” HD screen with a remote control. My feeling was that it’s more about capturing a similar user experience than providing an identical interface.

For all OTT services, customers must setup an account with a few required parameters. The same credentials and payment options are used for all devices. The account is then hosted in the cloud. For now one user equates to one account and multiple devices, which works fine for individual devices. But for family TVs some enhancements will be needed.

The demo of eLife OnWeb was being shown on several STBs, importantly, none with the Etisalat brand. Third parties, who choose to include eLife OnWeb with their STB services, provide the devices. On display at the show there was a Humax branded box, an Abu Dhabi media device (Broadcom, Linux), a Kaon branded Android box, a pure IP box from Humax, an AirTies box and an LG SmartBox/Upgrader to make dumb TVs smart (exclusive to Etisalat and not available in the retail markets in the UAE). If nothing else, that impressive line-up shows that integrating Etisalt’s OTT services can’t be all that difficult.

When you fire-up the service, you are presented with a Video Dashboard promoting: Featured, Most-popular, Most-recent and My-favourites.
The TVOD menu is sub-categorized with: Featured, Latest, Popular, Browse (alphabetical), Arabic, Genres (leading to a sub-menu of a whopping 13 genres) and a menu item labelled “Content-Provider”, which I’m guessing will confuse many a user. The Movies menu has the same basic layout as the TVoD one.

The final elements available through the user interface are an unclear concept of “Channels”, an “other videos” category and a confusing second “Movie” section separate from the main movies menu, begging the question of where I should look for movies. The final menu structure contains “Premium” packages and Pay-Per-View, which made me completely lose track of what to look for where.

So after getting off to a good start the demo’s menu structure left me a bit confused. On the upside, the Phxx people on the booth (Phxx are the software developers) said that the menu structure is easy to simplify. Also they told me that menus are created dynamically so if, say a film category contains no assets, the associated menu item will not be displayed. Maybe in the future the EPG/UI could become even more intelligent and merge genres – like Action & Adventure when the total in both genres was of user-friendly size.

The breadth of content and service ambition of Etisalat is huge. Restraining the scope will provide one easy key to simplification of user experience. As services start to rollout with real content for real users, I trust things will get simpler on their own, focussing on where real demand meets Etisalat’s ability to satisfy it with content.

After looking at all the OTT STBs, Jamal took me over to their range of tablet devices. Samsung Galaxy tabs were on display in 10” & 8” sizes with an almost pocketable 6” device from Huawei. All these tabs were of course running Android. The live demos used 3G for video streaming because the exhibition area was over-saturated with Wi-Fi traffic from most of the booths. The streaming worked impressively over 3G using both progressive download (PDL) and adaptive bitrate (ABR). But the 6” Huawei screen illustrated the limits of the one-size fits all approach to user interfaces. I didn’t have a magnifying glass with me so I couldn’t read any of the smaller text.

The iPad suffered the feared “demo-effect” crashing a few times before we could get under way. Because of iTunes licencing issues, the interface under iOS is different with a system of “buckets”. This content-provider-centric approach to the UI is extremely simple with a list of 12 content provides per page and three pages at launch. Categorization is also available with genres within each “bucket”.

The Connected TV demo showed a UI similar to the iOS one and used a 2-level menu structure. Jamal assured me that an upgrade is in the works to make this identical to the tablet and STB versions. Etisalat provide an LG Smartbox to upgrade non-connected TVs so they too can be smart.

The Web portal provides the same user experience as the Connected TV. This approach only makes sense for geeks that hook their PC up to their TV. Normal human beings lean forward while using a PC or Mac, and lean back in front of the TV, which requires a different paradigm. Jamal reassured me that the web portal will be replaced with a ‘busier’ version similar to today’s typical video aggregation site.

The smartphone demo was given on an LG Android device. The UI I saw was simplified to the extent that it contradicted the single UI mantra that Etisalat is trying to implement. But the Phxx guys told this part was still very much “work in progress”, so perhaps I’ll have to come back in a few months and look again.

Jamal told me that some devices are in the shops already and that the whole line-up of everything I saw should be commercially available by the end of the first quarter 2012. By then more devices like Xbox, Roku or Boxee will be announced.

Etisalat’s OTT initiative can only inspire awe and admiration for its breadth and depth of ambition. If they succeed, they will reinforce their service provider nature as the network gets commoditized. The confusion I saw in the UI demonstrates the need to make the strategy completely clear to implement something something a la Apple. The ecosystem they put together is made up of some of the most reputable and innovative suppliers in the market. As there are about nine of them, I can not help thinking of the saying that nine midwifes cannot deliver your baby in one month, However, I look forward to meeting this child as soon as mother and baby are ready.

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Intel’s reported exit from connected TVs: long live STBs

I feel like I’ve had the discussion on whether the future of TV includes STBs a thousand times at least. I seem to conclude yes about half the time, then no the other half.

I joined geekdom in the late eighties so my technological world vision was built around the Wintel duopoly. Remember when Microsoft brought out windows 3.1 (the first version that really worked). Most PCs needed to be changed. Then again when Intel came up with a new chip, twice as fast as the one 18 months ago, software vendors like Microsoft, Adobe, or game developers would quickly bring out « great » new features using all that power.

Asked whether the TV has an STB in its future, my answers always refer back to those simple old Wintel days: as long as people like NDS can come up with hungry UIs that require ever more processing power under the hood, then yes. Indeed the NDS latest Snowflake UI is reputed to be just one such power hungry killer-application.

Upgrading the TV’s processing power has always been harder than to swap out an STB. Traditional business models usually have it that a 500€-1000€ TV set belongs to the subscriber whereas the 50€-200€ STB belongs to the operator. In the days before connected TV and IP, the shelf life of a box was about 7 years. If the accelerated rate of change means that this has to be shortened to say 3 years, so be it. Lowering hardware prices will absorb a good part of the extra cost and the business model can take on the extra 10-15€ a year that shortened amortizations adds.

We had a changing world that I made some kind of sense out of with my Wintel analogy. But Intel then goes and exits connected TVs. How can that fit into the picture?

Despite their vested interest to sell to every part of the value chain, Intel have basically told the market that they believe their future is in the STB and companion devices, not the TV itself. The extra shelf life of TVs could be the culprit here. I’ll be looking out for the roadmaps of other silicon vendors to see if they agree. But Intel carries so much weight that their analysis will affect the market even if they are wrong in the long term.

Thank you Intel for helping me to treat my split-personality disorder. I am no longer wavering and clearly do see an STB in the TV’s future at least for the next couple of years. Other stakeholders were already pointing in this direction like Microsoft’s with their big X-Box push in the TV space and Apple’s non-entry into TV sets despite persistent rumors.

Jamie Beach of IPTV News recently pointed out to me how Google’s Android strategy seems to be heading towards some kind of convergence with the TV. In the short term that will probably mean that Google’s role in the TV will be played out on android companion devices only. It’ll still be a couple of years before they get the lean back STB or TV OS sorted.

If anybody at Samsung, Philips, LG, Toshiba, Sony or any other set maker was worried about Intel’s move, they are wrong. Their Connected TV strategies may need to be scaled down, but as soon as I have some spare cash I can now go and buy a new TV, based on its screen qualities and stop worrying about its OS, processing power or Apstore… I worry about the connectedness of my TV set itself when I next upgrade in 2 to 3 years.

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My plans for IP&TV World Forum 2011

Like many attendees, this year I’ll be wearing several different hats again during the show. I’ll start as a blogger and a bit of a twit (@nebul2), then put on the independent expert & analyst attire. I shall finish off the conference wearing my active IP&TV / VoD consultant’s hat.

On the exhibition floor, I’ll be milling around and peeking at everything. Last year was notable for the fancy UI demos based on Intel chipsets. This year I expect the other chipset vendors to respond. So I’m looking forward to Sigma Design’s G.hn demos and whatever is new from ST and co. I trust Pace, ADB and the other STB makers will oblige.

I’m proud to have got my 3D prediction right: last year was too early for the 3D bonanza, and it looks like this year is already late enough to avoid it again, so I don’t expect to waste much more time looking at puny 3D demos.

Last year’s OTT and connected TV demos were still mostly just concepts despite several of them having already been around in 2009, but I expect to see more live services demoed this year. I’ll be especially attentive to any booths that are showing OTT services that, beyond looking desirable to the end-user, make business sense. I suppose a holy grail while going from OTT demo to OTT demo will be anything that looks like it could become a connected TV Esperanto, but that’s probably just wishful thinking; I must save some expectations for 2012’s show.

Now for the conference.
Day one: I’ll head off to the OTT breakfast hosted by an interesting ecosystem of companies, three of which I often write about. For OTT to make a difference, cooperation is central that’s why I find this initiative interesting.
Awox’s Olivier Carmona is technical marketing director of a small company with a big vision that dared to nail its colours to the DLNA mast way before it was hip.
I’m looking forward to a scheduled interview with Steve Christian of Verimatrix.
Unlike most competitors in the security business who still only really care about today’s CAS cows, Steve also gets fired up about what’s coming. He often leaves me with a “why didn’t I think of that” feeling.
Next comes Thierry Fautier who is Harmonic’s IP convergence guy. His forceful views on the way the industry is heading always take me by surprise.
Then I’m looking forward to getting the views of Minerva, Real & Heavy Reading whom I know less well but will be there too.

Thus I’ll miss the opening keynote plenary. The main conference room is usually packed with journalists so if anything interesting comes out of those presentations I’ll pick it up on twitter (@julianclover usually tweets if its really breaking news so I recommend following him as well as the #iptvwf hash tag). The only operator in the opening session is Virgin Media. IP&TV WF still has this bizarre UK focus on keynotes in spite of the fact that this is supposed to be a WORLD forum and that the UK is a long way from the centre of the IP&TV universe. As an expat Brit, I can’t help wondering if it’s an unconscious remnant of the British empire: when my Austrian grandparents got married in the 20s, they went to the centre of the world for their honeymoon, it was Nelson’s column. But that was almost a century ago.

Anyway, back to IPTV, I’ll then spend the rest of day one between the 4 conference streams and the exhibition floor.
As I’ve always been fascinated how marketing genius creates brands like Häagen-Dazs or Red Bull out of absolutely nothing, I’ll try and get to the Red Bull presentation at 3:10 in the Content stream.

Wednesday morning’s plenary seems more promising with speakers from both YouView and HbbTV, so I’ll be looking forward to some sparks flying there and a debate beyond the confines of the UK market.
If I still have fee time in the morning, I’ll be going to the Network optimisation stream, which is about adaptive rate streaming, one of my hobby horses from 2008. Huw Price-Stephens, the stream chair is probably the best chairman I’ve seen at IP&TV WF. He’s witty and provocative, so even when the speakers disappoint, he raises the standard. I’ll certainly be staying in his stream later in the afternoon, as a panellist at 15:10 on video delivery for the last mile.

I don’t know if that’s a demotion or a promotion, but for the first time, I’m not invited to the awards ceremony, which is held this year at the end of day 2. I never like Madame Tussaud’s and in any case I’ll be going to an exclusive Warner & Grey Juice screening that evening instead.

Day three will kick off for me at 8AM as I’m hosting an analyst breakfast on the commoditization of IPTV. So far we’ve had an exciting LinkedIn debate with 60 contributions so far. It came in response to a blog on the death of IPTV in France that I published on my site.
Then for much of the last day I’ll be wearing a consultant’s hat talking to clients.
I’m not too worried about missing the Google & Netflix talks during the plenary session. I’ve only ever been disappointed when listening to these big guns. Note that that may be because my expectations are set wrongly.
I’ll try and catch some of the CDN stream, which focuses on where operators are either in pain or see opportunity today as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow for the other streams.
IPTV WF have had to fight so hard to get credible speakers from the network operators (I remember being one of the first in 2004 or 2005), that now the pendulum has swung the other way: in the whole day on CDN’s almost all speakers are network operators. I’ll make a point of trying to attend the presentation from Astro, the Malaysian DTH platform at 3:30. It’s always better to start by understanding the market needs before the offers.

Then it’ll be a rush back to St Pancras station to catch a Eurostar, and hopefully write up some notes to publish here on the journey home.

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New horizons for CAS and DRM companies beyond security.

It has always been a mystery to me why security vendors like Verimatrix always seem to punch above their weight in the pay-TV business. If you look at other value chains, beyond the content industry, stakeholders are credited with a relative importance directly proportional to their financial standing yet Verimatrix has even more mind-share than market-share.

During IBC this year, Steve Christian set me straight and gave me a glimpse into Verimatrix’ future, opening a world of possibilities for the Pay-TV security industry. It was a humbling “why on earth hadn’t I realized that before?” moment.

I was completing a small scouting project on cross-media content recommendation (expect a post soon on this) when we met last month, so I started by picking Steve’s brain on this topic.

A critical mass of users is required before an operator can map behaviour and usage patterns. You need lots of users to get a great service, but you need a great service to get any users. The end game is to understand the patterns of content consumption.

The problem is not only theoretical. Like all Telco’s, the one I worked for was very proud of owning precious customer data. Huge data mining projects on months-old data was the only use that data usually got. TiVo is an exception in collecting data used in almost real time.

Steve’s first point was that CAS and DRM vendors are already in the right place to transparently capture the critical real-time subscriber intelligence needed to deliver a recommendation service.

In their just-released white paper (Arming Digital TV Operators with Real-Time Subscriber Behavior and Usage Data), Verimatrix quaintly call this enabling Progress and Profit. C’mon Steve, these things always come in threes, so what’s it going to be: Profiling for Progress & Profit? Hmm not so quaint, because that’s where there’s still an unresolved issue: privacy. That’s the nice thing about white papers; you can skip the tricky bits.

If privacy does prove difficult, it could however be handled in a very transparent way. The whole recommendation concept requires transparency. People need to know why they are being recommended something to willingly make more personal information available.

The hard part to fix, in getting recommendation to work well, is collecting and understanding user data collected implicitly or explicitly.

Of course understanding the content metadata and classifying all the movie genres TV programs and whatever other content available, isn’t trivial either. This is no longer a real issue as there are now dozens of companies out there with variations on semantic analysis and other approaches with which to do this. Many of the algorithms are even available as open source. Suppliers range from TV specialists like TV Genius, bee TV or Orca to web-based solutions like hunch.com, with people like Jinni somewhere in between. Of course, if you want to build a solution from scratch there are also some pure-players in the algorithm side like Think Analytics.

But all these solutions amount to nothing if you can’t get access to significant user transactions. That is why Verimatrix can solve one of the hardest parts of the problem in a more timely way than many of the above-mentioned vendors.

I didn’t discuss with Steve whether Verimatrix would be looking to develop such features, but the company’s track record suggests they are more likely to partner with whoever is best in class in this area.

Once you able to intervene in, or just under the TV, there are at least two other key areas you can intervene on: Quality management and social networking.

The burden of managing the quality of experience with an ever-increasing range of devices, and with a broadening scope of features and services, is becoming difficult to bear for operators. Some standards like TR-069 have at last emerged for basic requirements like firmware upgrades, but no standardized solutions are available for managing more advanced issues such as monitoring the service delivered.

After many years of caution, focussed on the risk of devices creating a storm of traffic if they all had the same issue to report at the same time, even the big safety-conscious Telcos are looking to deploy agents into both their STB and their home gateways.

Whether using a standard like TR-135, or as-yet proprietary products from the likes of Agama, Mariner, Witbe or Cisco, operators actively engaging in monitoring will develop a dynamic view of how services are being delivered into people’s homes. These operators will find themselves in a position to initially deliver services with a higher quality of experience and eventually deliver even better services altogether.

But the main issues operators have encountered, with embedded monitoring has been software integration. Vendors promise trivial two-week integration efforts, but this has often dragged on to yearlong projects. Here again the CAS vendors come up with a trump card: they are already integrated with all the end devices, that is: connected TVs, STBs, Tablets, smart phones and of course PCs.

But another angle Steve Christian developed was that CAS vendors are already doing monitoring. They maintain and monitor the security of pay-content. Extending from traditional pay-content to other types of content is not necessarily a huge step to take. As anyone who’s dared to get their hands dirty with something like wireshark (this is a free network protocol analysis tool) will know, there is almost no technology barrier to getting to grips with quality metrics like packet loss or network jitter. The most important metric of all is service availability that security vendors are in a prime position to report on.

Working in an ecosystem is part of a security vendor’s daily routine. To improve the quality of experience of the end user, security vendors could easily partner, say, with an EPG meta-data provider like Rovi to ensure that the right data is available at the right place at the right time. They could also use one of the EPG quality specialists like EPGenius to add value to the EPG data by analysing it, correcting discrepancies and adding things like missing series links.

The third point Steve Christian mentioned was Social networking. We didn’t really get into any details here. We were running out of time, but also the business case isn’t so compelling. Verimatrix can enable better Social-TV implementation, but I don’t yet see any clear path to market. I do believe the Social TV will be a reality soon (see my blog here). It is not yet clear who will prevail. The most compelling demos are multi-screen with the TV as a basic video output device and a laptop, smart-phone or tablet to interact with. Fitting into that ecosystem will require agility.

My talk with Verimatrix happened just about when Toy Story3 was released, which I still haven’t seen. Steve’s passion reminded me a bit of Buzz Lightyear’s mantra “From infinity to beyond” except that his could maybe be “from Security to beyond”.