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Taking the set-top out of the equation

Mon, 07/31/2000 - 8:00pm
Roger Pience, CTO; and Dan L. Trayler, VP Sales; Macrodyne
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Gateways could provide more service choices, enhanced control

The technical capabilities of cable TV systems are being constantly enhanced and expanded beyond the traditional entertainment services to provide cable operators with new revenue streams.

For many years, the cable industry has attempted to implement methods to improve the cable/consumer electronics interface while protecting the cable operator's investment in programming. The elimination of signal theft and the set-top box, while offering new marketing flexibility and added revenue potential, provides exciting new opportunities to the cable operator.

Cable operators have constructed coaxial and fiber cable networks that now pass more than 96 percent of all homes in the country, and more than 63 million households subscribe to cable. Today's cable television networks, which rely heavily on set-top boxes to control programming access, are characterized by high rates of programming theft and the inherent incompatibility between the set-top box and the subscribers' TVs and VCRs. A state-of-the-art delivery and control method of new services is paramount to the survival of cable operators in the face of increased competition.

The Residential Gateway (RG) concept is not new, but the idea of providing an all inclusive interface between broadband HFC networks, wired networks, wireless networks, utility companies and the subscriber's in-home network is new and exciting. The gateway promises to enable multiple advanced communications services over diverse broadband networks to enter the home.

The telecommunications industry has long envisioned a sugarcoated-pill solution to its subscriber interface headache. Over the years, the set-top box has been problematic in solving the interconnect conundrum. New services like telephony and data have required network operators to re-examine how these services are delivered. With the introduction of in-home networking, solutions to interconnection are more complex than ever. Multiple hardware interfaces severely complicate the operator's task of satisfying the customer and adversely affect the operator's bottom line. Primarily aimed at satisfying customer needs, the Residential Gateway also aims to meet the network operator's technical and financial goals.

There are four primary reasons why cable operators have long considered off-premise control devices:

  • Control capability (addressability);
  • Consumer friendliness;
  • Improved operating efficiencies; and
  • Improved security.

Intuitively, addressability and security are not equivalent. Addressability provides the feature of remotely configuring a control device. Used alone, it does not provide security.

A residential gateway provides the cable operator the ability to offer programming choices heretofore unavailable in a set-top environment. In addition to normal tiering functionality, it provides individualized subscriber programming tiers and impulse pay-per-view, while eliminating the in-house set-top box.

In this scenario, the controller reacts to a subscriber request for a particular channel. The controller recognizes this request and allows the chosen channel to pass through "in the clear." The controller, as configured, is capable of regulating four frequencies simultaneously for each subscriber's residence, thus eliminating any equipment incompatibility problems.

Occupying a strategic location at the side of the home, a residential gateway provides modular distributed intelligence at a physically secure network location. The "off-premise" platform not only provides for all of the necessary functionality of secure signal delivery and full customer control over the programming choices, but provides shared resources for further service enhancement.

Telephony, cable modems, interactive video and digital programming control and processing are some of the features that should be built into a residential gateway platform. These features can share resources, such as the power supply, memory, microprocessor and communications.

Industry forecasts indicate that cable operators are poised to invest more than $30 billion, by the end of the decade, to rebuild or upgrade 75 percent of the existing cable systems for expanded programming, telephony and data services. Not to be discounted, the uncertain regulatory environment will dictate new and different cable operating psychology. Set-top boxes must be made available to the public through retail outlets, and the cable operator must provide separate security modules.

Driven by technological convergence, the telephone, cable, computer and entertainment industries are each competing for consumers' disposable income. This massive change in the industry, coupled with the fundamental shift from analog to digital program delivery, results in a paradigm shift in the method of providing cable services to customers while simultaneously controlling and improving the revenue stream.

Locating the gateway outside the customer premise provides an improvement in security from two different aspects. Placing the program controller out of the subscriber's reach provides physical security. Functional security is provided by allowing the consumer to view only what he requests from the cable operator. Removing the set-top box and providing the requested channels in the clear to multiple consumer devices solve compatibility issues.

Usage by time and by channel on a per-subscriber basis can be recorded by a microprocessor and uploaded upon request to the headend for billing purposes. Flexibility and control of each subscriber's service can be dynamically accessed from the headend via the communication link to each subscriber's node.

Marketing focus groups indicate customers want to control their programming choices. Given full choice, customers will consume more premium programming, as evidenced by the fact that the largest movie programmers provide three or more streams, or channels.

Consumer conundrum

Recently, deregulation of the telecom industry has resulted in fierce competition among cable operators, telephone carriers and utilities—all of whom want to provide broadband services to the consumer. Along with more providers has come the potential for more set-tops and the need to network multiple PCs in a home. These devices tend to complicate matters for the consumer, however, leaving him faced with:

  • A need for these networks to be accessible.
  • The need to choose from different bundles of service easily and cost effectively.
  • Complex interfaces and multiple in-home devices connecting the various services.

Most service providers are deploying multiple services separately using standalone boxes. The availability of multiple services and the accompanying interface devices often leaves the consumer confused and unable to deal effectively with the situation. The concept of the Residential Gateway is to provide a network interface device that shields the consumer from the complexities of the broadband network and allows him to fully benefit from those services.

Service provider requirement

Cable companies, and now, alternative providers, are building networks which offer video, high-speed data and telephony services over the traditional HFC configuration. Some alternate providers are planning all-optical networks to the home.

These companies need to deploy a common platform (from the customer's viewpoint) in order to compete more effectively and to operate their networks more efficiently. Specifically, service providers:

  • Need a cost-effective way to manage and serve customers with evolving network offerings.
  • Need an extensible package, which allows upgradability for new services.
  • Need to agree upon consumer interface specifications.

A Residential Gateway offers an orderly and proficient means of interconnecting entertainment and communications services into the customer's home. The operators of the networks can offer a wider range of services and more efficiently manage a standardized network. Customers gain access to multiple advanced communications services without installation headaches or increased costs. The gateway is an intelligent, addressable device permitting the termination of all proposed services by combining complex features into one side-of-the-home unit.

A well-designed gateway is a multi-service platform that provides a modular alternative to multiple vendor hardware. The modular concept allows the operator to install only those modules necessary to satisfy the customer's needs—at a reasonable cost. The housing and backplane provide for seamless interconnections for the addressable controller, high-speed data modem, switched telephony, utility metering and load management and powering modules.

Service provider advantages

Service providers will benefit, too. Most operators realize that the advantages listed above not only provide improved operating efficiencies for them, but usually trickle down to benefit the customer as well.

  • Network management. All security and network management and diagnostics are located outside the customer demarcation. Security is much easier to maintain than with a set-top box and internal security POD. The remote diagnostic software and extensive network monitoring capability results in tangible field force labor savings.
  • Upgradability. The gateway provides a manageable approach to upgradability. Modules may be changed as the need requires. Technology and telecommunications product offerings change rapidly—modularity provides protection against obsolescence. The cable industry is fully aware of this every time it spends millions for a new set-top box. The gateway model allows module changeout for only those customers who demand new offerings.
  • Lower costs. Network designers are able to design a network without regard to multiple in-home devices. The service provider is no longer required to ensure interoperability with multiple network devices. Standardization of the consumer-side interface eliminates ambiguity and accelerates customer connectivity.
  • Standard customer interface. Ease of use by the customer is the name of the game. The gateway provides a shield from network complexities. In a nation where 80 percent of the population cannot program their VCRs, anything that can be done to eliminate customer confusion and promote ease-of-use will translate directly to the bottom line. Happy customers buy more services.
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The residential gateway unit referenced in the article, with video, voice and data, will support up to 300-plus subscribers per node.
Architecture

A Residential Gateway can be complex or rudimentary in function. The authors' company sees the gateway as one outdoor unit providing multiple network functionalities:

  • Program access control (security, addressability, PPV, VOD)
  • High-speed data connectivity (100 Mbps)
  • Telephony (POTS, VoIP and packet voice)
  • Automated Meter Reading
  • Status monitoring (QOS)
  • Universal powering backup
  • Modularity.

The program control module provides increased network and program security, addressable service upgrades, connects, disconnects and statistical media monitoring functions. It replaces multiple advanced analog set-top boxes and provides advanced features such as program guides, PPV and messaging.

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Figure 2: Standard system configuration. HFC coaxial input and/or optical input.

The data modem should be DOCSIS-compliant. However, some non-traditional service providers are re-thinking the DOCSIS highway. DOCSIS requires a large amount of data overhead to accomplish its universal connectivity. This wasteful data overhead may be reduced with other protocols, providing greater data throughput for the same bandwidth occupancy. This allows greater data speeds for the customer in a fully integrated gateway.

At the lowest level, a connection to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) is required. Whether that connection is through a switched line-card approach or VoIP in some form remains to be determined by the industry. Whatever the outcome, modular service provides an opportunity for the service provider. A telephony module supplies the customer with multiple POTS lines.

As the networks begin providing new services, the quality of that service is an important management tool. A gateway should include a status-monitoring unit that is designed to SCTE guidelines. This sophisticated monitoring tool can now be located at every customer premise, at no extra cost, thus providing instant feedback on a potential network problem.

Network powering of telephony services is one of the most perplexing problems for operators. Powering from the network is not cost-effective, in most instances. Powering from the home is not reliable and does not provide the backup required by lifeline telephony services. When properly combined, network powering and home powering, coupled with a backplane power system, provide the necessary stability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.

Cost/benefit

Most households have two or more TVs plus VCRs. The Gateway approach is more cost-effective than multiple expensive set-top boxes (plus individual devices for telephony and high-speed data). Today's advanced analog/digital set-top boxes and emerging advanced digital models range between $450 and $700 per box. The gateway represents an opportunity to centralize and reduce the cost of the network interface at about the cost of one expensive set-top box.

With the recent electric power industry deregulation, utility metering now makes more financial sense than ever. In some instances, power companies will be required to meter usage on an hourly basis. This frequency of metering is impossible with today's system. Built-in remote metering may be a new revenue source for the network operator and offer a significant savings to the utility.

A new financial model emerges as well. The gateway which resides on the network side of the demarcation point now can be included in the network financials and accounted and amortized in a more financially advantageous way.

Customer benefit

The gateway approach provides the customer with the "plug-and-play" ease of use demanded today. Installation, service upgrades/downgrades, disconnects and technical service complexities are hidden from the customer, making the service seamless and transparent. The gateway's position at the end of the network but outside the home allows the customer to control their premises, and the network operator to secure and control his programming services.

E-mail: mlafferty@cahners.com

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