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Gateways a Keystone for Future Cable Operator Architectures

Thu, 12/31/2009 - 7:30pm
Mike Robuck, Senior Editor

The evolution toward IP could include gateways replacing set-top boxes

While the current category of gateway devices is as wide as the Mississippi River, there’s not a lot of depth to the devices.

All of that is about to change as cable operators, telcos and other service providers are starting to plan for “super” gateways that will do much more than just connect a few set-top boxes in a home or enable DOCSIS 3.0 with Wi-Fi on the side.

The drivers for the development of more robust, intelligent gateways include reduced capex; over-the-top video content; multiple devices and services in a home; and different conditional access, digital rights management and middleware offerings to serve the multitude of devices in a home of the future.

A recent ABI Research study that focuses on residential gateways predicts that intelligent broadband gateways will produce double-digit annual growth results over the six-year forecast period ending in 2013.

The study also forecasts that intelligent broadband gateways will account for more than 40 percent of home networking CPE shipments by 2012, and that basic gateways with limited intelligence and management capability – which currently account for half of the market – will soon be phased out.

For even more proof of cable operators’ gateway plans, look no farther than statements made during a Time Warner Cable earnings call toward the end of last year. In response to a question about the continuing expense of set-top boxes, Time Warner Cable President and CEO Glenn Britt said his company has a plan in place to replace STBs with gateway devices.

“In the longer run, we are beginning to work on an architecture that would essentially move the multiple set-tops into potentially one device that is somewhere in the home,” Britt said. “And we would end up sending, rather than multiple signals over the last part of our plant as we do today, we would send one signal, and this device would split it into the various receiving devices needed – analog TV, digital or high-def, etc. And there are actually chip companies working at putting all of that into a chip. So I think in the longer run, we’re moving toward a much more efficient plant configuration, and potentially less spending on set-tops, but that's going to evolve over the next five or six years.”

According to a vendor employee interviewed for this story, Comcast is working on replacing cable modems and EMTAs with gateways over the next six to 12 months. Both Comcast and TWC declined to comment on the specifics of their plans to use gateways, but they seem to be part of the general move toward using video over IP.

BUILDING THE PERFECT GATEWAY
“The single most important thing for the cable industry, in my view, is that the set-top box needs to look like the iPhone,” said Patrick Knorr, Sunflower Broadband’s COO. “Customers need to be able to download customized applications. It needs to be an easy interface, like the iPhone, and it needs to seem limitless from a customer’s perspective. If we can do that, we’ll be successful. If we can’t and someone else does, we’re going to struggle.

Patrick Knorr“A gateway will be able to do all of that because it’s easier to put more processing power and more memory on a gateway than in four or five set-top boxes. If you have a gateway device, then you can exponentially increase either the processor or storage capacity on just one device.”

With the current world of set-top boxes, Thomson’s Pascal Portelli, vice president of gateways and connected devices, said cable operators are faced with deploying high-end set-top boxes with DVRs and – eventually – tru2way in order to provision a home with technologies and advanced services.

“The idea is to centralize the functions,” Portelli said. “Of course, one big waste right now is having several CableCards in the home because they’re expensive devices. Having two, three or four CableCards in a given home is just a huge waste of capex for the MSOs.

“With a gateway, they can basically have one multi-stream CableCard for the home. With that, all of the conditional access and security can be handled in one box, and then throughout the home network there are less-costly mechanisms.”

Portelli said the millions of legacy settop boxes obviously aren’t going to vanish overnight, but there’s a scenario where a higher-end gateway could work with lower-cost set-top boxes and digital terminal adaptors in the near term to start the transition to services such as video over IP.

At some point, the gateways could handle video over IP, various codecs and different user interfaces, while still delivering the traditional RF signals when they need to.

There are also issues that still need to be resolved with home networking technologies, including a Wi-Fi offering that is robust enough to deliver HD signals without buffering, but the first step in building the bigger, better gateways is improving silicon.

Jeremy Thorp“I would say, at the moment, the issues are less technical,” said Latens CEO Jeremy Thorp. “Obviously developing the silicon is important because it has to be cost-effective. I think the issues the operators are having are thinking through the business issues and the right architecture.”

On the chip side, Thorp said improved silicon will start showing up this year, but the next generation will be more integrated and will cost less. Another goal includes enabling gateways to recognize when content is going to a specific device; for example, lowering the bit rate when a video is going to an iPhone instead of a TV or a PC.

Thorp’s speed bumps include the conditional access systems that are currently tied up in the U.S. by Cisco and Motorola, as well as middleware for the various types of content and devices they’ll serve.

As for the architecture, cable operators could opt for a telco-like model that puts one device on the outside of a home to receive the signals, and then another in the house to route it to the correct devices, or for a gateway device that has all of the set-top and DVR functionalities integrated into it.

In regard to an all-in-one gateway or media hub, be careful what you wish for. David Foote, Hitachi Telecom USA’s CTO, said a super gateway could cut across various sectors, including mobility and wireless, the PC world, the TV/VOD environment and the consumer electronics world, all of which have their own standards and evolutionary technologies.

Not only does Foote envision an all-inone box being expensive, but he said all of the parties involved also need to make sure that consumers aren’t left behind – for example, by the parties buying into one type of technology that is replaced within a few years by another – as the transition to the more powerful gateways takes place.

“There are debates about whether you really want a single box in the house that does everything,” Foote said, “or do you need one box that is more data/networking-centric because people still have their PCs and another one that is more entertainment/video-centric?

“These are the kinds of discussions we’re having with operators, and it’s not clear what the right answer is yet. Everyone understands that they want to make home networking easier for the consumer, and they want to reduce the cost for the consumers and service providers and still have manageability, visibility and high reliability. Everyone understands what the objectives are, but not the final endgame.”

WHOLE-HEARTED GATEWAYS

While the “super gateway” is still years down the road, residential gateways are jumpstarting whole-home networking services.

Sunflower Broadband recently launched Pace’s Home Content Sharing (HCS) platform that allows viewers to send video content to multiple rooms in a home.

Pace’s whole-home DVR offering uses a single network-attached storage gateway for storage on the “thin-client” set-top boxes located in other rooms of a home. The recorded content is shared by the NAS with the other boxes via coaxial cable, Ethernet or MoCA 1.1.

Full trick play functionality is available on all of the connected TV sets, thanks to Rovi’s IPG, which, for example, lets a viewer bookmark a recording in one room and resume watching it in another.

DC900X

The Pace platform allows each TV to record up to two HD programs simultaneously, while also allowing viewers to watch an HD show – for a total of nine HD streams over the NAS on three TVs.

“What we’re deploying with Pace isn’t what I would refer to as a fully involved gateway,” said Patrick Knorr, Sunflower’s COO. “It’s absolutely at the core of what could evolve into a full gateway device, but really it’s more of a network DVR solution. That’s what it provides out of the gate, but it’s very much designed as a gateway architecture, and we fully expect for it to evolve.”

Sunflower’s general manager, Rod Kutemeier, said future versions of the Pace HCS platform could include MoCA integrated into the set-top boxes for easier installation; but for now, Sunflower is happy to be able to compete with the likes of AT&T, Dish Network and DirecTV on a wholehome DVR offering.

“The response has been very good,” Kutemeier said. “A real interesting thing about HCS from the comments I’ve gotten is, ‘I don’t know that I need it right now, but it sounds really cool, and I’m glad that you guys have it.’ Maybe they don’t have to buy it yet, but knowing we have it puts us in a unique position in this market to keep and retain customers.”

In addition to home networking, gateways could also ease the transition from IPv4 to IPv6 by being configured to support both protocols, and cable operators such as Rogers Communications are using gateways with Wi-Fi 801.11n for their DOCSIS 3.0 services.

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