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Set-Top Boxes Reach for the Cloud

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 8:55pm
Mike Robuck, Senior Editor

Customer premises equipment is evolving to meet service provider and subscriber needs.

Set-top boxes aren’t exactly bringing sexy back, but they are evolving into much more hip devices than the blue-collar editions that have squatted next to TVs for generations.

Customer Premises EquipmentSet-top boxes have been enabled with the likes of EBIF, tru2way and MPEG-4 for the past few years in anticipation of bigger, better services from cable operators. There are also the hybrid boxes with both QAM tuners and IP capabilities, as well as the HD DVRs.

While HD boxes are almost table stakes these days, the latest generation of boxes are also geared up with MoCA and Ethernet ports for home networking and more memory and processing power to reach out to the Internet.

“On the HD side, operators are looking for boxes that are smaller in size, have lower price points, while also keeping the memory high to be able to run more advanced applications or as your guide needs have grown,” said Motorola’s Evan Groat, senior director of product management for set-top boxes. “For DVRs, there are a couple of key things: the size of the box, the energy efficiency of the box and more advanced capabilities in the box. Those are also some trends that are going on.”

While the set-top boxes are ready and willing to enable new technologies and services, it’s up to the MSOs to figure out their respective roadmaps for MPEG-4, IP migration, tru2way and Internet-enabled services.

“I would say the thing that has changed over the course of the last year is, especially for North American cable operators, that the kind of boxes they’re taking are the ones that I would say have a little bit more future-proofing in them because they have more capable processors, more capable memory to be able to run some new, advanced services,” said Ken Morse, chief technical officer of Cisco’s Service Provider Video Technology Group. “They also need to be able to have enough horsepower to be able to render HTML-based user interfaces as some of the user interfaces start to move to the cloud. For that, you’ve got boxes that are capable of rendering the standards that are applicable there as we go to HTML5.”

BOXES WILL CONNECT TO THE CLOUD
At The Cable Show earlier this year, Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts demonstrated the company’s Xcalibur, or next-generation Xfinity TV, service. The goal of Xcalibur is to bring Internet-like search and discovery capabilities to TV screens via IP technology and cloud servers on Comcast’s network. The demo in Chicago featured a hybrid set-top box from Pace that connected to Comcast’s cloud-based video system back in Denver. In addition to a better viewing experience, the cloudbased system gives Comcast a much shorter window for new products and innovations.

The service, which features a cloud-based user interface and a DOCSIS 3.0 modem integrated into the set-top box, is currently in trial in Augusta, Ga., with other markets slated for next year.

The lineage of the Xcalibur project can be traced to Comcast’s Barcelona middleware platform, which is the company’s current generation of end-to-end tru2way. The Barcelona platform uses set-top boxes that fall under Comcast’s Residential Network Gateway (RNG) specifications, which include set-top boxes and DVRs from Samsung, Motorola, Cisco and Pace.

Steve Reynolds“Every RNG box we put in the field is already MPEG-4 compatible, and, in fact, we’re already running some VOD content and some 3-D VOD content in MPEG-4 to those boxes today,” said Steve Reynolds, Comcast’s senior vice president of home networking. “In addition to that, we’ve done tests of MPEG-4 for broadcast across the network, but we haven’t activated that yet. We’re not actually broadcasting anything in MPEG-4 yet. We’ve tested it to make sure it works; when you’re buying a couple million set-top boxes with that capability, you want to be pretty certain that it’s going to work.

“It’s not so much a question of trading out boxes for us. We’ve already started pre-positioning a lot of that hardware, and we’re talking about millions of boxes here.”

On top of the Barcelona platform is Comcast’s Buckeye guide, which is a newer tru2way guide that has been deployed in a handful of Comcast’s systems along with the Barcelona platform.

“There will probably be over a dozen sites before the end of this year, and then it will expand considerably across our footprint in 2012 so that a lot of those RNG boxes will be updated to run tru-2way and this new guide,” Reynolds said. “This Barcelona platform that I’m talking about is the first step toward launching a guide that uses those cloud services. A lot of the functionality that we’ve built over the past two years – and I’m talking about the iPad application, the Android application, and even some of the stuff we do on websites – leverages a set of services that have been built in the cloud for Comcast. Things like remote DVR management, remote VOD purchasing, the ability to tap on your iPad and tune a channel on your television – all of those things have been encapsulated as services back in the cloud. The Barcelona platform taps into that same cloud.”

The beauty of the Barcelona platform is that it leverages the cloud, and also allows Comcast to deliver new functionalities to the RNG boxes that are already in customers’ homes.

“So, for instance, when you bring up the VOD screens in the Buckeye guide, what is actually happening is it’s going all the way back to the cloud services and pulling things like metadata and poster art and the recommendation engine,” Reynolds said. “It’s the same service that we’re leveraging to do our IP platform, and it’s the same set of services that Brian [Roberts] demonstrated as part of the spectrum for Xcalibur.

“Going back to the RNG boxes, part of that specification included a DOCSIS 2.0 cable modem integrated into the device, so all of those RNG boxes actually do have a DOCSIS 2.0 IP pipe running directly into them. You can use those kinds of IP services on any box that can run that Barcelona platform.”

Outside of North America, Motorola’s Groat said boxes are connecting to clouds at a faster rate.

“What you are seeing a lot in the rest of the world is there isn’t really a lot of QAM out there today; instead it’s more IP,” he said. “The set-top boxes are a lot smaller in size, there are a lot smaller footprints, and they’re actually starting to move up into the cloud faster. We’re seeing that a lot more in the rest of the world than you currently are seeing in the U.S. market.”

BETTER BOXES FOR BETTER UIs
Time Warner Cable is using boxes from Motorola, Samsung and Cisco for its premium Signature Home offering, which includes home networking via MoCA. In order to provision Signature Home, Time Warner has also rolled out its OCAP Digital Navigator (ODN), or Mystro, guide in various systems. Bright House Networks is also following suit on the new guide.

“Bright House Networks has been working with Time Warner Cable in deploying the Mystro guide,” said Jeff Chen, senior vice president of advanced technology at Bright House Networks. “We are multi-sourcing with Cisco, Samsung and Motorola today. The tru2way and Mystro guide made it possible to introduce multiple vendors and to innovate on user experience. Innovation in the guide space is very important to our industry, yet always a very challenging task.”

Catherine MitchellLast year, Cox bowed its Plus Package tier, which included its Trio guide and whole-home networking with MoCA, using a tru2way box from Cisco that includes a 500 GB hard drive. Cox’s Catherine Mitchell, executive director of video product management, said Plus Package would be 100 percent deployed across Cox’s footprint this fall.

Cox and NDS Group developed the Trio guide over the course of four years, and its whole method of operation is based around making content easier to find, view and personalize for Cox’s subscribers.

“Our Trio guide has a couple of different looks that you can choose as a customer, and one of them is the grid guide,” Mitchell said. “We just recently got some research back that our customers overwhelmingly prefer the grid guide because that’s what they’re used to. We’re going to go back to making that our default for our Trio guide because that’s what customers prefer. It’s difficult to determine if it’s habit or just what they are used to, or if it really is just comfortable to navigate that way.

“I think the piece where it becomes interesting is not in the way we display it, but how people find and then choose what they want to watch. You’re able to search all of the content, and you’re able to discover what is there outside of just looking through the listings. The presentation may not change from the grid guide, but customers are very interested in how they can more robustly find, search and discover content. In the regular view, they’re very happy with the grid guide.”

A NEW BREED OF BOXES
Overall, the North American cable set-top box market is about 19 million units per year, declining at about 250,000 units per year (see Figure 1), according to ABI Research senior analyst Sam Rosen. Rosen said most units going out are HD-capable, and about 50 percent of those shipped units were HD DVRs.

Cisco’s Morse said there would also be a conscious effort by vendors not to make the current boxes look like their staid predecessors.

“From a software perspective, a trend that I think the industry will start to embrace is trying to make the set-top box look a lot more like another device versus trying to make it look like this unique thing that the industry has collectively driven over the past 10 or 15 years,” he said. “As it becomes important for operators to deliver the same services and content across a range of devices in the home, especially the unmanaged devices, if you can make the set-top box environment look the same through HTML5 or whatever, then you actually get some economies of scale with being able to very quickly deploy new services.

“They will also definitely be more and more cloud-leveraged with the passage of time. I think when you look at the capabilities that are going to come out in what I would call entry-level IP set-top boxes, there’s a lot of leverage that is starting to happen from other ecosystems like the tablet community. Look at the horsepower that is sitting inside of a tablet, and see how quickly that changes. Every year the new tablets come out, and it seems like every year the horsepower doubles on them. You’re going to see the set-top box space start to inherit from that, and that gives you very capable devices that can render cloud-delivered services very well. You’ll see that more and more, especially when the operator is now dealing, as they go forward, with such a wide variety of devices on the end of their network.”

HD DIGITAL TERMINAL ADAPTERS ON TAP

While set-top boxes have had a long life as customer premises equipment, digital terminal adapter (DTA) devices are also finding their way into customers' homes.

Comcast was an early proponent of reclaiming bandwidth via DTAs, and through the second quarter, it had more than 20 million of the devices – largely self-installed by customers – in subscribers' homes.

Augmented by its aggressive use of DTAs, Comcast has its all-digital conversion project completed in more than 90 percent of its footprint and expects to have it finished by year's end.

Next up for Comcast and other cable operators: HD DTAs, some of which started cropping up at The Cable Show earlier this year.

"That [HD DTA] is a spec that is being developed out of Comcast much in the same way that we developed the original SD DTA specs," said Steve Reynolds, Comcast’s senior vice president of home networking. "We're going to be field trialing those devices later this year, and, in fact, some customers may even get HD DTAs before the year is out.

"It took us time to build the device, but there's no question about it that we want to give HD-quality video to the subscribers that have TV sets that can use that signal."

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