Service providers are probing niches where
their CPE could fit in evolving home networks

Ascent of LANFor a time, service providers had a strong hand in guiding the evolution of electronics in the living room, shepherding TVs from broadcast signals only to big, simple set-top boxes, to TVs with HD boxes, and then DVRs.

But now service providers are losing their hand. Consumers have been wresting more and more control of what they consume, and when, and where. They’ve been aided and abetted by consumer electronics manufacturers, Internet companies, content companies and other network operators.

So far, the result has been something just less than chaos. The task of making sense of the chaos has fallen to service providers. Why does this problem belong to service providers? Because your customers think it does. When something connected to their video or broadband services doesn’t work, who do they call?

For consumers, the idea is simple and elegant: I have media stored on Device A, and I want to play it on Device B; they both handle the same media types, therefore everything should work together.

For service providers, getting any possible file from any possible Device A to any possible Device B is turning into one of the more complicated, intricate and gnarly problems thus far.

And no way is that problem getting solved any time soon. There are just too many moving parts and too many questions:

• Who owns the set-top? The service provider, the consumer, either or both?

• Where is set-top functionality integrated? In traditional set-tops, a gateway/hub device, the TV, or is it distributed among several devices?

• Who owns the storage? The service provider, the consumer, some third party, some combination of the three?

• Where is the storage? DVR, PC hard drive, game console drive, a home storage hub (network attached storage, or NAS), service provider’s networked storage, third-party networked storage?

• What home networking standard(s) and communications protocols to converge upon? Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, MoCA, HPNA, Ethernet, HDMI,, DLNA, HomePlug, UPA, Liquid HD, etc.?

• How do you identify, monitor and troubleshoot all of the devices consumers might plug into a network?

• How do you identify, authenticate, provision and bill users across multiple network services (wireline and wireless)? Across multiple service providers? Inside and outside of the home?

So the situation is complicated, but “it’s an opportunity to simplify it for consumers,” noted Jon Cave, senior product manager with Cisco's service provider video technology group.

Complicating any efforts to solve the problem is the fact that there are so many proposed solutions being evaluated by the cable, telco, wireless, Internet, PC and CE industries, and not everyone is talking with everyone else.

Let’s start with what operators still unambiguously have control over: the set-top box. What happens to the set-top box?

The answer might be nothing and everything. There’s simply no agreement on which set-top instantiation (thin-client, HD box, DVR, combination set-top/router, etc.) might prevail. Perhaps as likely, there will continue to be all sorts of STB permutations based on variable intersections of consumer desire and service provider requirement.

There is no consensus at all, but interest is emerging in the benefits of going with a relatively simple STB and coupling it with a gateway device.

There are two functions that set-top boxes can perform: serving and rendering, according to Benoit Joly, director of product marketing for home network services with Thomson’s Network and Integration Solutions business.

There is an argument for decoupling the two tasks.

“We’ve had service providers asking us about integrating set-tops with routers,” said David Thompson, product marketing director at ZyXel. “We did some prototypes. But it doesn’t make sense. The set-top isn’t where you have the point of entry into the home ... and the living room is rarely the best place for a router. It will just complicate installs.”

“We see the set-top box becoming a pure video renderer,” Thomson’s Joly said. Why? Because a service provider can control the set-top box and gateway, but it is not possible to control the PC or the NAS, he suggested.

Joly said at least two big cable companies, one in North America and one in Europe, are leaning toward configuring the home environment with simpler set-tops working in tandem with a gateway product for content serving/distribution. In terms of products to accommodate that setup, Thomson “may have something by the end of the year,” he said.

DirecTV is pursuing a similar notion, and Verizon has signed on to the idea, too. The two are working with Samsung, Broadcom and Cisco through a new organization called the RVU Alliance.

The RVU Alliance proposes that home networks be anchored by a media server that would distribute content to connected client devices.

The specs include a remote user interface (RUI). The idea is that the UI would reside in the central server, relieving client devices from having to integrate extensive UI software. Every RVU-compliant device would end up sharing the same look and feel.

DirecTV expects the first RVU-compatible products will be available before the end of the year.

A permutation of the idea of decoupling rendering and distribution is the Common Interface Plus (CI+) standard for integrating set-top functionality right into TVs, eliminating the set-top as a standalone product.

The major U.S. set-top manufacturers might have something to say about that, of course. Motorola, for example, thinks that’s the way the world is going.

“Different architectures are being discussed,” said Motorola vice president of marketing Kevin Wirick. “One is terminating the RF connection at a video hub, then having an IP connection. On the other side of that, you’d have remote set-tops that are IP-based. Alternatively, you might connect to a TV with enough set-top functionality in it that you don’t need a set-top.”

Wirick expects that getting rid of set-tops as standalone devices is the way to go. “I think operators will provide a video hub. It will be a point of control for the home network. It might have an external hard drive – an eSATA."

He said he expects a hub of that nature would cost about the same as a DVR.

The hybrid box is a permutation on nearly everyone’s mind.

“We’re seeing LAN convergence and WAN convergence,” said ADB CEO François Pogodalla. “For that you need a hybrid set-top box. We made this bet long ago; now 80 percent of our revenue comes from hybrid boxes.”

Pogodalla agreed that the trend is going to be toward gateways and hubs, but the transition will be gradual and will be accomplished with intermediary products that integrate multiple functions. “The content consumption model is quite conservative. Changing even remote controls is dramatic. So our most advanced set-top boxes do act as a gateway.”

Cisco intuited that service provider products and consumer products might eventually overlap when it bought Linksys in 2003, and it followed that up with its acquisition of Scientific Atlanta in 2005.

“From the Cisco perspective, ‘Connected Home’ means service provider and CE devices working together in the home,” Cave said.

In 2005, Motorola started offering for its DVRs the option of building in a combination of MoCA and USB interfaces specifically with home networking in mind. It wasn’t popular, noted Motorola’s Wirick.

If either Cisco or Motorola erred, it might have been in moving before the market began to truly develop. If there was any doubt that it’s becoming important to work both sides of the fence between service provider CPE and consumer electronics, it was dispelled at the end of September, when Arris decided to buy Digeo.

“Quite frankly, one of the really cool things to this transaction is the foothold that Digeo has created in the consumer direct space with Moxi DVR and Moxi Mate that allows Digeo, and now Arris, to learn what consumers want and how they respond to this converged world of digital cable, Internet and home network coming together,” said Digeo CEO Greg Gudorf when the combination was announced. “With those learnings, we can turn to the cable operators and say, ‘Look what consumers are wanting, look what consumers are using, look at what consumers are saying.’”

Arris and Digeo expect to integrate the latter’s technology with the former’s new voice and data gateways “to create a new category for converged home gateways.”

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The label “home networking” almost makes it sound like something simple and easy. It’s clear that it is not.

“Operators have been scared of home networks,” said Melissa Simpler, CEO of Affinegy, a company that started with software to enable subscriber self-installs but has branched out into management solutions for home networks. “The demarcation line has always been the router.”

That line is blurring rapidly.

“Whether they like it or not, they’re going to have to help their customers,” said ZyXel’s Thompson, referring to service providers. “Someone comes home and something goes wrong? The problem is probably in the box, but they’re not going to call Linksys or ZyXel. They’re going to call their service provider.”

“We definitely field some of those calls,” said Charter Communications vice president of product management Rich DiGeronimo.

Charter is among the few service providers aggressively advertising a home networking service. AT&T, Bell Aliant, Time Warner Cable and Virgin Media are among the others that are offering to set up home networks for their subscribers.

Charter is finding increasing success setting up its customers’ home networks, typically configuring an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi router when installing a cable modem and Internet access.

Charter may be keeping its initial efforts modest, but it considers what it’s doing a critical learning experience. Home networking, DiGeronimo said, “is potentially a gateway to other applications and services.”

As for other home networking standards, Charter is keeping an eye on 802.11n routers, waiting for the price to come down roughly to the same level as b/g models.

Motorola’s Wirick said chips for 802.11n are available, and he would expect to see products commercialized and being used for video distribution in eight to 12 months.

“We want to interface with as many standards as our customers are using. We don’t want this to be a frustrating experience for our subscribers,” DiGeronimo said. However, “we’re not going outside the big ones,” he added.

The problem is a combination of too many competing standards in some areas, and no standards at all in others.

By virtue of using coax, one would expect cable to look favorably on the MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) standard. And indeed, the industry is beginning to rely on MoCA for multi-room DVR. Verizon has adopted MoCA to support FiOS services.

DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) is becoming a big standard. DLNA was designed to allow consumer electronics devices to communicate across home networks, taking advantage of some existing standards, such as UPnP. There are now well over 5,000 products available that are DLNA-compatible, about 10 percent of them TVs.

The problem with DLNA, however, is that despite being embraced fairly widely by consumer electronics manufacturers, it has yet to find much success outside of the CE segment of the industry.

Still, service providers can profit by leveraging DLNA, Cave said, for any number of applications – for instance, viewing photo albums on TVs.

“DLNA seems to be most useful for grabbing content from a PC or a Mac,” Motorola’s Wirick said, adding: “HDMI on the video side is a great leveler. That helps.” is a new home networking standard that proposes to bridge several other incompatible home networking standards, including HomePNA, HomePlug, UPA (Universal Powerline Association) and MoCA. products are unlikely to hit the market until 2010, and possibly not until 2011. also grows out of the same community of developers that came up with HomePNA, a standard using phone lines and favored by AT&T. Its telco provenance is going to be considered a taint in some quarters.

Thomson's Portable Media Center

Meanwhile, all sorts of single-purpose products are available, many of them designed to get video content available on the Internet to the TV. These include devices such as the Roku box (associated with video services from Netflix and Amazon), the 2Wire MediaPortal (associated with video services from Blockbuster) and an increasing number of others.

“My belief is that single-use devices will become less prevalent than devices that combine functions,” said Cisco’s Cave. “It’s hard to believe people will keep adding boxes.”

Hence the drive to integrate into TVs the capability to connect directly to the Internet (see Figure 1). Panasonic and Samsung have already introduced models.

Service providers claimed not to be threatened by the trend of bringing content from the Internet directly to TV sets, aka going “over the top.” For all of the happy posturing by MSOs that their customers would still need to subscribe to their broadband services in order to accomplish the feat, they didn’t lift a finger to facilitate the process.

Service providers figured out a fairly clever end-around: TV Everywhere, aka On Demand Online, in which operators will make premium network content available via broadband, but only to subscribers; that content will not be available online otherwise.

OTT boxes might also be obviated through co-optation or assimilation. For example, Comcast’s Fancast is Hulu re-branded. Meanwhile, Mediacom and Suddenlink recently cut a deal with Blockbuster and TVN-Avail that may result in a co-branded video delivery service that combines standard cable VOD with some version of Blockbuster’s OTT service to create a sort of supercharged VOD service.

That TV-makers are integrating the functionality of set-tops and direct connectivity to routers is emblematic of how the evolution of living room electronics is beginning to have a very profound effect on how electronics in the home are set up.

“The single-largest trend is that the network is moving away from the PC,” said ZyXel’s Thompson. “We get calls, the subscriber wants to connect a PS3 or a Roku box, and they don’t even have a laptop.”

Which all begs the question: How does anyone manage all of this stuff?

“Before there was one transmitter and one receiver,” Thomson’s Joly said. “Now there are multiple receivers. We have to manage all of that in the home and outside of it. And with all the security involved, it makes for a very complex story.”

There are so many possible problems that could arise, and so many places where they might be introduced, and service providers are going to want as much visibility into homes as they can get. For example, Simpler said, “I may have a computer at one end of a home that’s doing OK, but another at the other end of the home that’s behaving poorly, maybe because of interference with a cordless phone. How do you detect that? Is there a firewall you have to get around? What rev? There are so many things that can cause a network communication issue.”

Thomson has developed a service platform designed to manage all of the devices that might be hooked up to a home network. “We’re trying to address the issues at all levels.”

DiGeronimo said Charter is still evaluating technologies that will enable it to view devices beyond the cable modem, and maybe do some troubleshooting.

CableHome addresses some of these concerns, but perhaps because the number of home networks installed by cable operators still number in the low millions, there hasn’t been much interest in CableHome thus far.

“The closest thing is TR-069 in telco,” said Affinegy’s Simpler.

TR-069 and several related standards were developed by the Broadband Forum, which used to be the DSL Forum, which for some in cable brings up that telco taint again. The Broadband Forum changed its name, in part, to get past that.

“TR-069 was written with cable in mind,” said ZyXel’s Thompson. “There’s nothing keeping a TR-069 server from managing cable devices, or gateways behind a cable device.”

“You’re competing on that. It’s like having a Geek Squad, only smarter, because there’s no truck roll,” Thompson said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done. Telco’s have done the bulk of it so far,” Thompson added. “Yes, the MSOs are wary, but the Broadband Forum is trying to reach out.”

Somehow or other, whoever is managing the network has to identify the devices being plugged in.

The convergence on IP by itself is going a long way to solve that issue. Any IP-enabled device runs DHCP (the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), which was designed to let IP-enabled devices auto-configure in IP networks.

“As we move to more IP devices, we’ll tend to get to open standards versus proprietary legacy set-top boxes," DiGeronimo said.

AT&T said: “With IP, all of the U-verse receivers in your home – no matter which room they are in – are connected on the same high-speed home network. Your set-top box can also become a hub for other services. You can connect gaming consoles, laptops and other devices to your home network using the Ethernet port on the back of your set-top box.”

Once a service provider becomes responsible for the home network, it’s also responsible for quality of service and quality of experience, ZyXel’s Thompson observed. ZyXel, he said, is trying to build some of those capabilities into some of its products, but consumers cannot be expected to know how to set their own QoS.

“You have a kid on an Xbox 360, and he’s getting lag so he’s getting killed; you’ve got one Web browsing; you’ve got mom and dad watching TV and getting glitches; they’re not going to know how to go in and prioritize things. Service providers are going to have to do that,” Thompson said.

Getting the appropriate QoS/QoE for each device being used on the network is one thing. Authenticating the user is another.

“Nirvana would be finding some way, when I’m watching TV, I let you know it’s me,” Cave said. That way, content, advertising and services could be tailored to the individual subscriber.

Another element in managing a home network is providing security. That issue remains up in the air.

“There are several initiatives around security,” said Thomson’s Joly, “but that’s just starting. It’s all still at the proposal level. Everyone is trying to push their own story right now. There’s no big trend to integrate or interoperate with set-top box providers.”

There are plenty of trends in storage, but none seem dominant.

Whole-home DVR is popular with the public.

One solution might be storing content in the cloud, a concept notably represented by Cablevision’s proposed remote storage DVR (RS-DVR).

Network storage is not a viable option for satellite providers. Naturally, they’re evaluating the use of storage hubs.

Today, people tend to use their PCs as their main storage option. Some game consoles have drives. Several companies are selling retail NAS.

Where the storage goes depends in part on the use case, Cisco’s Cave noted. “If I’m in a house and I have content I want to access, it makes sense to have the content there. But if I’m out of the house and want access to it? Then it makes sense to have that content in the cloud.”

ADB’s Pogodalla believes storage in the home will continue to be scattered about the home. “It’s nice to think you can look at the home and optimize storage and computing power, but that goes against history.”

With storage getting cheaper, and higher and higher network transmission rates, storage could be just about anywhere. “How do you get all that converged in one home network?” Thompson asked. “That’s the million-dollar question.”