Various vendors are creating what's turning into a family tree.

The common definition of a gateway is a system that integrates a modem and a router, but the term is used promiscuously, applied to all sorts of products. Typically when that happens, it’s the marketing flapdoodle you get when companies with indistinctly related products all try to claim a stake in the latest buzzword.

But the inability to find a precise definition of a gateway may also be because there is no common expectation of what a gateway could or should be, relative to what it is today.

There is no reason to assume that a gateway will continue to be defined by a combination of electronic subcomponents. It is more likely that gateways will be defined by their function: bringing consumers’ media in from the various services to which they subscribe, and then distributing the content from one device to another.

Or, as Motorola Mobility senior director of engineering for home CPE devices Chris Kohler put it in a paper presented at the recent NAB show: “A residential gateway is a home networking device used to enable the consumption of any content, on any device, in any place, at any time.”

By that definition, today there are two categories of media distribution commonly found in consumers’ homes.

The one that’s commonly acknowledged is the category typified by integrated modem/routers and similar devices (e.g., EMTAs), associated with the PC cluster. Items in this category traditionally have been relied on to move data around the home. No news there.

The other category moves video around and is typified by whole-home DVRs. DVRs and the like are not generally considered gateways, but why not? Because routers are handling IP video and DVRs are handling MPEG video? Find 10 customers who care about the distinction and call us. Go ahead, we’ll wait. …

Right. And now routers are routinely distributing Web-based video – IP video – around the home. Most major game consoles can forward Web-based video, as can media systems such as Blu-ray players. And, of course, there are over-the-top boxes.

The only thing that keeps modems, routers, DVRs, game consoles and OTT boxes separate, really, is cost. Something that integrates all of those functions would simply be too expensive.

But costs fall, and everybody knows it, and choices have been made about how to combine functions (e.g., Internet-connected game consoles and TVs with integrated modems). And, of course, many in the industry are already thinking about a super gateway, and some in the industry are already designing, and in some instances building, more advanced gateways capable of distributing both data and video, as well as providing media storage.

Gateways are the way the industry is going. In-Stat expects the industry will ship 50 million gateways – integrated modem/routers – this year across the globe, including DSL, cable, FTTH and satellite models. Gateway shipments are growing far more rapidly than other broadband CPE, and In-Stat expects that more gateways will be shipped than modems starting in 2014.

As the industry goes forward, the shape and nature of increased gateway shipments is likely to vary from operator to operator.

On one end of the spectrum, companies like Charter Communications have been reporting great success with traditional gateways – integrated modem/routers – for some time.

On what is currently the other end of the spectrum, BendBroadband just elected to give all of its subscribers gateways that essentially combine a DVR with a router.

BendBroadband is using Arris’ Media Gateway, which includes a six-tuner, multi-room HD DVR with 500 GB HDD storage, four Ethernet ports, MoCA 1.1+ home networking, 802.11n Wi-Fi (optional) and DLNA.

This gateway supports broadcast and narrowcast video, video-on-demand, DOCSIS 3.0 high-speed data and two lines of carrier-grade voice over IP, as well as Internet over-the-top and media sharing of user-generated content.

While some operators may opt for a box with greater functionality and a broader array of connectivity options, it is not very likely that many service providers will immediately follow the same path. That kind of full-featured box can be expensive, and it remains to be seen if consumer behavior is going to justify any given set of feature options.

Operators are naturally going to waver between a desire to provide additional services and leeriness of assuming the additional cost and complexity of a highly sophisticated box, and that’s why ADB is proposing what it’s calling a virtual gateway.

The company has written software that expands a DVR’s functionality as a server in a client-server network within the home. It manages all of the tuners in the house, along with all of the storage – hard drives in PCs, game consoles and standalone network-attached storage (NAS) – and it distributes video to client devices, including secondary set-tops, DLNA-enabled products and other devices. Management capabilities are provided using the TR-069 protocol.

“You can put everything in one box – a super-duper gateway with NAS and all kinds of connectivity,” said Véronique Malan, vice president of strategic marketing at ADB, “but not one consumer home looks the same as any other. So you have to over-spec that box. That has a cost. If you don’t over-spec, then you will have to change the box as soon as customer expectation changes.”

Malan said an operator in Poland is using the virtual gateway approach for multiroom DVR at first. Managing that can be tough enough, she explained. If you have four people in a single home, all contending for three tuners, who gets priority?

“Later, they will add support for iPhones and things like that,” Malan said.

At this point, the market is still trying to figure out standalone, centralized gateways that combine distribution, storage and management. The concept is simply too new, connectivity options remain unsettled and the use cases are largely unknown.

So storage tends to be an option, with that option frequently represented by a USB port where a storage device can be plugged in.

Technicolor is developing gateways with ports for network-attached storage. ZyXel has a separate digital media device, the NSA210, which can be outfitted with up to 2 TB of storage (not included) and can distribute content via UPnP and DLNA.

ZyXel is conceptualizing a type of gateway product it is thinking of as a home server that would be the Internet termination point in the home and would also incorporate mass storage, said the company’s product marketing director, David Thompson. “You integrate a modem with NAS, and you have a server,” he said.

“The desktop is no longer the primary PC in the home,” he continued. “There are netbooks, notebooks, laptops, tablets. … So there’s a need for a router connected with sizeable storage. You have a picture on your cell phone? Download it and serve it to any computer or TV in the house.”

Middleware companies are looking at the notion, Thompson said. All you need to do is add a tuner to a gateway and it becomes a whole-home DVR server, albeit one not connected directly to a TV.

A gateway might also eventually be an appropriate place to put transcoding resources.

Tom Williams, vice president of service provider marketing and business development at Arris, said: “No one can transcode every single format and every single screen size, so why not do it right at the edge? You consider the gateway an element of the CDN.”

“That’s coming, but a little bit later,” Thompson said.

Kohler listed the following connectivity items that Motorola expects to find necessary in an advanced media gateway:

• GigE  • 802.11  • USB host  • VoIP  • DECT  • MoCA/HPNA

And that’s just for starters. A more robust version of Wi-Fi is necessary, Kohler said in his NAB presentation.

That should be 802.11ac, which is currently under development. The ac version of Wi-Fi is expected to specify 160 MHz of bandwidth (up from 40 MHz in the n version), using up to 256 QAM (up from 64 QAM), and crank throughput up to 1 GHz (up from 600 Mbps).

Does anyone want to integrate a femtocell? The idea is constantly being visited, but nothing has been commercialized yet, apparently because of cost.

Technologically speaking, the integration of a cellular base station is entirely feasible. Pace, for example, offers the integration of a femtocell (GEM Ruby) in its modular HomePortal GEM 6000 gateway.

“From a phone company point of view, it makes sense,” said Netgear senior product line manager for wireless networking Sandeep Harpalani. “There are challenges, but in principal, the usage model is there. The thing is, you could cover that with Wi-Fi – all smartphones now are dual-band with Wi-Fi.”

DLNA, too, is being built into some smartphones, Thompson noted.

Evolution of Residential Gateways - (click for pdf version)

Meanwhile, there are different kinds of gateways being proposed for other household communications systems that could theoretically be integrated with media distribution gateways – but aren’t yet.

An operation called the Home Gateway Initiative is laying the groundwork for gateways whose primary purpose would be home energy management. The service provider membership is heavily European-Asian (BT, Belgacom, France Telecom, NTT, Telecom Italia and others), but the vendors are global (ADB, Cisco, D-Link, Ericsson, Intel, Netgear and others). Proponents of Smart Grid technology in the U.S. share many of the same concerns.

Amdocs is showing customers an entirely new permutation of home gateway designed to enable service providers to package a bunch of ancillary broadband services, including security systems and medical monitoring, to make a real business out of them.

Service providers have been reluctant to get into home networking for good reasons: They have little or no visibility into the devices that people might plug in to a home network, and even if they did have that visibility, they didn’t have the tools to provision, manage and bill for the devices and associated services.

Amdocs has developed hardware-agnostic gateway software, and also the back office systems necessary to make it all a revenue-generating proposition. The company is demonstrating a gateway, roughly a cube measuring about 7 inches a side, into which it plugged a series of monitoring products that would all connect using low-power, short-range ZigBee or Z-Wave wireless connectivity.

Amdocs said about 250 connected devices have already been created, and more are coming every day. “And the prices are hitting the floor,” said Gary Miles, Amdocs’ vice president of service delivery.

One demonstrated monitor was a water leak detector, which included a small (maybe 1-inch square) detector and a transmitter to send signals to the box; it costs about $20. Others included smoke detectors, security cameras, a weight scale and a blood pressure monitor. Using that last item, Amdocs demonstrated how the results could be immediately sent through the gateway and uploaded to a Google Health Web page.

An operator could bundle related devices into packages. A medical package, for example, might include monitors for heart rate, blood pressure, weight, blood sugar. It might include connections for pill dispensers to make sure someone is taking their pills (or taking the right ones). The gateway can be set to send alerts.

Such a package might go for anywhere from $5 a month to $15 a month. The gateway box might retail for about $200. The suite of attachments might cost another $150. If the service provider subsidizes the box and gets about 7 percent penetration over five years, according to Amdocs’ analysis, a provider could add anywhere between 10 to 15 percent to top-line revenue.

Similar packages could be developed around home automation, home security, energy and utility management, and, perhaps, multimedia. Multiple packages could be bundled.

“This is very, very sticky,” said Miles.

The particular box being demonstrated was not designed for content routing or storage. Nothing stops those functions from being integrated, however, short of cost, he said.

The drawback is that that particular implementation might represent yet one more box in people’s homes. The flipside is that since the capability is implemented largely in software, it could conceivably be integrated into a router or a gateway, or even added to a gateway in a dongle.

France’s M2M Solution created the gateway Amdocs used in the demonstration. D-Link is developing gateways that could host the Amdocs software, and Cisco has such products already, noted Miles. He said Amdocs is talking with both.

The retail market for set-tops never really took off, plain or DVR. But consumers are used to buying their own routers and storage. That suggests that a retail market for do-everything gateways could possibly develop.

There’s much for an operator to like about the proposition of the retail gateway. It promises to significantly reduce customer premises equipment costs, one way or another.

One way is getting rid of set-top boxes altogether. That’s been a dream for some, but it still might not be possible to get the entire entertainment industry on board with moving conditional access to a super gateway. Not immediately, anyway.

So an alternative is to go back to relying on relatively simple set-top boxes, with most of the costs of processing power, connectivity and storage shifted to the gateway.

“Time Warner Cable and some of those guys have considered what’s been nicknamed ‘the God box,’ but they’ll still need satellite boxes,” observed Thompson.

Either way, no matter how expensive gateways become (with their processing power, connectivity options and storage), it’s reasonable to suspect that gateways might be more popular as retail devices, with consumers more willing to shoulder the costs for that type of device than they were for DVRs.