Comcast Taps NDS to Expand Set-Top Base for Tru2way Apps

Jesper Knutsson, VP & GM, Americas sales, NDS

Jesper Knutsson, VP & GM, Americas sales, NDS

September 9, 2010 – Comcast is moving to expedite rollout of advanced applications on the tru2way set-top platform with assistance from NDS, which will work with the MSO as prime integrator to assist with its deployment of devices by utilizing the CableLabs Reference Implementation stack.

The move to the brand-neutral approach made possible by the CableLabs RI will free Comcast to support subscriber-purchased set-tops and other devices and to supply additional products on a leased basis as part of its service plans while maintaining a consistent user experience everywhere. The NDS team will work to build the RI testing tool, implement the tests against the different STBs, develop code and assist in fixing any issues, officials said.

“NDS has tremendous experience in working with video operators around the world and has proven their ability to offer reliable, timely and highly competent solutions as an integrations partner,” said Mark Hess, senior vice president of advanced business and technology development at Comcast. “We’re eager to begin our work together to enhance the RI, which will help advance the industry’s adoption of tru2way while also enabling us to bring our customers interactive services.”

The engagement with Comcast marks another significant step into the North American market on the part of NDS, which has an ongoing relationship with Cox Communications in conjunction with development of the new Trio multi-screen electronic guide. These and other successes reflect the cable industry’s move to open standards and the need for professional services as they move away from exclusive dependence on closed systems, notes Jesper Knutsson, vice president and general manager of Americas sales for NDS.

“For us it’s quite a major step to get this substantial engagement from a company like Comcast,” Knutsson says. “It’s a step in the direction we’ve had in the U.S. in leading with our professional services work and proving ourselves to the cable industry.”

NDS, with a work force of over 5,000 people providing middleware, conditional access, navigational software and other products along with professional support services to over 70 customers worldwide, brings a lot of integration and development knowhow to the North American market, Knutsson notes. But it took awhile for the company to gain traction here.

“Some of the areas we’re very strong in weren’t necessarily in the forefront of issues operators were facing,” he says. “They had strong relationships with lot of incumbent vendors.”

In Comcast’s case, the MSO required help with hardening the RI stack to run on all tru2way-compliant set-tops with consistent rendering of Comcast applications at the required performance levels. “All of these things we’re very used to dealing with with our own middleware,” Knutsson says. “No company has more experience getting middleware running on different types of boxes.”

Comcast already had OCAP-ready set-tops running OCAP stacks, he notes. (OpenCable Application Platform is the technical name for tru2way). “But Comcast has to look at not having just a Motorola or Cisco or Pace implementation,” he says. “They want a common OCAP stack that runs across all boxes.”

That’s not to say Comcast won’t exploit the benefits that come with vendor-specific RIs, he adds. “I think people are realizing it’s good to talk about OCAP with a common standardized environment, but there will be variations within stacks,” he says.

The CableLabs RI, developed originally by Vidiom Systems, was primarily designed run on PCs as a test platform for tru2way applications. “Comcast saw that this was an open source-type of stack running in the CableLabs environment,” Knutsson explains. “They thought, if we can take this stack and have it working on our boxes we can use it to create a common platform across all vendor interests.”

This meant a lot of work had to be done to harden the RI for reliable performance on set-tops. “Set-tops can’t be rebooting,” he notes. “You have to harden the performance and make sure it runs without crashing.”

And since set-tops aren’t PCs, specifications and functionalities have to be adjusted to accommodate the new processing environment. “You have to have a driver layer that fits with the driver layer on a set-top,” Knutsson says. “There are various use cases and performance criteria, all sorts of things we have to make sure the stack is capable of doing. And once you’ve integrated the stack on the box, then you have to test it to make sure it lives up to the requirements.”

This engagement is very different from the type of work NDS has been doing for Cox (see June issue, p. 16). “With Cox we took over a lot of what they did with TVWorks [the guide project Cox had been pursuing with Comcast],” Knutsson says. “In contrast to OCAP, this was more of a server-based code we took over along with integration work with some set-top codes.”

That effort, which led to the launch of Trio in the spring, has sparked interest among other MSOs. “From our point of view it looks like most operators are seeing increasing pressure, especially from over-the-top entities like Apple and Google, to deliver an improved user interface and experience on set-top boxes,” Knutsson says. “A wide variety of cable operators we’re talking to have considerations in that area.”

The immediate service opportunities arising out of consumer demand for multi-room DVR capabilities, now on offer from a growing number of cable competitors, is another force driving interest in better user interfaces, he adds. “As functionalities become more complex, it puts new requirements on having a compelling consistent interface that subscribers can navigate more easily,” he says.

Indeed, the new UI becomes essential to the larger battle that’s shaping up as consumers seek to connect ever more devices to their home networks. “Operators are increasingly looking at this environment, where it’s almost a battle for control of devices in the home,” Knuttson notes. “As people connect more and more devices, they have to figure out how to deliver their experience to those devices. MR-DVR is one step. Remote booking, increased connectivity between PCs and set-tops – it all requires consistent navigation.”