Media Gateways Take Hold As Path to Future in Cable

Jesper Knutsson, VP & GM, Americas, NDS

Jesper Knutsson, VP & GM, Americas, NDS

November 17, 2010 – With the migration to IP and blended services dominating agendas across the cable industry the media gateway has emerged as the new premises foundation on which to build multi-screen services, much as Liberty Global says it will do starting next year.

Cable CPE and software suppliers are responding to the new mandate with rarely seen caution, choosing largely to work closely with customers to tailor products precisely to their needs rather than trying to out-pace each other by rushing finished products to market. But it’s clear the elements are in place to accomplish what needs to be done, once MSOs resolve key issues, such as how much processing they want to locate in the premises terminal, where it should be positioned in the home, how many tuners it should have and much else.

“We have RFPs coming in from all over – the U.S., the U.K. and Europe,” notes Benoit Joly, vice president for home networking and applications at Technicolor. “People are trying out ideas in labs – gateways with one tuner, two tuners, eight tuners. We’re getting to where there’s going to be a major shift in the industry. It’s not just about a new product.”

While it will take well over another year before stateside and Canadian MSOs begin deploying such gateways to leverage the strengths of IP-based multi-room and multi-device services, Liberty Global has made clear the competitive environment and service opportunities in Europe mandate significant changes that are best addressed by deploying all-IP home gateways sooner than later. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the company, now serving 16.8 million video and 6.2 million broadband customers, along with 4.5 million telephony subscribers, in 14 countries, has been enjoying robust growth despite the economic downturn.

“Our bundled products are clearly gaining traction with consumers as we continue leveraging our next-generation digital TV and broadband services,” says Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries. “In the last twelve months, we’ve added over 2.2 million digital TV, voice and data RGUs (revenue-generating units) on an organic basis. High-definition programming and digital video recorders are also resonating with our 6.5 million digital cable customers, with over 900,000 new subscriptions to one or both of these products since Q3 2009.” The company is now offering 100-plus megabit-per-second broadband services in nine European markets “with an aggregate [DOCSIS] 3.0-ready footprint of more than 15 million homes,” he adds.

Officials say Liberty is well along in preparations to begin deploying its new gateway and related services starting in undisclosed locations during the first half of 2011. Sources say the company will deliver all its linear, on-demand and over-the-top services to homes equipped with the gateway and its client IP set-tops over MPEG-4 H.264. The gateway terminals will be positioned out of sight in the utility close, connected to the TV via MoCA links and other devices via MoCA and Wi-Fi. It was unclear whether IP content will be simulcast with traditional MPEG-2 content over cable networks that use the gateways or the networks will move to all-IP transport.

The Samsung-built terminal, running on an Intel Atom processor, will host NDS Media Highway middleware with user navigation accommodated through the vendor’s Snowflake UI, a non-grid system with viewing options clustered in modules that overlay whatever is showing on screen (see October 2009, p. 24 – also Snowflake video demo in Technology Showcase at Liberty offered a first look at the Horizon gateway remote control at a conference in Dublin last month, making clear that with a four-button control panel on one side and QWERTY keyboard on the other, it will provide a comprehensive TV and Web content and social networking experience as a defense against OTT encroachments from the likes of Google TV and Apple.

Discussing the state of progress on gateway development for U.S. operators, Jesper Knutsson, vice president and general manager for the Americas at NDS, says there has been considerable progress but as yet no clear trend on key questions about gateway design and functionalities. “We’re getting involved with a couple of operators to do discovery-phase types of projects where we go in and analyze their current infrastructure and consult to them on how to bring gateways onto their plants, what it would take, what systems can they reuse, how would they interface to those, what are hardware and software requirements on a gateway and the whole-home experience,” Knutsson explains.

While operators are agreed on the need to embrace the applications, multi-device and service flexibility made possible by IP technology, other issues are unsettled. “The one trend we’re seeing is the need for this flexibility so the MSOs can take control of their own destiny and provide a user experience that is unique and represents what they want to do in the market,” Knutsson says.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty about other issues. Some operators lean toward putting enough processing in the home gateway to support on-the-fly transcoding so that a single stream of IP content going to a device other than the TV is reformatted with the appropriate resolution and compression level. Others don’t want to spend the money on the transcoding at each unit, preferring to handle that task centrally. And where the device should be placed is another issue.

“One of the reasons we see these different set-ups with whether or not it’s in the headend or in the closet or wherever it is, has to do with the different network topology of these guys,” Knutsson says. “Some have fairly uniform networks that have higher capacity; others have other challenges in the network topology where they have to be less aggressive with the rollout. Maybe other solutions are more suitable for them. That’s actually where they get benefit from the IP as well. They can create these more flexible solutions based on their exact needs. ”

Where transcoding is concerned, there are no easy answers. “A lot of the discovery studies we’re doing are addressing these sorts of things,” Knutsson says.

“There are clear advantages with the transcoding in the headend in terms of cost of equipment in the home, and that sort of thing,” he notes. “On the other hand, it also poses certain risks to have everything in the headend, and certainly it’s very costly in terms of the network bandwidth requirement that has to be available.

“It depends a lot on careful analysis of each operator and the networks they have available,” he continues, “and also what they want to accomplish with the gateways, because it depends on how advanced they want to have the gateway, how many concurrent speeds do they see going into each home. Unfortunately all these opportunities that are coming up don’t necessarily make it simpler from the architectural perspective.”

The good news, notes Steve Tranter, NDS vice president for broadband and interactive, is that the solution from the middleware perspective can be worked out to fit any model so that, when it comes time to order equipment, the operator will know precisely what the specifications should be. “The key thing is the gateway solution allows the operator to manage the converged service, with the ability to set quality-of-service prioritizations on a per-device basis with uniform branding and a user interface experience on all screens,” Tranter says.

With technologies like Google’s Android operating system and HTML 5, the multimedia-optimized next-gen version of Hypertext Markup Language, gaining wide traction, operators will be able to extend applications and the user experience in new directions on an ongoing basis with minimal costs and time-to-market hassles, he adds. By incorporating the software supplied by Jungo, a unit of NDS, on gateway routers, operators can remotely connect and fix the home network. “Now the operator can really manage the service and minimize truck rolls in the process,” he says.

A similar process of exploration on media gateway strategies with MSOs and other types of service providers is underway at Technicolor, formerly Thomson, which has a vast embedded base of set-tops and as well as over 100 million IP router gateways deployed worldwide, according to a company report. “Our customers are trying to figure out their models for media gateways at this point,” says Kirk Barker, vice president for software architecture at Technicolor. “Some people want the terminal directly connected to the TV via HDMI; others want it in the closet. Some want the transcoding in the gateway; others not.”

In fact, Barker adds, the question on transcoding is so controversial there’s considerable debate within Technicolor over the best approach. His own opinion is that with transcoding in the gateway “there’s a better experience.” Moreover, “the home is a source of a lot of content, which, if you try to process that from outside, raises privacy issues.”

And, he adds, “With advanced DRM controlling the day and time of play and the number of views across devices, the best way to do that is in the gateway. But we will do what the customer wants.”

An important trend to watch is the deployment of media gateways that are designed to live with legacy set-tops while supporting an expanding array of IP video options, including OTT and on-demand premium content. “We’re working with some customers where the goal is to introduce the media gateway with no change in the operational backend,” says Bernard Kiriakos, vice president for pre-sales at Technicolor. “The media gateway has a narrowband tuner and a DOCSIS tuner, which allows the operator to scale from the traditional environment to complete IP over time. We’re saying you don’t need to rip out everything. You can deliver your branded OTT service, do on-demand, support our new tablet, but you can keep your set-top boxes.”

Taking a unique approach to introducing IP media gateways in a legacy environment, set-top box supplier ADB Group has introduced what it calls the Virtual Gateway, a software solution designed to work with current generation ADB and third-party set-tops that are equipped with cable modems and support OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) and other GEM (Global Executable Multimedia Home Platform) middleware-based user interfaces.

As described by Chris Dinallo, vice president for product management and technical marketing at ADB, the Virtual Gateway software is designed to allow the set-top boxes to interoperate with other devices to share content and resources, including the set-top tuner. “If you have a child’s bedroom with a PlayStation3, we can allow that console to grab the tuner from the set-top and also grab DVR content,” Dinallo says. “So it’s not just supporting access to online content. This is really multi-room DVR on steroids.”

Demonstrating how the Virtual Gateway works, Dinallo shows a setup featuring a year-old set-top with a DVR running Galaxy software supplied by ADB’s Vidiom unit and equipped with two tuners and a cable modem. When the PlayStation3 that is part of the demo is used to access content from the DVR set-top, the cable content accessed via the tuner shows up in the Sony UI environment. The demo also features an iPad accessing content through the broadband modem with applications that have been integrated to support interaction between the iPad and the TV. “The software coalesces all your content,” he says.

At this point, devices must be compatible with the format in which the content is delivered either from the set-top tuner or via the DOCSIS modem or from home media storage sources, Dinallo says. “Your device knows what it can consume,” he notes. “It’s up to you to get content that’s in that format. Down the road, when it’s less expensive to handle the processing entailed with transcoding, we’ll be able to do that in the set-top.”