Countering expectations in some quarters that North American cable operators are more than a year away from implementing IP-based whole-home media gateways, officials at ARRIS say they're working with customers in preparations for rollouts of the company's Whole Home Solution much sooner.
"There's a high demand for it," says Debbie Stackis, vice president for video CPE at ARRIS. "We have a lot of customers anxiously awaiting the product."
The first release of the ARRIS gateway was demonstrated at the recent Cable Tec Expo in New Orleans. This was not a prototype but a working platform, Stackis says. "The CPE we demonstrated – the gateway, the IP set-top boxes – and most of the applications are all being deployed."
To the point made by some suppliers who have not yet productized their media gateways because MSOs are still working through details of their gateway architectures, she acknowledges some Tier 1 customers are "waffling" on what direction they want to go in (see November issue, p. 1), "but I'd say a whole host of MSOs are ready to move ahead." In fact, she adds, some are already well along in mapping what their initial rollout strategies will be, including marketing campaigns that apply special branding to the new services to be supported by the gateways.
"Some MSOs are going to be doing whole ad campaigns," Stackis says. "They're like AT%26T with U-verse, coming up with their own brand for this specific product and feature set. They plan to go out and really market it with the intention of being very competitive with satellite and telcos. I'd say that type of strategy characterizes our lead customers."
Some customers are already in the early trial phases, starting with employees and then moving to friendlies prior to launch. Most of this activity is centered in North America, Stackis adds.
The ARRIS gateway as demonstrated in New Orleans comes equipped with a 500-gigabyte hard drive (expandable to six terabytes), six QAM tuners and a DOCSIS 3.0 modem supporting up to eight bonded channels, thereby allowing operators to deliver ever more content in IP mode while maintaining the benefits of utilizing the existing MPEG-2 TV infrastructure. The gateway converts all MPEG-2 signals to IP for distribution to TVs in the home, which allows the use of low-cost IP set-tops in support of whole-home DVR as well as the integration of all devices into the IP-based flow of video content.
The gateway also serves as the home connection point for all broadband and telephony services and applications. Security across TVs and other devices is maintained via CableLabs-endorsed DTCP-IP (Digital Transmission Content Protection), which is part of the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) home networking standard. All the IP distribution takes place over MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance), Cat 5 Ethernet wiring or high-speed wireless.
Stackis says a major motivation behind early deployments of the platform is MSOs' desire to offer whole-home DVR service without incurring high set-top costs. This approach not only makes whole-home DVR a cheaper proposition but also lays a foundation for a much more feature-rich, multi-screen service via IP than might be possible in the traditional cable mode. Indeed, she says, MSOs frequently look on the IP gateway strategy as a "cap-and-grow" migration path to IP that at some point in the future will enable conversion to all-IP without having to replace legacy set-tops.
MSOs taking this path tend not to be wedded to creating a foundation for next-gen services in the legacy environment. "We don't support OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform – also known as tru2way) on the IP set-tops," Stackis says.
For example, if a Time Warner Cable wanted to port its advanced navigation system, known as ODN (OCAP Digital Navigator), into the ARRIS gateway environment "we'd have to do an OCAP port" to the IP set-tops, meaning special adaptation of the OCAP app to operate in the IP environment. "The MSOs we're working with are moving away from OCAP a little," she says. "OCAP takes a long time to build. Instead, they want to do browser-based apps."
This is not to say that any of these ARRIS customers are contemplating a forklift shift of their subscriber bases to IP, she quickly adds. "The product allows you to transition to IP," she says. "You can put the gateway in the existing network without having to change the backend at all, which allows you to support both QAM-based video and video over IP. Most MSOs aren't ready to go directly to IP."
While the incentive to build whole-home DVR service via the IP gateway approach is especially strong among MSOs who haven't launched the service, Stackis asserts the gateway is also appealing to those who have begun offering whole-home DVR on legacy platforms, owing to the richer features the IP platform will support over time. "We offer features and functionalities MSOs haven't been able to provide," she says.
For example, she notes, the ability to create a branded over-the-top service that integrates seamlessly with traditional cable service has become a priority that can't be met via the old approaches. The platform's software engine supports a navigational system that can be tailored to deliver search results across all content sources in accord with the MSO's priorities. "We don't just search everywhere," Stackis says.
But with a browser based on the Webkit 2.0 protocol (see September issue, p. 12), the ARRIS platform does afford subscribers the luxury of wide-open browsing of Web content, she adds. This means that, once ARRIS has integrated Adobe's Flash 10.1 client into its system, which is slated to happen in the first half of next year, subscribers will be able to view most video content from the open Web on their TV sets.
Adding to the operator's flexibility to create a branded navigational experience, the ARRIS software exploits the power of XML to create a data-driven approach to fine tune the navigational experience. "Everyone wants to be able to structure navigation through menu hierarchies," Stackis says.
MSOs can also personalize user interfaces. "All MSOs have changed the skins for their own branding, and some have set it up to give consumers the option to choose their own skins," she notes. "One MSO is offering five different skins."
Interestingly, ARRIS has not yet finalized its gateway approach to delivering TV content to the PC. "Streaming content to the PC is not in the first release," Stackis says. While TV Everywhere is a major priority among most MSOs, ARRIS customers are still sorting out how they want to exploit the expanded TVE capabilities that come with an IP-connected home environment. "The technology is very straight forward, but for some MSOs adding these functionalities is something they may want to do over time," she says.
One issue attending delivery of TV content to the PC and all other devices is the formatting and transcoding question. Advanced video processing, including MPEG-4 transcoding with adaptive rate streaming, is a core ARRIS skill set, notes Joe Materese, vice president and general manager for the On Demand Group at ARRIS. But it remains to be seen how operators want to exploit such capabilities.
"It's a big challenge," Materese says. Up to now strategists have assumed content would be formatted and stored for specific types of devices and then streamed from those storage points on demand. But with the proliferation of devices with so many different form factors that are meant to consume video, this is becoming impractical. "You need to do it on the fly," he says, meaning that content is acted on by processors as it's streamed, which can be done in the gateway or further back in the network.
Regardless of where such processing resides, Materese adds, the larger issue is integration of applications and hardware to ensure the right subscriber experience. "Focusing on the quality of integration is the unsung important dimension," he says. "We don't want to just throw a lot of functionality at somebody. You can have all kinds of bells and whistles, but if you can't integrate successfully you end up confusing the subscriber."
Ultimately, given the importance of advanced advertising, personalized navigation, specialized applications and other functionalities to the new service paradigm, operators will be better served by making sure everything they bring to the subscriber is compellingly easy to access, even if it means slowing the pace of service innovation. "Nobody wants to try to do too much at one time," Stackis says.
But, clearly, moving down the road toward innovation on an IP platform with whole-home DVR as the initial driver is making a lot of sense to many MSOs. Some, it seems, will be taking this approach much sooner than once seemed likely.