Comcast Creates Opportunity For Common CPE Platform

Neil Smit, president & CEO, Comcast Cable

Neil Smit, president & CEO, Comcast Cable

June 5, 2012 – Wandering the exhibit hall at the recent Cable Show in Boston one would not conclude the set-top is going the way of the dodo bird.
That happy future for what might be more aptly termed the industry’s albatross was predicted by Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt. Asked during a plenary session by CNN anchor Erin Burnett if the set-top would share the fate of the flightless bird that disappeared in the late 1600s, Britt replied, “Yes, although people from Cisco and Motorola probably don’t want to hear that.”

But notwithstanding incremental rollouts of live and, more often, on-demand premium services to various connected platforms, the truth is the cable industry is forging ahead with commitments to next-generation set-tops, including a new media gateway framework espoused by Comcast that could drive costs down and accelerate the push to cloud-based service management. As Comcast’s national rollout of the new version of Xfinity on what it calls the X1 Platform attests, cable strategists are far more comfortable leveraging the appeal of connected devices as complementary tributaries to a gateway-dominated TV viewing experience.

A year and a half after generating big headlines with announcements touting new connected TV deals with Samsung and Sony, the top MSOs have yet to embrace the smart TV as wholeheartedly as they have tablets and smartphones. And even in the latter domains it’s been a slow slog for live TV distribution, although with rights issues getting worked out and expansion beyond iPads and iPhones to the latest Android devices and even to the Microsoft Xbox, the pace has picked up dramatically in the last few months.

What really appears to be going the way of the dodo bird is the reliance on the traditional Motorola-Cisco (Scientific-Atlantic) duopoly for hardware-based proprietary solutions in favor of cloud-managed software platforms that can be implemented on whichever manufacturers’ set-top products are equipped to run such platforms. This is where the reference design for Comcast’s X1 could have an important impact insofar as the template offers operators and manufacturers a wide range of options, including some fairly low-cost ways to move to next-gen whole-home services.

Suppliers report wide interest in the X1 set-top reference design among other MSOs as Comcast touts the service acceleration flexibility of its cloud-based approach to TV service operations and navigation. In fact, says Comcast Cable president & CEO Neil Smit, over and above the immediate benefits in terms of apps and navigation razzle dazzle of the XI Platform (previously known as Xcalibur before and during its one-year trial run in August, Ga), the most important advantage the MSO sees is the flexibility the platform affords Comcast to introduce and reconfigure services and applications.

“The XI architecture will allow us to innovate much faster, to put new services out there in real time,” Smit says. “People want to see us move at a faster pace.”

During the course of the one-year trial in Augusta, first announced at last year’s Cable Show (see July 2011, p. 1, Comcast discovered how valuable such flexibility can be as it continually tweaked the service with over 400 software updates. “We learned a lot along the way, and as we did we were able to execute improvements quickly,” Smit says, noting expansion of the navigation to its current dimensions was one significant advantage of working from a cloud-based architecture.
Smit says the company is rolling out the service to “hundreds of thousands of households,” starting in Boston with several major markets planned to follow this year. The new version will be available to new customers taking Xfinity Triple Play with HD/DVR service at no additional cost.
As for initial customer reaction, subscribers in Augusta “loved the service,” Smit notes. “People are confused” when it comes to knowing what’s available to them and how to get it, he says. “They appreciated the fact XI is making it easier for them to discover content. Generally our research shows customer satisfaction is higher.”

As explained by Smit, the X1 platform employs IP technology to integrate interactive, customized apps and social media features with its traditional video services to create a new television experience. While the new service offers important advances such as a navigation system with unified search and instant play across TV listings, DVR recordings and on-demand options and supports the long-touted companion remote control app for iPhones and iPods, he and others make clear this is just the beginning of what can be done on the new platform.

For example, the Pace XG1 set-top used with the new service employs a gateway-client architecture with six QAM tuners to enable up to six simultaneous HD recordings to be triggered on the built-in DVR from any client box in the home. Equipped with a DOCSIS 3.0 modem and transcoding capabilities, the gateway will support either direct transmission of IP-based content to IP-set-tops and TVs and other connected devices or streaming of transcoded MPEG-2 content to those devices. In the second scenario, the MSO will be able to connect new low-cost IP set-tops to the gateway to lower the costs of whole-home service.

Exactly how Comcast will configure and market such capabilities remains to be seen. So far, in its move to live streaming to connected devices in the home the MSO has been employing a special device supplied by Motorola to transcode MPEG-2 content from legacy set-tops, in contrast to approaches taken by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision that rely on direct streaming of premium content to those devices over the broadband segment of the network. But that service, dubbed “AnyPlay,” has not been publicized or apparently expanded since its initial launch in Denver and Nashville in January. Sources say the MSO’s intention is to leverage the X1 Platform and new set-tops comporting with the reference design employed with the XG1 set-top to scale a streamlined multiscreen service in the months ahead.

That reference design is now positioned to become a de facto standard in the industry as ever more suppliers embrace the functionalities of Broadcom and Intel chipsets that are built to the new specifications. Software integrator and developer itaas, for example, has licensed the Comcast RDK (Reference Design Kit) employed with the Pace XG1 in anticipation there will be wide-scale demand from MSOs and set-top manufacturers for optimizing the architecture in a variety of deployment scenarios, notes Jim Elayan, vice president of marketing and business development at itaas.

“The MSO community in general is very interested in this platform,” Elayan says. “There are a lot of evaluations going on as to how much they need the RDK and what different versions might be.”

In fact, he adds, “I’d wager we will do a lot more revenue in testing and integration than in software development over the next 18 months, and that relates to the volume of business we anticipate working with customers on the RDK.”

Comcast, too, anticipates wide adoption as the industry looks for ways to lower costs of the CPE it will need to execute on new service strategies, says Steve Reynolds, senior vice president for CPE and home network at Comcast. “Support from itaas and others is helping to pave the way for broader industry adoption and deployment of this platform,” Reynolds comments. The goal, he adds, is “to accelerate development of an advanced software solution throughout the industry.”

There’s a reasonable chance these ambitions could be realized. As Elayan notes, the RDK is not a hard-baked take-it-or-leave-it architecture in the mode of earlier standards initiatives. Instead, it’s meant to create a baseline hardware framework for leveraging cloud-based software strategies that leave ample room for innovation and sharing of those innovations among the RDK community.

“The RDK has options and alternatives,” Elayan says. “We see a lot of opportunity to customize RDK solutions. And there are feedback mechanisms so that as people make modifications, those modifications go back into the community and the contributions are spread.”

Working with manufacturers, itaas will help them with the integration and testing processes and to develop enhancements that work within the framework. On the MSO side, the focus will be on software enhancements and integration that allow them to leverage the framework in ways that fit their specific service strategies. “If an MSO is not satisfied with the browser as designed, we can help them develop an RDK-optimized browser that works for them,” Elayan says.

“Hardware manufacturers may need to work on the platform for a while to get up to speed, and we can provide the environment for them to do that,” he adds, noting that one of the hurdles to be overcome in the effort to win wide support is some manufacturers’ fear of being commoditized. But there are management, monitoring and optimization aspects that allow for plenty of differentiation by OEMs, he says.

The RDK doesn’t reinvent a lot of wheels. Established open standards including OCAP (tru2way), IP protocols like HTML5 and Lenox are built in, and some software components developed as proprietary solutions have been licensed to make key functionalities easy to implement.

“Comcast and other MSOs see the potential cost benefits from the chip side and time-to-market side by making it easier to build your next-generation service platform with interchangeable parts that aren’t hardened but which work within a common framework,” Elayan says. Rather than battling over every detail to create a new standard, the participants in the RDK are saying, “Let’s get on board with the framework and modify the components as we go down the road,” he adds.

One of the licensors of cloud-based software capabilities for the RFK is SeaChange International, which has been touting its Nucleus middleware and Adrenalin workflow back-office system as a template for set-top manufacturers who may not be traditional suppliers in the U.S. cable market (see February issue, p. 19). While participants wouldn’t say what aspects of the SeaChange software components had become part of the RDK, capabilities touted for the proprietary systems parallel in many ways the capabilities associated with the RDK.

For example, Nucleus middleware has the flexibility to support multiple gateway configurations with multiple tuners for video, DOCSIS 3.0 and for OTT content along with support for MoCA, Ethernet and Wi-Fi interfaces. And the software can be configured on lightweight IP clients within the home that have a smaller footprint and no local tuners or storage, notes Steve Davi, senior vice president for software at SeaChange.

“Comcast wanted us to license some of our software capabilities and to integrate them into their framework,” Davi says. “The Pace [XG1] box is now running these capabilities.”

At the same time, the XG1, adhering to the RDK mandate, provides operators flexibility to integrate with other features such as interfaces supplied by Rovi and other guide vendors, says Ashley Glover, vice president of marketing and communications at Pace. “We’re software agnostic,” Glover says. “There’s a lot of flexibility and diversity associated with this platform.”