ActiveVideo Paves Way to Cloud As MSOs Weigh Next-Gen CPE

Philip Brennan, VP, TV technology, S3 Group

Philip Brennan, VP, TV technology, S3 Group

September 10, 2012 – As operators worldwide continue to push for ways to lower costs of bringing next-generation set-tops into consumer households they’re also showing growing interest in the cloud-based shortcut to a better user experience via the platform provided by ActiveVideo.
Interestingly, in all cases the software underlying cloud- and media gateway-focused next-gen approaches are leveraging HTML5 as the linchpin to streamlining access to and rendering of content and applications housed on websites, which raises the possibility that cloud-based solutions will drive the market to ever lower-priced home gateway solutions. Clues to the trend line can be found in the inroads stateside technologies, including ActiveVideo’s CloudTV H5platform and the Comcast Reference Design Kit (RDK), are making on the global stage.

ActiveVideo’s HTML5-enhanced platform, which it rolled out in May at the Cable Show in Boston, has its first publicly announced European customer – Ziggo, a Dutch operator serving three million households that will use CloudTV H5 to deliver an advanced VOD user interface from the network cloud with enhanced search, discovery and previews to legacy digital set-tops. This follows the vendor’s June announcement that Comcast is conducting a trial of enhanced VOD UI on the CloudTV H5 system in Chattanooga.

The ability to move beyond antiquated UIs running on legacy set-tops through use of advanced cloud-based navigation systems is vital to operators at this point, given how central VOD has become to operator fortunes. But, as ActiveVideo president and CEO Jeff Miller notes, the capabilities embodied in the CloudTV H5 platform have important implications for design and costs of next-gen set-tops as well.

“As cable operators adopt IP infrastructure to deliver their new navigation and DVR products, the CloudTV platform provides an important tool for transitioning from their existing set-top box population while also supporting the next generation of cost-reduced boxes,” Miller says. “CloudTV H5 IP is part of a product roadmap that continues the ActiveVideo commitment to creating enterprise-class platforms that reduce cost while bringing full TV experiences to any device.”

Asked whether that roadmap includes means of supporting gateways that can transcode the managed network pay TV bit streams to IP for distribution to connected devices in the home, ActiveVideo senior vice president of engineering Cliff Mercer replies, “We have various things we’re developing internally, some of which we’ve demonstrated at trade shows. But no operator has announced establishing such capabilities as part of their operations with our platform.”

Operators clearly have cloud-based solutions top of mind as they contemplate their migration paths to multiscreen delivery of live as well as on-demand content. This is why HTML5 is such a vital component of the Comcast RDK, the pre-integrated software bundle that creates a common framework for powering tru2way, IP or hybrid set-top boxes and gateway devices (see June issue, p. 1).

“Embracing Internet standards such as DLNA, HTML5, and WebKit, and blending them with the RDK, will bring the best of the Internet into the cable environment,” says Shiva Patibanda, general manager of the In-Home business unit at SeaChange International. “We believe that RDK-based set-top software solutions will significantly improve time-to-market of cable set-top boxes on multiple SoCs [system-on-chip chipsets].”

The SeaChange Nucleus “soft-box” supports the RDK software environment and vendor ecosystem with the means to seamlessly blend the cable set-top with Internet standards such as DLNA and HTML5. At the same time, its Nitro software provides the means by which the cloud can be leveraged with HTML5 to support advanced multiscreen navigation across linear and on-demand content, Patibanda says, noting these applications were on display at the IBC conference in Amsterdam this month.

Indeed, such capabilities have made the RDK a serious candidate for design specifications among service providers abroad who are looking for ways to drive costs out of customer premises equipment even as they expand service functionalities, notes Philip Brennan, vice president of TV technology at S3 Group, a Dublin-based systems integrator working with MSOs worldwide. S3 has licensed the RDK in response to demand everywhere for a platform that has the potential to lower costs while speeding introduction of next-gen services, Brennan says.

S3, working with the Comcast RDK team led by senior vice president Steve Reynolds, has seen how the RDK reduces the lifecycle of bringing multiscreen services into play from what had been a two-year process to one year or less, Brennan says. Freedom from proprietary systems and the opportunity to leverage middleware and applications advances wherever they come from on an open platform are major benefits as well, he adds.

“A lot of our customers are looking at what do next,” Brennan says, noting his company is working with more than 20 operators worldwide. “They’re thinking about DVR in the cloud and see IP and open systems as they way to move beyond where they are today. At the moment RDK is the latest interesting option under wide consideration. It has the potential to become quite global as a kind of de facto standard.”

But that means elements of the legacy pay TV software infrastructure tied to DVB rather than the OCAP (Open Cable Access Platform) mode native to the U.S. must be integrated with the framework, he adds. “Integrating DVB stacks with the rest of RDK is a big challenge,” he notes. “But as we do that work with one customer it can be reused with others.”

Obviously, the more the cloud can be leveraged to expedite migration to IP, the less critical such integration issues will become. This is a big selling point for ActiveVideo, now supporting cloud-based applications of one kind and another to a household base of over 10 million through affiliations with Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and other MSOs.

As explained by Cliff Mercer, the CloudTV H5 platform utilizes highly-optimized HTML5 browser technology running in remote servers to execute and render complete user experiences in the cloud. These fully formed experiences are streamed to consumers’ devices via MPEG-2 or H.264 in response to prompts on set-top remote controls with minimal latency, he explains.

“HTML5 is getting a lot of attention in the cable industry,” he says. “It’s a very powerful environment where you can use the usual website development tools to create applications that leverage the cable as well as Internet space.” And, he adds, where ActiveVideo is concerned, because their applications are fully executed and rendered on the cloud-based server, designers can create complex animations and functionality without worrying about device capability.

Of course, HTML5 is still a work in progress, which means that steps must be taken by platform providers like ActiveVideo to optimize the browser technology to compensate for incompatibilities and functional deficiencies. “It’s an evolving standard with elements still under development,” Mercer notes. “We’ve done a lot of work to optimize the experience around open-source WebKit [the HTML browser development platform].”

Many operators are keen to dispense with supplying set-tops in favor of customers’ utilizing generic off-the-shelf IP devices if they need them or otherwise relying on built-in capabilities of connected TVs, but many see a need for a whole-home media gateway that allows them to differentiate services to maximum advantage. Either way, it’s clear from what’s taking shape domestically and abroad that ActiveVideo and the cloud in general will have a lot to say about the configuration of cable CPE.