Thinking Inside the Box

Set-Tops Adapt for Multiscreen-Video World

Don’t heap dirt on the trusty old set-top just yet.

Far from knocking on heaven’s door, set-top and residential video gateway platforms are getting healthy R&D and deployment investments from operators and manufacturers. This is not your dad’s set-top, though: The new breed of boxes embraces Internet Protocol video for delivery across multiple screens.

Comcast, for example, is basing its next generation of video devices on what it calls the Reference Design Kit, an open-source software suite aimed at letting MSOs rapidly introduce new hardware, software and applications — including IP video services — in a matter of months, not years. The goal is to give operators and their suppliers a tool set akin to Google’s Android mobile operating system.

“With the RDK, Comcast is seeding the growth of a community-driven software platform that addresses one of the industry’s biggest problems: the lengthy process of device development and deployment,” Steve Reynolds, Comcast’s senior vice president of customer premises equipment and home networks, said.

Comcast has now lined up a who’s who in the cable settop business to support the RDK initiative, including Arris Group, Cisco Systems, Motorola Mobility, Pace, Technicolor, Evolution Digital, Itaas, and chip makers Broadcom and Intel. Other MSOs evaluating the RDK include Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications.

Cable-tech vendors also are winning deals for their proprietary next-gen boxes and related software that provide a stepping stone to IPTV.

Midsize cable operator Midcontinent Communications last week announced a deal with TiVo to offer multiroom- DVR and multiscreen IP video products across its systems in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. Separately, Suddenlink Communications — which first deployed TiVo’s Premiere DVRs in late 2010 — is now offering the TiVo Stream to subscribers in Lubbock, Texas, for $10 per month. The TiVo Stream can pump live TV or DVR content to up to four different in-home tablets, smartphones or PCs simultaneously.

Meanwhile, DirecTV last week launched the Genie, a five-tuner DVR with 1 Terabyte of storage and the ability to sling IP video to up to eight TVs via the RVU specification (currently supported only on certain Samsung HDTVs). The Genie is aimed at competing with cable DVRs and Dish Network’s multiroom Hopper DVR.

For cable operators, new IP-enabled boxes are an alternative to the high cost of investing in a full IPTV service today, Morega Systems CEO Buddy Snow said. “We believe you can use inexpensive hardware inside the home to transcode video” for multiple devices, he said.

Snow left Motorola this April to join Morega, which developed DirecTV’s $149 Nomad device to “sideload” recorded DVR content to smartphones, laptops and PCs.

At some point, however, industry experts see a day when connected TVs and other devices with enough horsepower to directly receive IPTV will be widely deployed — and cut out the middleman. Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of Cisco’s Video and Collaboration Group, predicts that within about 10 years IP-video devices will eliminate the need for service providers to deploy set-top boxes. Set-top hardware already is becoming a commodity, he said, and the Cisco strategy from here on out is to be “set-top agnostic.”

“We are not going to de-emphasize set-tops,” he said. “But what we are going to do is work hard to make sure our software works across any platform.”


Set-tops are evolving from fixed-function MPEG receivers to platforms for multiscreen IP video