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The future of devices: RDK important, vSTB less so

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Orange presenting at the vSTB breakout session at the Connected TV World Summit

During a discussion about the future of devices at Connected TV Summit last week, there was a near-consensus that the set-top box is far from dead and indeed could enjoy a boost thanks to RDK, the shared source CPE (customer premise equipment) initiative for the Pay TV industry. Darren Fawcett, Chief Technical Engineer at the STB and gateway vendor Pace (and an RDK pioneer) said RDK would help operators focus on innovation in the higher levels of the software stack and so create the user experience needed for future generations and reduce operating costs.

“The operator gateway is still a great entry point into the home for services. Innovation in this space is rampant,” he declared.

Eric Budin, VP, Product Strategy and Incubation at Liberty Global also believes the RDK initiative will help the industry innovate and pointed out that in general, Pay TV operators must do things they have not done traditionally. One of these is to cooperate more with third-parties. His company has already started to adopt a more open mentality on its Horizon platform, with apps from best-of–breed innovators like YouTube. “We are picking apps and making sure they integrate with our platform,” he noted.

Budin argued that Pay TV operators should avoid re-inventing the wheel, too, using social media networks to illustrate his point. “Let’s not create our own social networks but use what people are already using,” he suggested. “We are seeing a change of mindset, relying on other people and trying to build an ecosystem that allows you to do that.”

Dave Fellows, the former CTO of Comcast and now CTO at Layer3 TV, a young ‘next-generation cable provider’, declared himself a fan of set-top boxes because they create a common interface between all the devices in the home, regardless of the televisions you use and even if you have bought four Smart TVs from different manufacturers.

He was referring to the alternative of integrating an  operator app into a Smart TV to avoid shipping set-top boxes, a concept that covers the ‘Operator as an App’ (you need to find and launch the app from the app store, and then the app closes again after use) or virtual STB (an embedded application that makes the operator UI the default user interface that can launch automatically and then stay open – without the need for users to go anywhere near an app store). Both these models require custom integrations with the Smart TV manufacturers and their different year platforms and models.

Taking up the theme of the virtual STB, Laurent Van Tornhout, Director of Product Management, TV at Telenet, acknowledged that set-top boxes are capital-intensive and said his company is assessing “CapEx-friendly” solutions for delivering its cable TV services to the home alongside STBs. He predicted that Telenet will use both approaches, with STBs remaining for a long time.

“In Belgium we have an average of 1.5 television sets per home. The STB serves the first TV set but what about the second television set? Let’s think about the OpEx and CapEx for those second television screens – that is the biggest challenge.”

Telenet uses what it calls its SmartAid real-time diagnostic  solution to support customer care agents during support calls. This system monitors STB configuration and performance including its output to SCART and HDMI sockets and according to Van Tornhout, “That is bringing lots of value to set-top box users. That is an important function and a big reason why we love set-top boxes and it would be quite a challenge to integrate SmartAid into a television set.”

As we reported previously, Orange has decided that there are currently too many practical difficulties to make an operator/TV manufacturer vSTB cooperation work, while Swisscom has cooled its interest in vSTB and is now looking at Android OS in parallel, as an alternative route to developing lower cost CPE (in both cases because it expects to have to bundle free-to-air TV channels for free with broadband in the Swiss market within a couple of years).

There are still supporters of the vSTB, of course. Wim Sohier, Technical Marketing Manager at TP Vision, which owns the Philips brand, is one, though he says the vSTB concept requires standardized network discovery and an emphasis on certification to solve any technical/integration issues before they cause problems. He thinks the vSTB will reduce R&D for operators.


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