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RDK helps Pay TV industry prepare for its looming battle with Apple, Google and Amazon

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The ‘What RDK means for Europe’ panel at Connected TV Summit in London last month

RDK, the shared source, community driven CPE (Customer Premise Equipment) software stack, is already proving its value as an engine for innovation. Its most famous user, Comcast, has significantly reduced development cycles for its set-top box platforms since adopting the middleware equivalent and the company is also introducing new features to its service more easily than before. Other major RDK backers including Liberty Global and Time Warner Cable believe it delivers significant operational benefits. So why did the cable industry, in the form of the RDK Management joint venture led by these three companies, decide to ‘open up’ the RDK initiative to telcos and satellite operators, given the potential competitive benefits? It is a three word answer: Apple, Google, Amazon.

Steve Heeb, President and General Manager at RDK Management LLC, the entity set up to oversee the RDK initiative, argued at Connected TV Summit last month that competition between cable, satellite and telco operators will be overshadowed by the competition between the whole Pay TV industry and these web-centric media/technology giants. “It was a very big decision for RDK Management and some of the folks involved to open it up to anyone but they decided that in order for this platform to work it needs worldwide scale and the project has to be bigger than the traditional cable industry.”

At ANGA COM in May he also noted: “Amazon, Google and Apple want to be in the video business; these are the competitors on a worldwide basis. Everyone needs to take a step back and ask who their real competition is. Is it telcos and satellite if you are a cable operator? It is today but five years from now the competition will be dramatically different, especially when everyone transitions to IP networking. RDK Management decided that opening up was for the good of the many.”

At Connected TV Summit in June, Heeb added that operators cannot operate in the insular legacy cable world forever, arguing that they will have to move to IP and change their business models. “On its own the cable industry is not big enough to compete with those new competitors. RDK had to be run like Linux [an industry-wide, open-source community initiative] to really get the benefits.”

RDK Management is keen to emphasize that RDK has moved well beyond being a Comcast initiative and has growing support beyond the cable industry. The first publicly known telco deployment, albeit a pilot, using RDK is at Hrvatski Telekom in Croatia, the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary. Currently there are no known satellite initiatives to harness RDK but privately RDK supporters (including software vendors) say telcos are showing serious interest in the initiative and some satellite operators are also interested.

As it stands, Comcast has commercially deployed using RDK as the basis for a CPE platform (as part of its X1 platform). Liberty Global is preparing to deploy an RDK based service in Poland, which will be its first commercial use of the software. This is in trials. Time Warner Cable is currently developing its first RDK-based product – an IP set-top box.

Kabel Deutschland is another vocal supporter of RDK, having signed as a licensee last December. Last year, Lorenz Glatz, the company’s CTO, compared RDK to DOCSIS in terms of the consensus it was beginning to achieve, then declared: “It is the most positive development we have seen in years. It is really what cable needs to go one step further and to be stronger against our competitors and to have a unified approach.”

Comcast, which instigated the shared-source initiative due to a lack of (in its opinion) acceptable alternatives for its transformational next-generation plans (which included greater reliance on IP) remains the poster boy for RDK, however. As the lead deployment, it is safe to assume that the figures of 10 months STB development times, down from two years plus, given at RDK events, refer to them. And since deployment the company has illustrated some of the ‘service velocity’ that RDK is meant to enable, with a successful launch of Electronic Sell Through (Xfinity Digital Store) and the NBC Sports Live Extra app that was quickly integrated onto its STB platform. This provided 1,000 hours of live streaming to the television.

Speaking at Connected TV Summit 2014, Matt Zelesko, SVP for the Converged Technology Group at Time Warner Cable, said there is a dramatic change underderway thanks to RDK. “We are seeing the transition of operators from integrators into innovators.” TWC views RDK as a way to enable some of the significant transitions it needs to make in its video operations, and accelerate innovation. In the last 12 months the cable operator made 32 software releases on consumer device apps and Zelesko said the figure on traditional STBs is two in a good year.

“We are moving at a much faster pace today and to be able to do that in our STB world and in our gateway world we need something like RDK. Across the board, we are looking to determine how we can do things faster.”

For Lyall Sumner, TV Product Development at Liberty Global, the pan-European cable operator that owns Unitymedia Kabel BW and Virgin Media on top of the UPC branded operations, there are three main benefits of working with RDK: flexibility, collaboration and longevity.

“On flexibility, having a whole load of different STB and SoC (System on Chip) manufacturers working with RDK means we can move between those different hardware providers a lot more easily than we otherwise could. In terms of longevity, the old way of building a TV platform meant you replace it with a new one and throw away the old work you did. RDK allows us, with partners, to contribute code and make sure we can continue to use that. It also means we can really focus on the area we want to focus on, which is the UI layer and [user] experience layer, because that is where we differentiate our service to our customers. On collaboration, it is clear that working together [as the RDK community], we can innovate a lot faster than we would individually.”

Sumner was asked during the ‘What RDK means for Europe’ session at Connected TV Summit about the benefits the software initiative brings to a Pay TV marketing department. “It is about accuracy to a large extent,” he explained. “It is a lot easier to give accuracy to our marketing departments about the deployments that are coming up; a more realistic view of what will be available form our development and our partner development. We can predict features and roadmaps in a more confident manner.”

This is partly because an RDK licensee can see what other partners are working on within RDK in the form of code that is being contributed into the shared source code trunk. All the speakers at the London conference emphasized the benefits of the transparency that comes with RDK, since the shared code is accessible to all licensees and new code contributions (like a new feature) are reviewed and, if accepted, tested, debugged if necessary and finally added to become part of the trunk code.

RDK is not just about service velocity (time to market and subsequent post-deployment innovation), however. It can also mean cost reduction, Jaison Dolvane, President and CEO at the TV software (middleware, browser and VOD) solutions provider Espial, pointed out. “We are moving towards an IP world and hybrid set-top boxes are getting cheaper and as we begin to standardize these platforms there is more choice of hardware, and you are not locked into STBs and back offices. The STB hardware gets cheaper over time. And if you can reduce your development overhead you can reduce your operational overhead.”

RDK was developed with hybrid (broadcast/IP) customer premise equipment in mind and it reaches its full potential when building a platform that harnesses IP connections in some way. Nonetheless, Steve Heeb at RDK Management says the software is still relevant for a one-way broadcast network, “and it would really set you up for the benefits of two-way when you are ready to move to that.”

RDK changes the way CPE platform development works. Previously, you had the SoC provider, STB maker and someone (maybe the operator) providing the UI and applications and the software/middleware in the middle tying it all together. During development or when deployed, nobody had access to the middleware (beyond the middleware provider). Heeb observed that if there was a problem during development or in the field, everyone could blame each other because nobody had transparency of the code.

Now, in contrast, everyone has the same access to the code including the operator (assuming they are all licensees, and there is no licensing cost). Heeb points out: “Now if there is a problem in the field, the operator knows where the issue is because they can look at the code just like everyone else.” Equally, if an operator wants new features in the software it is now within their control.  

“If there is a feature that needs to go in and work that is needed at the SoC level or the UI level, everyone knows what has to be done and they know when it is getting done, and also people can help contribute towards that [by writing and submitting software code]. The STB provider has access to the code so they could say that they did something in Europe that could be good for Asia and they can say to an operator [customer], ‘Here is the benefit of code we did elsewhere’.

“It is because of this that we are hearing about development cycles at operators going from 24-36 months for a legacy STB/SoC/UI, from development to deployment, down to 10 months. When people have issues in the field, resolution is completed sometimes in hours or days instead of weeks or months. Sometimes the bug fixes are done by the operator before the customer even sees the issue.”

This transparency, along with the collaboration, stems from the fact that RDK has been modeled on open-source programmes like Linux. The reason it is called shared-source is because some of the software used was not available as open-source and had to be written, but all software contributions that are accepted to the RDK stack are cleared for intellectual property rights as part of the due diligence process, which also includes software testing by S3 Group. “We took a model [open-source] that works and ends up with everyone fixing the bugs and everyone putting new functionality into the code,” Heeb adds.

The RDK software is integrated down to the SoC level but it does not cover the applications and UI. All the feedback from operators was that it should not deal with this area, which is where they differentiate and generate revenue. By making the development of the core engineering easier for each new project, RDK means more software development and project management manpower can be directed towards the user experience.

RDK supporters refer to the stack as software, although it could be called a middleware, but the rejection of this phrase is because they want to emphasize the very different way that this software is developed and managed. And it is important to note that while the software may be standardized, in the sense that everyone works from the same core trunk of software, it is not a standard.

This initiative is actually viewed by some as the antidote to committee-driven middleware standards that require long-term industry consensus to define the techniques and features used. RDK is more agile – its evolution determined by a rapid succession of commercial decisions by operators, software and hardware vendors (probably working in partnership) to add new features and invest their development man-hours where they think they are needed, in a process that is neatly summed up by the phrase ‘Vote with your code’. You literally ‘vote’ for a software stack evolution by writing the code for it – and then hope others also see the value and that the code gets adopted.

The history behind RDK is probably well known by now but it was instigated by Comcast, which wanted a way to transition to all-IP and increase the speed of innovation across its operations, including in its CPE. The company wanted full transparency of the software code it was going to use and, with no off-the-shelf solution available, it developed RDK using open-source components and some written software.

Other platform operators liked what the U.S. operator was doing and wanted access to the code and the initiative broadened until today there are more than 150 licensees. RDK Management was created as the entity to help manage the initiative and service its members, quickly becoming the joint venture that it is today with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Liberty Global. It appointed S3 Group to provide code management and testing and itaas to oversee technical support and training for licensees.

Also see: RDK ready for Europe; first commercial deployment coming soon



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