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Service provider CPE challenges: soundbars that block easy STB access to the TV, and the digital assistant race

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We have seen unprecedented disruption in the customer premise equipment (CPE) market during the last decade, primarily caused by the development of quality portable video display devices, from laptops to tablets and smartphones. The next decade promises to be just as exciting, with brand new battles for control between service providers and retail device makers and simultaneous efforts to cooperate. Charles Cheevers, CTO for CPE at ARRIS, has been talking about two of the most interesting challenges: television screens that ditch HDMI connections in favour of proprietary ribbon cable interfaces, and digital assistants (the latter being an enormous opportunity for service providers, too).

Like many commentators, he came away from CES 2017 impressed with the new LG OLED W7 television, which has reduced screen thickness to approximately 3mm and is so thin that you can bend it. The screen sits flat on a wall, weighs virtually nothing given its size, and is an early vision of how display technology could evolve – something closer to wallpaper than a piece of furniture.

What is especially significant is that the TV processing logic (including decoding), as well as all the connectivity (so HDMI and USB ports, Wi-Fi), have all been removed from the display ‘casing’ and integrated into a fine-looking soundbar that is designed to sit on a shelf or unit near the wall-mounted screen.

There is no room to include the workings of the television set in this wafer-thin display so it has effectively been abstracted. Even the mains power cord terminates in the soundbar, with power fed through the ribbon cable (one of those flat cables carrying multiple ultra-thin wires that line up alongside each other). Cheevers has spotted a danger to all of this: with only a proprietary ribbon cable interface going into the television display, there is no input for an operator set-top box. Instead the STB would have to plug into the HDMI port in the soundbar, which is possible but far from ideal.

If you have just bought a very expensive television set (LG has a  $20,000 suggested price for a 77-inch version) and have paid a professional installer to route the ribbon cable behind a wall, from where it goes into a soundbar that features Dolby Atmos immersive sound and sits on a specially installed shelf to make it a focal point, you may not want a typical operator set-top box wedged onto the shelf with it, even if it would fit! In effect, the soundbar processing centre has become a gatekeeper to the television screen – not something any operator should welcome.

Cheevers is keen that any interfaces between television displays and the outside world should be open, and anticipates efforts to ensure that STB outputs find an easy route into ultra-thin wall-mounted displays that have external processing and connectivity. A practical short-term fix would be to use a small form-factor set-top box that can be hidden behind the soundbar. Operators are shipping client IP boxes the size of a hand (think Roku streaming device format). Dongle-sized STBs could be hidden behind the soundbar but as Cheevers points out, operators are moving towards a more managed Wi-Fi experience, and dongle devices may not have the power needed to deliver the (wireless streaming) user experience expected in future.

Consumers may want to replace the TV maker’s soundbar with their own choice, anyway. Early adopters may have favourite audio brands. If the ultra-thin TV display takes off, then the mass-market of high-end purchasers will definitely want to pick-and-mix.

Regardless of what happens on the LG connectivity roadmap, this television launch has highlighted an important change that is coming, even to cheaper television sets – the abstraction of their sound speakers into external hardware. And as we reported previously, TV providers – as well as finding themselves in danger of being literally pushed off the shelf – could turn this into an opportunity to deliver more kit of their own, like a soundbar.

Netgem was quick to spot this opportunity and unveil a proof-of-concept device for IPTV providers that combines the operator STB, television soundbar and an Alexa voice assistant. Sky has just announced its own high-end soundbar, the Sky Soundbox (more here).

ARRIS has not been talking about operator soundbars but the company is a thought-leader when it comes to new hardware opportunities for service providers in the smart home. The forthcoming race to deliver premium Wi-Fi services means that many homes will need multiple wireless access points rather than one, which means Wi-Fi extenders. There is a clear opportunity to turn these into digital assistants, too.

It is worth pausing for one minute to remind ourselves that five years ago most of the discussion in this industry was about how service providers could reduce the CPE they shipped. There is still an ongoing effort to reduce CPE costs but that is a different ambition. The future points to more operator device diversity, whether it is video gateways and clients (from the hero-gateway to the HDMI dongle STB), broadband access devices (gateways, Wi-Fi extenders, extenders with digital assistants) or the new frontier of the Smart Home (window sensors, motion sensors, etc.).

As open source middlewares remove some of the pain from device integration and innovation in the lower parts of the software stack, the industry is going to spend more time on service innovation. Thus initiatives like RDK-V in video and RDK-B in broadband are an important backdrop to what could happen next – more hardware innovation and more device diversity.

When it comes to the Wi-Fi extender with an Alexa-style digital assistant, Cheevers is convinced these functions are a good fit. He points out that extenders will be better placed (physically) than the typical broadband gateway, which sits close to a wired entry point and so often to one side of a house, near a corner of a room. “You need the device near to where people want to talk, and Wi-Fi extenders tend to be in rooms that are occupied a lot.”

Cheevers lists the backoffice and client functions a service provider needs to introduce. You need natural language processing to convert voice commands or requests into messages for the network. As with Alexa, a key skill is understanding intent. Information must be sourced and fulfilled – thus a request like ‘What is the weather like in London’ could tap an RSS feed to tell you it is 16 degrees. The returned information must be turned into a voice response. Physically, you need both a mic and a speaker in the device, of course.

Service providers are going to have to decide whether they use the voice processing and information gathering infrastructure of a web giant like Amazon. Alexa can be freely used without charge, as Amazon wants to extend its footprint beyond what it can achieve selling its own hardware. As Cheevers points out, the company is focused on hooking us into its shopping universe.

Alternatively, you could use independent AI and voice processing expertise, if you are willing to pay. That way you are in control of the analytics data. “It depends on whether you think you are giving too much information away by using someone like Amazon,” Cheevers points out. “Some operators will not worry about that and some of the big guys might want to stay away from these [GAFA-type] companies.”

Whichever route a service provider chooses, they can add value on top of the digital assistance with their own service layer or app, or what Amazon calls Alexa ‘skills’. “A consumer could ask: ‘Show me the devices attached to Wi-Fi’ or ‘Buy a Gigabit of data’,” Cheevers suggests. He thinks there are service and revenue opportunities for operators who make skills available to this voice-enabled digital assistant environment, including relating to the Smart Home.

ARRIS is gearing up for this new type of operator user interface. The company has intimate knowledge of how broadband provider and Pay TV operator backoffices work, and how you integrate them into customer-facing portals. “Our professional services team can develop skills for an operator,” he reveals.

Let’s not forget what should be the basics, either. As Cheevers points out, when someone says, ‘Show me a Tom Hanks movie,’ that is natural moment for a service provider to become involved.

There are two instances where a Pay TV provider may ship CPE for unrelated reasons that can then be leveraged for digital assistance. Some remote controls now have a mic so they can respond to voice or conversational search requests/commands. And if you do ship a soundbar (or an integrated soundbar STB – as Netgem proposes), you already have one powerful speaker.

ARRIS has been outlining the opportunity for broadband providers to differentiate themselves with premium Wi-Fi, especially as 4K video increases the burden on home networks. This goes hand-in-hand with some sophisticated Wi-Fi management, including control over which access point a client device locks to and when its switches to another access point (to optimise performance).

Premium Wi-Fi is itself an area where service providers could face competition from retail options. It is not difficult to imagine that a router with better services attached to it (e.g. speaker and voice assistance) will win out over routers that do nothing except route data. Thus the looming battle for who delivers the growing diversity of CPE devices and who provides the services that run over them are linked.

Cheevers acknowledges that operators cannot hope to keep retail devices out of the home, so should also find ways to seamlessly welcome them into their network (and service universe). He polled ARRIS employees on why they bring retail broadband devices home and 90% of the time it is because the technology was available in retail before an operator offered it, or it is just better.

Photo: The soundbar and processing unit that accompanies the LG OLED W7 television

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