CommScope, which now includes ARRIS and Ruckus Networks, has been outlining the potential for service providers to embed themselves more deeply into our lives using a Smart Media Device (SMD). The SMD is CommScope’s name for a new device category that combines set-top box functions and at least one smart assistant ecosystem combined with far-field voice command technology and a speaker. Charles Cheevers, CTO/Chief Technologist for Customer Premise Equipment at CommScope, is confident the technology can support a range of operator-provided and third-party skills (or applications) that will help reduce churn and increase total operator revenues.
Cheevers identifies some key opportunities for service providers in the connected home of the future. First, they could provide their own voice assistant that, on request, will tell consumers their Wi-Fi password or add movies or sports to their subscription package. These are just some of the examples of what operator skills could cover. Second, the operator could integrate their voice system with third-parties like a utility company so that we can also request our latest energy bill, or seek alerts when we cross a monthly consumption threshold.
Third, the operator can exploit the growing demand for screens to accompany a voice-based digital assistant. Amazon is already pursuing this opportunity with the Echo Show and its tablet-sized screen, but Cheevers thinks service providers can trump this by harnessing the television set and its potentially vast real-estate to give visual feedback for skills that need more than a voice-based answer. A list of football fixtures would be a good example of where a visual list is preferable.
Some skills or requests will best suit a voice answer on one occasion and visual feedback on another. Thus, if you were to ask Alexa for the weather today, voice feedback is perfect, but if you wanted to know the weather for each of the next seven days, it would be quicker to glance at a screen. Cheevers believes that a service provider, using a Smart Media Device that is already connected to the television set, is ideally placed to bring the big screen into this assistant ecosystem.
Crucially, a voice-enabled SMD with smart assistants onboard could provide a faster and easier route to the smart home applications you want than a computer or even a tablet. This means that suddenly a device supplied by the service provider – whether acting independently in conversation mode or with a screen for visual feedback – becomes one of the most user-friendly in the home, surpassing many of the ‘bring your own devices’ littered around a typical house or flat.
The fourth opportunity spins from the third: new services/applications that are well-suited to the use of a smart gateway that is commonly situated in the living room or lounge, and which can make good use of visual prompts. Cheevers is especially excited by the potential role for service providers in the ‘Ageing in place’ market, where care companies could use smart home technology to help the elderly live independently for as long as possible.
‘Ageing in place’ functions could include monitoring (knowing if someone has had a fall) or metering of medicines. Cheevers points out that elderly people can spend long periods in the living room. People recovering from illness can often be found in the lounge. The SMD is therefore a strong candidate to provide the technology platform through which ‘Ageing in place’ applications can be managed, using its far-field microphone and speaker system for voice requests and answers, and the television set to display more complex information.
Cheevers argues that ‘Ageing in place’ is part of an important category of new services that are local at heart, rather than global, since they need boots on the ground – installers and field engineers to ensure a managed service for what could be mission-critical applications. He believes the service provider is well placed to partner with companies offering these services, whether they are utilities or care companies (who have carers and call-out teams in the community).
“More skills and technologies on these platforms will be driven locally, not globally,” he suggests. “There is a local ‘skills’ revival.”
CommScope believes that service providers can use the SMD to aggregate entertainment, e-health, education, utility and productivity services, among other things, in the smart home. The company believes that this new device category will be front-and-centre of our connected lives, providing the best way to make a phone call (using high-quality audio speakers) and the best place to conduct a voice or video conference (making use of a camera).
“The Smart Media Device has a great [physical] position in the home, found in rooms with high traffic like the living room and kitchen,” Cheevers says. “They are found where people spend most of their time in lean-back mode, relaxing.”
CommScope is advising its current and potential customers to onboard two assistant services on their SMD, one provided by a global skills ecosystem provider like Amazon (i.e. Alexa) or Google (i.e. Google Assistant) and one operated by the service provider themselves and focused on a narrower range of applications, and so requiring less development work. Thus, Alexa provides the weather, but the service provider reminds you what your Wi-Fi password is.
“This suits everyone. It is a marriage made in heaven,” Cheevers says of this double-assistant strategy. There is even a possibility that we will see specialist voice ecosystems evolve, which could offer skills outside of these two categories, so the SMD should be able to onboard multiple voice systems if necessary.
Even with two voice systems, there is an important challenge that must be addressed: while consumers may quickly learn that the service provider voice assistant is better for some things, and the global assistant better for others, there must be a mechanism for transferring requests that are directed at the wrong assistant. Each voice ecosystem must be able to recognise if a request should be offloaded.
SFR, the French quad-play provider owned by Altice, is the first service provider to deploy a CommScope Smart Media Device with its new SFR Box 8 device, which includes an SFR assistant and Alexa, both made available via a high-quality speaker. If you want an SFR skill, you use the wake-up phrase ‘Okay, SFR’. SFR is also harnessing the television set to enrich assistant services, using a software solution developed by Wiztivi to bring the television screen under the control of voice commands.
The Smart Media Device generally, as offered by CommScope to all operators, features Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) support to make it easier to connect a host of IoT devices to the gateway (Z-Wave and Zigbee radios are optional). BLE is also used for remote controls and to stream audio to ‘satellite’ connected speakers. Cheevers expects Wi-Fi 6 to play a prominent role in the SMD. This technology increases client device speeds by nearly four times compared to Wi-Fi 5, and improves performance in congested environments. It enables more devices to achieve peak performance at the same time.
Cheevers believes the Smart Media Device and the services it supports will make it easier for consumers to justify their service provider subscriptions, including device rentals where that model is used. “If consumers are more immersed, beyond video and broadband, and you converge everything they need in a single device, that offer tends to be sticky,” he suggests.
“If another operator offers someone a deal on video that is 20% cheaper, they might want to save the money, but then they look at how they can pause the kids’ access to Wi-Fi for a family dinner, see warnings when a rogue device appears on their network, or check the security cameras before telling the TV to lock the house.”
CommScope is confident the device economics will work for subscribers, even if they have to pay a rental premium for an SMD device. Potentially, they can avoid the need to buy an Echo Dot type device, sound bar or an Echo Show style product yet enjoy the features they offer. Operators can offset some of the CapEx premium by exploring new services with recurring revenues attached – and of course the ‘sticky subscription’ argument is a perennial winner, if proven.
At IBC in September, CommScope unveiled its Smart Media Device platform 7852, featuring Wi-Fi 6 connectivity and support for AOMedia Video 1 (AV1) and high dynamic range. This is part of the company’s RDK Video Accelerator portfolio, a joint initiative between CommScope and RDK Management that covers a range of devices that are pre-installed with the latest version of RDK open source software, the Metrological App Store, and tools to customise services. The purpose of RDK Video Accelerator is to shorten development times for service providers, so they can get to market sooner.
The SMD 7852 was accompanied by the launch of an SMD client device, the IP Client VIP7802, also with Wi-Fi 6, AV1 and HDR onboard. This, too, is part of the RDK Video Accelerator portfolio.