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Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
11/5/2010
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DENVER -- Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) appears to be seeding a future IPTV strategy with the ongoing introduction of a new breed of digital set-top boxes that can be become IP video-capable via the addition of new software and firmware.

Several industry sources have mentioned this capability to Light Reading Cable in conversations in recent weeks, but Comcast EVP and CTO Tony Werner confirmed it Thursday when he spoke here at the WICT Rocky Mountain "Tech It Out" event at The Cable Center .

Responding to a question on that topic, he said those Comcast-specified boxes, which go under the Residential Network Gateway (RNG) umbrella -- are indeed IP-cable, noting they come equipped with a Docsis modem and an IP address.

He said Comcast has already deployed a bunch of them running in "native" mode, but "we can flip them" to support IP video.

Werner didn't go into when Comcast might start that process or how the MSO might take take advantage of those IP capabilities, but a person who's familiar with the project said the "biggest value of the [RNG] box is that it's architected for IP using a change in the software control [layer]. It can be best described as a computing network box that also works as a set-top."

Comcast is already deploying HD-only and HD-DVR RNG models that support both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, and use CableCARD-based security. It's understood that the operator is also working on a more advanced "gateway" model based on Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) silicon that can share content with other devices. Early on, Comcast had specified a standard-def RNG box, but since then has been using simple Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) devices to help fulfill its SD box needs. (See Intel Goes Inside Cable... Again, Intel Snares TI's Cable Modem Business , and Will Intel Go Inside Cable Multimedia Gateways? )

An MSO spokeswoman recently confirmed that Comcast is "broadly deploying RNG-class boxes," sourcing set-tops from Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Pace plc that can be upgraded to support tru2way. RNG boxes "from at least one other OEM are current in field trials," the official said.

Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) has shown off RNG-class boxes in the past, but sources say Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC), which has some info on its RNG products for Comcast listed here, has gotten in the door at the MSO. Here's an HD-only RNG 110 box from Pace that was recently installed for a new Comcast subscriber in Highlands Ranch, Colo.:

In The Wild

Once Comcast flips these boxes to IP mode, how the MSO will take advantage of those capabilities is not yet known.

Once source said the box, once connected to the home's cable modem on the home network, would be perfectly capable of receiving over-the-top video content via its Ethernet port, which, according to the Pace RNG 110 manual is labeled "for future use." Newer RNG boxes will also use Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) technology for high-speed home networking.

Ethernet Port

But it's also not clear how Comcast might source OTT content. It may take a page from Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED)'s playbook with Cisco and TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) and go with a walled garden approach, perhaps giving Comcast customers a relatively seamless way to pipe in content from its just-out-of-beta Xfinity TV Online service to TV screens and impose digital rights management (DRM) in the box. Or it might go with a managed IPTV simulcast of its traditional linear and on-demand cable TV service. Or it could support a mix of both using the box's hybrid QAM/IP capabilities. (See Virgin STBs to Ride Broadband Video Expressway, Cable-Tec Expo: What's the Magic IPTV Number? , and Comcast's TV Everywhere Play Breaks Out of Beta .)

In yet another scenario, the box, with the help of Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) , could also be used to playback content stored on PCs and other external storage units. (See Tru2way Flashes Some Retail Hope .)

Big CES news coming?
Here at Thursday's event, Werner said Comcast has interest in supplying content to the "input B" of broadband-connected TVs, a domain currently dominated by the likes of Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), Hulu LLC , and YouTube Inc. and other sources of Internet-based content. [Ed. note: "input A" is the primary TV input used for traditional cable, satellite, and telco TV subscription services.] (See Rumor: Comcast Plots OTT Stealth Attack and Comcast Forges 'Excalibur' for IPTV.)

Werner said cable is likewise interesting in writing software and user interfaces for TVs and other retail consumer electronics devices that could deliver the MSO's content to Input B.

But how soon might these devices start to feature on-screen "badges" that represent OTT services from Comcast, Charter Communications Inc. or another MSO in the way they currently do for Netflix and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN)? Werner wouldn't say when that might happen, but did suggested that the cable industry's already working with CE firms, and some details on those efforts may start to emerge by early 2011.

"There's going to be a lot of activity that you're going to see at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show), if not before," he alluded.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable



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gleapman
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gleapman,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:27 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


Picked up an RNG110 from Comcast about two months ago for a new TV in my ongoing quest for a set-back box.  Right now it's just a basic box, but hoping it can be upgraded since we're in the Denver metro area.  


Apparently Comcast discourages its use as a set-back box.  For one, the bottom of the box appears to be designed to allow for easily attaching a bracket (it could snap in) that could then be attached to the back of the TV, but no bracket comes with the box.  Secondly, my box came with a large, ugly, notebook-computer-like brick power adapter with wires coming out of both ends.  It's way too big and bulky to hide in a set-back box application.  To use the box as a set-back box on a TV hanging on the wall, you would need a smaller power adapter where the adapter casing plugs directly into and hangs from the wall, like the kind that comes with cordless phones, routers and most other electronic equipment that needs DC.  Of course, an intensive internet search could turn up such a power adapter with the right output specs, and some properly placed velcro might hold the box to the back of a 26-inch Sony Bravia and still allow room for a wall mount.  I'm just saying...

Nerdlinger
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Nerdlinger,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:26 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


"Once source said the box, once connected to the home's cable modem on the home network, would be perfectly capable of receiving over-the-top video content via its Ethernet port" - why would an external cable modem be used to input OTT when the RNG has a built-in modem? Perhaps the Ethernet port is intended for connecting external devices to the internet or for outputting IPTV.

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:25 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


Based on your note here, I may have misunderstood the set-up, so sorry for the confusion.  My understanding is that the internal modem may be good for a managed IPTV service and the Ethernet port could be used for access to the whole Web or to external devices. But both scenarios are what the box could do, according to folks familar with the RNG architecture. Not sure if or when Comcast would actually go about implementing those things, but thanks for shedding some light on a good point. JB


 

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:24 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


Speculation or not, you bring up a good point. A few years ago, Comcast was to put in a Broadcom pre-3.0 chipset that could bond three downstream channels (remember Docsis 2.0b?)   However, I haven't been able to confirm if Comcast ended up doing that in all rng boxes, though one source did mention it that it was baked into the deployment plan, but are sitting dormant, as you mentioned.


 But from this point on, not sure if they're still going with that three-channel configuration or going with newer approach that can bond four.  Not sure if Comcat would go with a D3-certified approach that would allow 4x4 upstrream/downstream configuration in the set-top. But it's something that's certainly worth digging into some more. JB


 


 

Nerdlinger
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Nerdlinger,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:24 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


I tried a bit of internet digging here in the UK but I can't find out which chipset is in the RNG110, the number of tuners/demods would indicate whether the modem and TV can run simultaneously and how many channels can be bonded I think. There are suggestions on bulletin boards that the modem is now being used for quicker background download of the guide, which doesn't justify it being there. Comcast must have spent a staggering amount of money on these dormant modems.

Nerdlinger
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Nerdlinger,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:24 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


Hi Jeff, I have no privileged information on this, only speculation. AFAIK all recent advanced Comcast STBs are crazily equipped with DOCSIS 3.0 modems which have never been used. It just seems a lot more crazy to split the cable to an external modem, demultiplex IP packets and send them to a modem equipped STB on the other splitter output. Pace's recent acquisitions of 2Wire & Latens suggest the more sensible scenario in my previous comment.

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:19:23 PM
re: Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential


The initial three-downstream chip Broadcom developed for set-tops was the BCM3381, announced more than four years ago. Early on, operators are using modems for the Docsis Set-Top Gateway (DSG), which , as you mentioned, offers a faster, standards-based way to deliver and manage guide data, versus using the proprietary way from Moto and Cisco. JB


 

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