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Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
4/4/2012
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Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has its first all-IP set-top box on the roadmap, Light Reading Cable has learned.

Industry sources say the model, referred to as the X3, is an IP-based, HD client device that's capable of running Comcast's new cloud-based navigation system and handling future services, including a network DVR. (See Comcast Explores Network DVRs and Comcast to Run Small Net-DVR Trial .)

The box appears to be the latest device tagged for Xcalibur, Comcast's next-gen video platform. The first product to come out of that project is the Pace plc -made X1, a hybrid QAM/IP video gateway equipped to support the MSO's new navigation system while opening the door to third-party applications such as Pandora Media Inc. and Facebook . Comcast is testing the X1 in Augusta, Ga., though sources say the MSO expects to start expanding those tests into at least one more market by May. (See Comcast to Swing Xcalibur Wide in 2012.)

How the X3 will source linear and on-demand video in the early going was not immediately known. However, its appearance on the roadmap suggests that Comcast may be pursuing the deployment of an IP video simulcast. While the amount of bandwidth required for that seems to vary, cable engineers have indicated recently that an MSO might need to carve out 24 to 32 channels to produce a full IP simulcast. Comcast is already in the process of reclaiming all of its analog spectrum to apply toward HD programming and new services like Xcalibur. (See MSOs Must Bust Out Bandwidth for IP Video Leap and Comcast Starts to Kiss Analog TV Goodbye.)

If the X3 is compatible with a future version of the X1 that includes real-time video transcoding, it's also been suggested that the X1 gateway could convert incoming QAM video into IP and shuttle those streams to the X3 using Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) .

But a pairing of the X1 and X3 isn't expected to happen for a while. An industry source says the first multi-room DVR implementation involving the X1 will team the hybrid device with the RNG150, an all-digital HD client box made by vendors such as Motorola Mobility LLC , with trials expected late this year.

The RNG150 (here's some data (PDF)) supports MPEG 2/4 and MoCA, and it sports an embedded Docsis modem. With the addition of new software and firmware, Comcast's RNG boxes can be "flipped" to become IP video-capable. (See Comcast 'RNG' Set-Tops Have IPTV Potential .)

It's not clear when Comcast will introduce the X3, though it's not expected until late 2012 or sometime next year. A person familiar with the project said several chip makers, including Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL), Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Entropic Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ENTR) (now that it's acquired Trident's set-top chip business) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), could be in the running to power the new all-IP box. The initial version of the X1 uses an Intel chipset. (See Comcast Confirms Xcalibur Partners and Entropic Takes $55M Stab at Trident.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable



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Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:11 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Comcast declined to comment on the X3, by the way.  But a person with some knowledge of the project says this is potentially an ARM-based device, so it will likely be a less power-hungry set-top and fit into cable's new long-term view on how to reduce power consumption. And ARM,  I'm told, may also give Comcast some help in the development area, since that kind of architecture is being used in cell phones, tablets, and streaming boxes like the Roku.  Any other ARM implications that should be considered here? JB


 


 

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:10 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


I was reminded that IP video isn't broadcast so the term simulcast in this sense may not be the best description... and to think about this in terms of switched digital video "without all the muss and fuss."  Make me recall that BigBand (now part of Arris, which happens to do alot of work with Comcast) did envision SDV as being a stepping stone to IP video. But the reminder brings a lot more questions to mind on *how* Comcast might accomplish this. JB

AESerm
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AESerm,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:09 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


The small die size of ARM chips is what gets them in the embedded architectures of those handheld devices. A smaller device should have a lower bill of materials, as well as less power consumption. I wonder if there's a tradeoff in processing power by going to ARM. If the cloud is handling navigation, that's one (big) less thing a set-top has to do.

msilbey
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msilbey,
User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2012 | 5:37:09 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Could users still stream free VoD with AnyPlay? If the issue is just paid on-demand content, Comcast (and users) might be willing to let that reside solely on a parent box in the house short-term. Hmmm...

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:09 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Yeah, that possibility crossed my mind too but I wonder how the lack of transactional VoD on the AnyPlay (for now, anyway) would affect that sort of a set-up.  Also I'd be curious to know if this IP client device would have WiFi in there to support AnyPlay. But that kind of setup would give the mpeg pipe more legs during the IP video transition, which will take a looong time considering how many millions of MPEG-only set-tops are out there. JB  

msilbey
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msilbey,
User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2012 | 5:37:09 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Since Comcast is already using the Motorola Televation streamer thingy (aka AnyPlay), it could avoid doing a large amount of simulcast (or whatever you want to call it), and instead transcode to IP for access on connected devices like iPads in addition to cheaper all-IP set-tops. I wouldn't necessarily have bet on Comcast picking up a transcoding device like the Motorola streamer, but since it has, the introduction of all-IP set-tops makes a lot of sense. They're cheaper, greener, and can be easily networked with other IP devices. 

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:08 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Also, as I have more discussions on this, it appears more and more likely that this box will feed off a gateway, perhaps whatever follows the current version of the X1, so it's still hard to see how soon we can expect to see some sort of an IP video simulcast (guess i'll keep using that term until we can come up with something better).  So the transcoding idea could have more weight versus that other option. JB

msilbey
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msilbey,
User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2012 | 5:37:08 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Well that does limit things somewhat. Interesting then that Comcast is pursuing both in-home transcoding and straight-up IP set-tops. Guess they have to cover all their bases given the increasingly hybrid landscape. 

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:08 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


I take that back.  Took a quick look back when they launched AnyPlay in Denver and Nashville, and we reported then there's no VoD supported yet on that streaming unit, transcactional or otherwise. I must've been thinking about something else, but now I can't put my finger on it ;)  JB

Flook
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Flook,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:37:07 PM
re: Comcast Sizes Up All-IP Set-Top


Now, wait a minute. OK, I'll admit I don't much about what the MSOs are up to when it comes to IPTV, but did I read somewhere (LR?) that those infernal STBs would soon become so yesterday?

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