ATLANTA -- Comcast should soon have company in rolling out cable boxes equipped with the Reference Design Kit (RDK), a pre-integrated software bundle for IP video set-tops and gateways.
Besides Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), at least three other major North American and international MSOs -- Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Cox Communications Inc. , and Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY) -- are also either committed to deploying RDK-outfitted cable boxes next year or are seriously considering the idea.
Appearing on a special RDK panel here at SCTE's Cable-Tec Expo Show this week, senior engineers from all three companies said they are largely enthused about the open-source software platform despite some initial industry concerns that the Comcast-led project might be a "Comcast jamdown," as panel moderator and cable industry observer Leslie Ellis put it.
Not surprisingly, Time Warner Cable, which recently formed a joint venture with Comcast to promote and manage the spread of RDK, is planning to use the software on the new IP set-tops and gateways that it's developing with equipment vendors. Matthew Zelesko, senior vice president of technology at TWC, said the MSO views RDK as the "core of next-gen devices" in the home. (See RDK Venture Sets Up Shop.)
Zelesko said Time Warner Cable will initially "target our top customers" for RDK boxes, such as those who take multi-room DVR and other advanced services. But the MSO won't stop there. "Longer term," he said, "we'll drive RDK everywhere."
Far less predictably, both Cox and Liberty appear to be lining up to roll out RDK on their new set-tops and gateways as well, even though neither one has yet signed up as an official licensee of the software.
Bill Warga, vice president of technology for Liberty Global, said the giant international MSO has already been tapping into RDK for help with its next-gen Horizon IP video gateways. Liberty, which is now rolling out the Horizon platform in three European markets, is relying on the software stack to switch the gateway's user interface to the cloud.
"We saw incredibly good results... We were pleasantly surprised," Warga said. He noted that RDK "sparked our interest" because it enables cable operators to develop code for consistent UIs and apps across set-tops and other video devices, addressing "a common point of frustration."
For its part, Cox is testing RDK to see how much it can speed up the development and deployment of new apps on the MSO's set-tops. Steve Calzone, director of video applications development at Cox, stressed that his company is still evaluating the software stack but mainly likes what it sees so far.
"We know it's not a full platform," he said. Although it's "not an end-to-end cure-all for our applications development," he praised RDK as "an open infrastructure" that could meet many of Cox's needs. "It's a stepping stone to help us move a lot faster," he noted.
But that doesn't mean the other MSOs don't have concerns about RDK: That's why neither one has formally committed to be a licensee just yet.
Spelling out some of Cox's main concerns, Calzone said he's worried about whether RDK will support "Cox-specific elements" that the MSO has already built into its network. He also frets that RDK could "stagnate" in the same way as the Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP) middleware developed by CableLabs several years ago to spur the retail sale of cable set-tops and cable-ready TVs.
In addition, Cox is concerned that there's no central body conducting and coordinating lab tests of RDK-enabled gear. Unlike CableLabs, which plays that role for many hardware and software products as the formal R&D and standards-making body for the cable industry, the RDK Management LLC joint venture of Comcast and Time Warner Cable has eschewed that role for the software bundle so far.
"We see what looks to be a gap," Calzone said. "We'd like to see more of a test and certification capability."
Comcast, TWC, and RDK Management executives on the panel sought to assuage Cox's concerns. Steve Reynolds, senior vice president of premises technology for Comcast Cable, said the beauty of the RDK's "shared-source" model is that the licensees can keep changing the code to their heart's content.
"This is not a standards-making body," he said. "You vote with your code… You are the masters of your own destiny, right?"
Steve Heeb, president and general manager of RDK Management, reiterated that the joint venture will not conduct any testing on MSO equipment. But he said the entity will test the code that it's developing and managing. In addition, Heeb, who's also a Comcast executive, said his group is exploring ways to make the "test suites" available to all licensees.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading