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Charter Sets Employee Tests for 'Spectrum Connectivity Platform'

Jeff Baumgartner
8/2/2019

Charter Communications is quietly pushing ahead with an employee trial of what it calls the Spectrum Connectivity Platform (SCP), a set of software for WiFi access points, routers and other broadband consumer premises equipment designed to help customers manage their in-home WiFi networks.

A web page referencing the SCP employee trial is hiding out in the open, noting that results of the employee field trials could lead to the launch and deployment of new products. According to those details, the SCP router platform will enable customers to manage devices connected to the in-home WiFi network, optimize and manage WiFi connectivity and router settings via a smartphone app, and allow customers to "pause" Internet connectivity on any device hooked into the customer's in-home network. This work might also tie into Charter's broader plans to develop its own smart home service.

Charter's SCP appears to share some of the capabilities and aims of Comcast's "xFi" WiFi management platform. That platform relies on RDK-B, the broadband-focused version of open source CPE software being managed by a joint venture of Comcast, Liberty Global and Charter (Charter inherited its involvement in the JV from its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable).

However, Charter is said to be taking a different technology route with SCP. Rather than using RDK-B, multiple industry sources tell Light Reading that Charter is basing the employee trial on Prpl. That is another open source software effort with linkages to OpenWrt, a generic platform that's already deployed millions of retail routers. Prpl adds a key service provider layer that can hook into an MSO's backend systems, which is something that the retail-oriented OpenWrt doesn't possess.

It's expected that the results of the SCP employee trial will play a pivotal role in determining whether Charter decides to move ahead with the Prpl-powered offering on a broad commercial basis. Charter presently uses a blend of proprietary firmware from suppliers such as Arris/CommScope, RDK-B (for some of its newer broadband devices and gateways), and OpenWrt on standalone access points from Netgear that Charter has been deploying.

While Charter's SCP employee trial is said to focus on Prpl, it doesn't necessarily preclude the operator from using RDK in any form -- in late April Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said the company was in talks about syndicating Comcast's X1 platform, which uses the video flavor of RDK (RDK-V). And though Prpl and RDK-B use different architectures, there's been some discussions about establishing a level of coexistence between the two or creating some type of common service layer.

According to the SCP trial page, the test was scheduled to start in July and last for about three weeks (one source said those trials have likely been pushed into August). Participants are being asked to provide feedback in the form of performance surveys.

Charter has not provided comment beyond what's posted on the SCP trial web page. But a person familiar with the effort said that Austin, Texas is a site for the employee pilot, and that the initial work will involve WiFi access points (Austin is also the site of a smart home management trial that Charter is expected to initiate this fall). It's not clear which models will be involved in the early trials, but two people said Charter has already approved access points from three suppliers: Sagemcom, Arris/CommScope and Askey.

MSO-managed CPE software trend puts more pressure on CPE vendors
Efforts such as Charter's SCP, Comcast's xFi and other offerings being developed on the RDK-B platform are applying pressure on the broadband CPE vendor market as service providers continue to create, deploy and manage their own firmware. That's because extracting key software and service elements from devices and, therefore, from the vendors themselves will cut more deeply into the already-thin margins on various broadband modems, gateways and routers being sold to cable operators and other broadband service providers.

Without the software piece, CPE vendors stand to lose an opportunity to add "secret sauce" and differentiate and innovate their products, as well as sell-in service contracts, an industry source familiar with the cable CPE business explained.

Vendors could come under even more pressure as cable operators assume control of the firmware and software layers, as they now only need suppliers to make the underlying hardware. That move could enable service providers to increasingly work directly with original design manufacturers (ODMs) and cut costs further, rather than relying on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that team with various ODMs to build products based on another company's specifications.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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