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Gateway to (Video) Heaven?

Alan Breznick

It may be time to make way for cable's new video gateway.

Also known as the video transport gateway, hybrid QAM/IP gateway, or cable multimedia gateway, this proposed advanced set-top box (STB) has been picking up steam as the next hot cable device over the last few months. As the first autumn Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo approaches in Denver later this month, equipment vendors are increasingly promoting the gateway concept as the best way for cable operators to deliver IP video to the home without changing or disrupting the rest of their service delivery networks.

Just last week, for instance, Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) executives declared their intention to use the technological expertise of freshly acquired Digeo Inc. to create a new breed of multimedia gateways. As envisioned, these multimedia gateways would allow cable providers to deliver converged, IP-based video, voice, and data services to the TV, as well as pump video to other IP-connected devices in the home, by using embedded Docsis 3.0 cable modems and encapsulating traditional QAM-based digital video with IP packets.

In doing so, Arris would be following the lead of other major cable video equipment makers. As Cable Digital News editor Jeff Baumgartner has steadily chronicled in his news stories and blogs, Advanced Digital Broadcast (ADB) , Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Hitron Technologies Inc. , and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) are all developing or refining their own multimedia gateways that can blend together traditional QAM-based digital video with newfangled IP-based video. In fact, Motorola just demonstrated the latest version of its hybrid QAM-IP "transport gateway" at the IBC Show in Amsterdam last month, while Hitron Europe and ADB also unveiled new cable gateway lines.

At the same time, several leading MSOs are clearly kicking the tires of the video gateway. In the U.S., Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Cox Communications Inc. , and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) have all expressed interest in deploying these über-STBs in the home. Over in the U.K., Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED) has indicated strong interest in gateways, as well.

Such major MSOs as Time Warner and Comcast are particularly interested in the gateway concept as they seek to launch their TV Everywhere or On Demand Online services, because the boxes would make it easier for them to mix and match traditional digital and IP-based video. They also see the hybrid, multi-tuner gateway as a promising way to combine all their signals into one device, enabling them to offer multi-room DVRs, media sharing, and other home-networking applications to subscribers.

But that doesn't mean these super-duper, IP-enabled STBs are a cinch to replace traditional cable boxes just yet. Before the video gateway can claim its rightful place in the home, a few basic questions must be answered first. The list includes:

  1. How much will the gateways cost? If the price tag is too high, it may still make more sense for cable operators to either pipe IPTV directly through the cable modem termination system (CMTS) or bypass the CMTS and deliver video through edge QAM devices.

  2. How will cable operators get the gateways into subscribers' homes? Will they give them away to get them into homes quickly, as Comcast is now doing with its low-cost digital terminal adapters (DTAs)? Or will they phase in the high-end boxes gradually, as subscribers upgrade their services?

  3. What happens when the gateways don't work right? These complex devices could be full of technical glitches and probably won't be all that easy to fix. Will cable operators want to absorb a $50 or $100 truck roll every time a gateway messes up in the home?

Undoubtedly, other key questions will likely crop up as cable operators begin conducting lab and field trials of the video gateways next year. If these questions can be resolved, the first gateways may start getting commercially deployed in homes as early as 2011. If not, well… look for a new hot cable device to emerge in time for next fall's Cable-Tec Expo.

— Alan Breznick, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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