Sponsored By

Comcast's Set-Top Accelerator Gains Traction

As Comcast's Reference Design Kit (RDK) finds support, it could create a new, open environment for developing IP set-tops and gateways

Jeff Baumgartner

August 30, 2012

6 Min Read
Comcast's Set-Top Accelerator Gains Traction

Cable technology vendors and a few major operators are starting to get behind the Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) Reference Design Kit (RDK), a software bundle for a new breed of IP-only and hybrid QAM/IP set-tops and video gateways.

Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), one of Comcast's primary suppliers, just announced that it's obtained a license for the RDK. Comcast is also getting support for fellow MSOs while it builds out partnerships among chip and equipment vendors. (See Motorola Still Tight With Comcast .)

It seems like a good time to review Comcast's progress and examine what the RDK is made of. This interview, from The Cable Show in May, provides a starting point. {videoembed|221171} A uniform approach
Comcast set to work on the RDK about two years ago, and it's got the potential to become a big deal. With broad adoption, the RDK could provide the cable industry with a much more uniform video platform as operators embark on IP video migrations. It could also open the historically closed environment for set-top makers and app developers.

One key goal well underway is getting the RDK baked into systems-on-chip (SoCs) before box makers start building products around them, as it should translate into much faster product development cycles. At The Cable Show in May, Comcast Senior VP of Customer Premises Equipment Steve Reynolds said the typical cycle (building the box, developing software and getting it all up and running) was 24 months when the MSO launched the RDK project. The hope is that the RDK will cut that cycle to a year or even less, he said.

(A video of the RDK panel at the show is available here.)

It's anticipated that some RDK devices will use ARM, a low-power chip architecture already popular in Blu-ray players, smartphones and tablets. The idea there is to provide commonality so apps developed for mobile devices can be ported easily to the world of IP-connected set-tops and gateways.

The RDK leans on a Web-like cloud infrastructure, meaning that Comcast and its partners can create and change apps more rapidly. The old infrastructure's software environment is highly fragmented, requiring Comcast to spend gobs of time testing and retesting new software, followed by the further time-sucking task of downloading new files to boxes every time a change or upgrade is made.

It's painful. Reynolds likened the RDK's common stack model and its ability to accelerate application development to those of Android.

Next page: What's in the RDK?

What's inside?
Much of the RDK is comprised of community-sourced elements, such as Gstreamer, a media management/playback framework originally developed for the Web that's since been adapted for set-tops, and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)'s Qt, a windowing framework that lets operators support multiple apps in the same runtime environment. It also supports the WebKit implementation of Qt, since some MSOs intend to build their new user interfaces with HTML5.

The RDK's common layer also includes the CableLabs reference implementation for the tru2way/OpenCable Application Platform middleware, and a Java Virtual Machine. There are also some optional, proprietary pieces, including the Adobe Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ADBE) Flash engine and the Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) PlayReady DRM. (See CableLabs Tru2way RI Exits Beta.)

The first box running on the RDK is the Pace plc -made X1, a hybrid QAM/IP box that features an Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) chipset and Comcast's cloud-based guide, which runs on the RDK stack. Comcast has launched the X1, a QAM/IP device, in Boston and Atlanta, with a handful of other markets on deck for launches later this year. (See Where Will Comcast's X1 Land Next? , Comcast's X1 Video Platform Lands First in Boston and Comcast's Cloud TV Service Rolls Into Atlanta.)

Next page: Building MSO support and the RDK ecosystem

MSO support
Comcast clearly has the size to get RDK off the ground and into its first phase of deployment, but it will need vendors and other operators to step up, if it's to achieve massive scale and have a shot at shaving down costs.

That's starting to happen. At the show, Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) Director of Subscriber Equipment Chris Cholas said the MSO is tying the RDK into its IP set-top initiative, noting that there's a clear benefit to having one software stack across multiple vendors, versus trying to coordinate three different OCAP stacks.

Charter Communications Inc. is on a similar IP video transition path, VP of Architecture and Technology David Colter told showgoers. He expects to start a trial toward the middle of 2013, noting that the RDK has the flexibility to support Charter's decision to pursue an HTML5 interface.

And there's some interest building among MSOs that operate outside the United States. Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY), an operator that's big in Europe, has licensed the RDK for some lab evaluation. "We're definitely interested in what it brings to the table, but right now we're seeing what it does," Liberty Global VP of Technology Bill Warga tells Light Reading Cable. Liberty Global is using the NDS (now Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)) stack in its new IP-capable Horizon video gateways. (See Liberty Opens an IP Gateway.)

Building an ecosystem
The number and diversity of vendor licensees continues to expand, with Motorola, Entropic Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ENTR), Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and two integrators -- itaas Inc. and Silicon Software & Systems Ltd. (S3) -- already on board. Pace and Intel haven't been announced as licensees, but they are heavily involved in X1. (See S3 Licenses Comcast's Set-Top Kit, Broadcom Packs in Comcast's Set-Top Kit and itaas Licences Comcast's RDK.)

Motorola has not revealed any specific products that will use the RDK, but Rob Folk, director of product management for home devices, says they will help cable make the transition to IP video. Among the possibilities is the notion of a "headless" gateway that would send protected IP streams to connected TVs, tablets or client boxes.

The RDK ecosystem won't just be about SoCs and set-tops. Operators will need new tools to test and verify implementations of the RDK stack, which is where companies like itaas and S3 come in. S3 is applying the RDK to its StormTest platform and expects to have that ready to go later this year, says Philip Brennan, VP of TV technology at S3.

He says S3 is seeing increased interest in the RDK among operators in the U.S., Europe and Asia as they consider how to bridge over to next-gen video platforms.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like