Who Makes What: IPTV Set-Top Boxes

Check your company listing for * IPTV STBs * Silicon devices * Software

January 29, 2009

23 Min Read
Who Makes What:  IPTV Set-Top Boxes

The IPTV set-top box (STB) is one of the most recent additions to the near ubiquitous tribe of electronics boxes that sit within a short cable's reach of the TV in people’s homes.

The basic function of any set-top box is to interface between the incoming raw TV signals and the TV, handling all the necessary control and signal processing so that the user can waste hours watching, say, Lost, or something equally confusing and disheartening.

IPTV STBs are different only in that they accept TV signals distributed over managed IP networks, as opposed to the familiar cable or satellite broadcast networks.

This means the IPTV STB has to do a lot of standard things: verify that the user is a permitted subscriber (conditional access); provide digital rights management (DRM); decode the incoming digital video and audio; provide an electronic program guide (EPG); enable channel and content selection; and so on.

However, because IP provides a universal method of two-way connectivity, IPTV merges naturally with interactive content and digital media software and hardware. And IPTV STBs are increasingly being seen as potentially powerful media processing and in-home networking platforms.

So IPTV STBs have evolved rapidly in the past few years, with changes being driven by the telcos’ need to differentiate IPTV offerings from other forms of TV/video delivery – by cost pressures and by vendors’ own needs to exploit a potentially important new market in next-generation CPE.

Established market
The market for IPTV STBs has been growing pretty strongly recently, powered partly by a combination of the growing availability of faster mass-market broadband access networks – especially fiber-based (see The Future of Fiber Access) – and the need for telcos to find a sure-fire service to help pay for them. (See, for example, IPTV in the USA.)

Light Reading Insider estimated in 2008 that 4.5 million STBs were shipped in Europe and North America during 2007, including both pure-IPTV and hybrids offering DVB-T and IPTV, and that numbers and monetary values would continue to grow. But explosive growth doesn’t seem to be in the cards, even apart from the world’s current economic problems, as TV is a mature market with well established suppliers – namely, cable, satellite, and terrestrial broadcast.

And IPTV is a global phenomenon. The Asia/Pacific, in particular, has seen rapid takeup, with more than 3 million IPTV subscriber lines being added in the leading markets in 2008.

This report provides a short roundup of who's who in the IPTV set-top box business and an overview of some recent drivers and product/technology developments. It uses a very simple breakdown into vendors of complete STBs, silicon devices, and STB software.We have tried to make the listing as complete as possible, but this is where you, Dear Reader, can help with any companies that have been missed.

If any companies need to be added, or any information corrected, please bring it to our attention either on the message board below or by sending an email to [email protected] or [email protected], placing "Who Makes What: IPTV Set-Top Boxes" in the subject line.

One catalyst for information updates is M&A activity. Like many areas of telecom, there is an almost ceaseless round of musical chairs going on as the IPTV STB industry merges and divests companies. So names and product affiliations keep changing, making list-building perilous. 2008 was quite a busy year in this respect. For example:

  • Pace plc completed the acquisition of the set-top box and connectivity solutions business of Royal Philips Electronics NV (NYSE: PHG; Amsterdam: PHI), first announced in December 2007.

  • March – Viaccess S.A. acquired Orca Interactive Ltd. .

  • July – Espial Group Inc. acquired Kasenna Inc.

  • August – NXP Semiconductors N.V. (Nasdaq: NXPI) acquired Conexant Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CNXT)’s STB operations.

  • November – Tilgin AB sold its IPTV STB business to Amino Technologies plc (London: AMO) in order to focus on its IP residential gateway business.

Here’s a hyperlinked contents list:

— Tim Hills is a freelance telecommunications writer and journalist. He's a regular author of Light Reading reports.

Next Page: IPTV Set-Top Boxes

Table 1 lists vendors of complete IPTV STBs and gives some sample products.

Table 1: IPTV Set-Top Box Vendors

Vendor

IPTV STB products include

Advanced Digital Broadcast

ADB-3800W, ADB-5810TWX

Amino Communications

AmiNET530 Series, Mood 400 Series

Cisco

IPN603MCG IPTV Series Multi-Stream DVR Gateway

Comtrend

CT-7005 HD IP Set Top Box, CT-7010 IPTV Set-top Box

Dream Digital Technology

IP Box

Entone Technologies

Amulet IP Receiver, Amulet and Hydra IP Video Gateways

LG Electronics

IP-STB

Motorola

VIP 1216, VIP 1970

Netgem

Netbox 7600

Ninelanes

NOVE HD Series

Oki Electric Industry

Next Generation Hybrid STB, High-End IP-STB

Pace Micro Technology

IP850

Pirelli Broadband Solutions

Hybrid IPTV/DTT Set-Top Box, Hybrid IPTV/DTT DVR Set-Top Box, DVR2xx-5N

Sagem T�l�communications

IAD5116, ITAD 83-160 HD

Samsung Electronics

SMT-6010E, SMT-H6100, SMT-7020S

Sentivision

IPTV STB

SysMaster

Tornado M50

Telsey Telecommunications

Shark

Thomson

DBI 2210, DBI 8500

Tranzas

TRZ8300, TRZ8301H, TRX8205

UTStarcom

MC1088

Wegener

SMD-515

Yuxing Software

PTV STB YX-6911B, Hybrid STB YX-5912U

ZTE

ZXBIV IPTV System

ZyXel

STB-1001



Although no single product necessarily encompasses all, key capabilities and features of many modern IPTV STBs include:

  • Ability to offer remote configuration, monitoring, and software upgrades, which makes compliance with the TR-069 standard essential. Telcos need these capabilities if they are to ensure cost-effective quality of service and user experience of what is a complex technology, and to exploit the potential for service innovation and sophistication. Like the telco home gateway, the IPTV STB forms a crucial part of the future home network that telcos would like to access – and perhaps control. (See Who Makes What: Telco Home Gateways.)

  • Support for high-definition TV (HDTV). Even if a telco is currently offering only standard-definition TV (SDTV) – perhaps because of access-network bandwidth limitations – nobody now really wants to deploy an STB that isn’t HDTV capable. HDTV has quickly passed from being a value-added attraction that will draw in the subscribers to being a ho-hum, me-too essential. This report failed to find any vendors that don’t support HDTV in their product ranges.

  • Personal/digital video recorder (P/DVR). Many users want these capabilities, and integrating them into the STB spares non-technical users (the vast majority) from any problems with connecting separate recording CPE (customer premises equipment). Obviously, there are additional costs in providing this functionality (a hard disk and a larger box and power supply are needed, for instance), but those costs are falling and are not that large now. However, vendors continue to offer separate recorder and non-recorder products to meet tight product price bands.

  • Hybrid operation. This refers to the ability of the STB to handle TV signals delivered by other mechanisms, such as Digital Video Broadcasting–Terrestrial (DVB-T) or good old-fashioned cable analog RF. The point is to avoid reinventing the wheel and to allow the telco to offer subscribers access to existing alternative sources of TV programming without having to convert everything to IPTV, with the potentially important saving on IP bandwidths needed across the access network. This requirement tends to be very telco-specific, and hybrid operation is much more important in some markets than in others. In parts of Europe – the U.K., for example – hybrid operation with DVB-T is important because of the amount of DVB-T programming available and the lack of fiber access.



Trends
IPTV STBs continue to evolve, and three particular broad trends are influencing product technology and design:

  • integration of usage monitoring

  • integration of over-the-top (OTT) Web-TV capabilities

  • integration into the home network and media system.

Usage monitoring is essentially a matter for middleware and applications software but is becoming steadily more sophisticated as telcos and IPTV service providers become more and more interested in what users are watching, when they're watching it, and so on, in order to obtain information that can be used to drive additional revenue-generating capabilities such as targeted advertising. Similar approaches are already being mooted for 4G mobile networks as well as IPTV. (See Telco in Transition: The Move to 4G Mobility and IPTV in the USA.)

Web TV is essentially IPTV delivered directly over the public Internet (hence over-the-top, or OTT), as Hulu LLC does, rather than over a managed IP network connection, as is standard telco IPTV. This is a slightly sticky issue for IPTV STB vendors, because it is possible to present it as a direct threat to the standard telco IPTV model, as complementary to it, as a massive opportunity, or as total doom to the very idea of an STB – IPTV or otherwise.

Taking the last possibility first, Web HDTVs (HDTVs with integrated Web browsing) are already available – for example, Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC)’s Viera Cast PZ850 – and a slew of leading names were promoting the approach at the January 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Assuming that issues of public-Internet QoS can be addressed satisfactorily by, say, fiber access, an advanced TV capable of accessing direct vast quantities of OTT streaming Web TV and video downloads (if legally available) could be attractive to some users by its very minimalism and similarity with the familiar business of watching video clips on a PC.

In this context it is worth pointing out that TV vendors are also looking at the possibilities of STB integration into the TV (which is itself becoming more of a multifunction media hub and display) as an obvious line of development as IPTV matures. An example is Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC), which is pursuing a Set Back Box concept (for example, with its high-end P63Fn 63” HD plasma display), using plug-in modules to extend the capabilities and inputs of the display.

And TVs might even go down the software route. Inuk Networks , for example, has developed a virtual IPTV STB called "igloo," designed to run on PCs and Macs and to provide features of a hardware STB. It offers this in conjunction with its Freewire TV service, and in September 2008 extended its middleware support to create a wholesale iTV product for other operators.

However, the lifecycles and other dynamics of the TV, STB, and telco product markets are different. In particular, TV display technology tends to change much more slowly than STB technology and telco product requirements, so keeping them separate seems inevitable, at least for now.

The consensus leans more to Web TV complementing standard telco IPTV and leading to a further opportunity by combining all the attractive features of the standard approach (controlled and guaranteed QoS and QoE, plus all the remote support and monitoring), coupled to all the interactive capabilities and huge content resources of the Web, and integrating everything onto a single home network and media system that would include all the home media, personal and public. This could ultimately lead to a single device that combines the roles of home gateway and network, STB, and media storage and processing.

Although there is no consensus yet on how far such integration would, or could, go, there is a clear recognition that the networked multi-TV home is a reality, and STB vendors are increasing the networking capabilities of their products to support media distribution around the home.

Recent STBs
The following examples give a flavor of how the key capabilities and trends are affecting real products, all announced in 2008:

  • IPN603MCG IPTV Series Multi-Stream DVR Gateway, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)
    Features include: support for three independent channel streams to multiple televisions throughout the home; integrated DVR to record multiple video streams simultaneously with 160GB of standard storage; IP compatibility using 100BaseT Ethernet and IP-over-coax using HPNA 3.0 interfaces for IP video and data content; video codecs for standard- and high-definition content (MPEG-2, MPEG-4, Part 10/H.264, and VC-1); recording of HD broadcast programming to analog VCRs, with automatic standard-definition conversion for VHS tape format; and digital interfaces with applicable copy protection standards including High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) with High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP).

  • DVR2xx-5N High Definition IPTV Set-Top-Box, Pirelli Broadband Solutions
    This integrates 5GHz MIMO 802.11n technology into the company’s PVR-enabled DVR2xx IPTV STBs to create an in-home wireless HD video distribution network to serve multiple TVs, thereby providing a “self-install, no-new-wires solution for IPTV deployment in the home,” as the company put it at the product’s launch.

  • DBI8500 Set-Top Box, Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453)
    Described at launch by the vendor as “the most compact HD PVR on the market” (at 260x190x51mm), it offers MPEG-4 decoding and HD with an integrated hard disk recorder (fanfree for low-noise operation). There are options for a DVB-T tuner and decoder for both broadcast and IP reception.

  • STB-1001 IPTV Set-Top Box, ZyXEL Communications Corp.
    Features include: support for multiple video streams; compact design; digital rights management (DRM); MPEG-1/2/4 with H.264SD AV codec support; IGMP multicasting; SNMP; and TR-069.

Next Page: Bits & Pieces I: Silicon Devices

As with any other modern digital CPE, silicon devices of various sorts play crucial roles in IPTV STBs. These devices include video and audio decoders, encoders, and transcoders, as well as microcontrollers and a range of subsystems for security (such as conditional access and DRM), networking connectivity, GUIs, Web access, and so on.

However, the heart of the IPTV STB is undoubtedly the media processing centered around the video/audio presentation and service, and Table 2 is largely limited to vendors of IPTV-specific devices of this type.

Table 2: Vendors of Silicon Devices for IPTV Set-Top Boxes

Vendor

Products include

Types include

Broadcom

Broadcom BCM7405 System-on-a-Chip

Decoders, transcoders, system on a chip

Horizon Semiconductors

Hz4010, Hz4120

Decoders, transcoders

Intel

CE 2110

Media processors

NXP Semiconductors

High definition IP and hybrid DTV set-top box STB225

System on a chip

Sigma Designs

SMP8654

Media processors

STMicroelectronics

System on Chip for STB

MPEG decoders, security, connectivity

Texas Instruments

DaVinci

Digital media processors

ViXS

XCode 3000, XCode 2100

Video processors, transcoders



Generally, the more decoder/media processing power the better, because this means that the STB can do more, and so the operator can enhance applications and add new ones. STB middleware itself is becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding, and the processor also has to handle add-ins such as Flash media player and improved audio codecs, for example, as well as DVR and PVR applications.

Unit costs are crucial in mass-market CPE generally, and particularly so for STBs, since most operators subsidize them and product lifecycles tend to be fairly short – two or three years are becoming the norm – because of product and service innovation.

This requirement has helped to move the industry strongly during the past couple of years towards silicon systems on a chip (SOCs), in which the core IPTV STB functionality is integrated onto a single chip, with the additional advantages of space and power saving, and of potentially enhanced features.

An example of the capabilities of a recent IPTV STB SOC is Sigma Designs Inc. (Nasdaq: SIGM)’s SMP8654 media processor SOC, launched in April 2008. Sigma says the device provides decoder engines with high-definition video decoding for H.264 (MPEG-4 part 10), Windows Media Video 9, VC-1, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4 (part 2), and also the new AVS (audio video standard). It provides high-performance graphics acceleration, multi-standard audio decoding, advanced display processing, and HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) 1.3 output. Content security is based on a dedicated secure processor, on-chip flash memory, and a range of DRM engines. System peripherals include a dual Gigabit Ethernet controller, dual USB 2.0 controller, NAND flash controller, IR (infrared) controller, and SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) hard-disk controller.

Compared with Sigma’s earlier SMP8634, the company expected the new device to lower subsystem costs by up to 30 percent, while increasing overall performance by 50 percent.

A similar list of capabilities is indicated by STMicroelectronics NV (NYSE: STM) for its STi7105 high-definition video decoder, which began sampling in fall 2008. The company also emphasizes the device’s low power consumption and enhanced power management to help end products meet power-saving initiatives, such as the International Energy Authority’s 1W Plan, which aims to save up to 1 percent of global CO2 emissions by targeting sub-1W standby power for all electronic products.

Structurally, the STi7105 includes an 800DMIPS CPU (central processing unit) for control-plane tasks, two VLIW (very long instruction word) DSPs (digital signal processors) to accelerate audio and video processing, and a high-performance graphics processor with triple-source 2D blitter engine, compositor, and 1080p output.

Support for industry-standard operating systems includes Microsoft Windows CE, Linux, and OS21. Embedded security includes DES, AES, and DVB descramblers, and DRM through Windows DRM 10 and Secure Video Processor (SVP) standards. HDMI and HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection) provide secure connectivity to high-definition displays.

Next Page: Bits & Pieces II: Software

If any further evidence were needed of the central position of software in modern telecom systems, the listings in Table 3, which shows vendors of software for IPTV STBs, would make a strong case – they vastly outnumber those of Tables 1 and 2.Table 3: Vendors of Software for IPTV Set-Top Boxes

Company

Products include

Types

Alcatel-Lucent

MiView TV Interactive Multimedia Delivery Platform

Middleware

Alticast

Alticast IPTV, AltiCaptor

Middleware

Arris Group

nABLE STB Applications for VOD

Applications

Avinity Systems

RenderCast Platform

Applications, interactive programming

BIAP Systems

Personalized Information Television (PiTV), eBay on TV

Applications, interactive programming, targeted advertising

Bridge Technologies

microVB

Test, measurement and monitoring

Cinea / Dolby Laboratories

Running Marks Enhanced Revenue Protection

Security

Cisco

ISDP

Middleware

Cloakware

Cloakware DRM Solutions

Security

Comarch

Comarch Next Generation TV

Middleware

Conax

Conax CAS7 Core

Security

Conklin-Intracom

fs|cdn

Middleware, security

Digisoft.tv

DigiHost IPTV

Applications, middleware

Dreampark

Dreamgallery

Applications, middleware

Ericsson

Ericsson IPTV Solution

Middleware, security

Espial

Evo Client, Evo Browser

Applications, middleware

Integra5

i5 Converged Services Platform

Applications, middleware

Inuk Networks

igloo Virtual IPTV STB

Applications, middleware

Invidi Technologies

Advatar Viewer Inference Engine

Addressable advertising insertion

iPanel Technologies

iPanel IPTV

Applications, interactive-service navigation

Irdeto

Irdeto PIsys for IPTV

Middleware, security

Kasenna

PortalTV

Middleware

KIT Digital

NA

Applications, advertising, security

Latens Systems

Latens Foundation CAS (FCAS), Latens IPCAS, Latens ECOsystem

Middleware, security

Microsoft

Mediaroom

Middleware

Minerva Networks

iTV Manager

Middleware

Mirifice

MiriMON Network Service Monitoring

Performance analysis

Motorola

KreaTV

Application platform

Nagravision

Nagravision Cardless CAS/DRM

Middleware, security

NDS

NDS Metro, VideoGuard STB

Middleware, security

Netgem

(IPTV software)

Applications, middleware

Netris

IPSoft iVision

Middleware

Nokia Siemens Networks

Home Entertainment

Applications, middleware

Ocean Blue Software

Sunrise DVB-IP -- DVB Software and Internet Protocol TV

Middleware

OpenTV

Various, such as PVR, VOD

Applications

Orca Interactive

RiGHTv, COMPASS

Middleware

Osmosys

MHP IPTV Middleware

Middleware

PixelPlay

(TV-based games of various types)

Games

Rebaca Technologies

(DTV / ITV Offerings)

Applications, middleware

Rentrak

OnDemand Essentials

Audience measurement

SecureMedia

Encryptonite ONE

Security

Secustream Technologies

SecuShow for set-top boxes

Security

Softel

MediaSphere

Interactive-TV platform

Tandberg Television

TV presentation clients

Telchemy

VQmon/HD

Performance analysis

Thomson

Smartvision

Middleware

Verimatrix

Video Content Authority System (VCAS)

Security

Viaccess

VZ-ON

Security

Widevine Technologies

Widevine Cypher Conditional Access, Digital Rights Management & Digital Copy Protection

Security

Zodiac Interactive

Power-Up

Application/services framework

ZTE

ZXBIV IPTV System

Middleware, security



Table 3 roughly breaks down software into the very broad categories of:

  • Middleware

  • Applications/application platforms/frameworks

  • Security

...plus a number of more specific, vendor-derived terms, such as games, performance analysis, advertising insertion, and interactive-service navigation, many of which could plausibly be grouped under applications in the broadest sense.

IPTV STB software in a sense forms a hierarchy: Middleware supports application/service frameworks, which support applications, but there are also specific enablers, such as security (for things such as Conditional Access, Digital Rights Management, and Digital Copy Protection).

The middleware provides the overall control, managing the various IPTV applications and the interactions among the user, the STB, and the IPTV network and service. The IPTV applications are numerous and include things such as electronic program guides (EPGs), PPV (pay per view), VoD (video on demand), PVR/DVR, Web access, and interactive content, and the various security systems (although these are listed as a separate category from applications, as they are a well established segment).

IPTV STB middleware sits between the STB real-time operating system (OS) and the applications layer (for example, Java applications) and provides APIs (for example, Java TV, DAVIC) to the latter.

Desirable features include: Easy portability (independence of underlying hardware and OS platforms); high stability; high performance and fast application downloading/launching; support for all the relevant video codecs and security standards; and an ability to work in hybrid digital-TV mode.

In practice, middleware tends to be one of two types: either an STB module of a complete end-to-end IPTV network middleware solution; or a standalone STB product that interworks with the operator’s IPTV network middleware.

Middleware and other software vendors are continually refining and enhancing their products to add new capabilities to meet the increasing expectations of IPTV users and the operators’ needs for service differentiation. Some typical examples from 2008 were:

  • Comarch SA : Launched a new IPTV solution, NGTV Middleware, for direct-to-home operators that offer interactive TV services. The software supports live-TV channels, VOD, third-party interactive TV services, a customized user interface, and targeted interactive advertisements.

  • Dreampark AB : Announced that it would support the W3C XML-based Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) standard in its Dreamgallery middleware. The company said its initial tests had shown that SVG gives dramatic improvements to the perceived response times and speed on the client, and brings a solution to the challenge of visualizing graphics in HD resolution without compromising speed. SVG is still not widely used on the Web (browser support is patchy), but there is some adoption in IPTV STBs.

  • Latens Systems Ltd. : Announced Release 4.0 of ECO IPTV Middleware, which also includes conditional-access functions. The new version has an improved user interface, which the company said offers richer content, advanced graphics, and an enhanced EPG. Additionally, the new software secures the extension of Pay TV to the home computer.

  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT): Added DVR Anywhere to its Mediaroom IPTV middleware, allowing recorded programs to be viewed from any connected TV in the home. As Light Reading reported (see Microsoft Preps 'Milwaukee' IPTV Upgrade), the company planned adding the ability both to pull in existing data feeds, including real-time updates, from Websites to run concurrently on-screen with video streams, and to build sophisticated recommendation and personalization tools.

  • Netris JSC : Released IPSoft iVision IPTV Middleware 3.0, which supports IPTV services such as VOD, NVOD (network VOD), network PVR, EPG, and Time Shift TV. New features included Grid EPG, Mosaic View, and Picture-in-Picture. Depending on the service chosen, Mosaic View and Picture-in-Picture display one or multiple thumbnails of high-quality live video on a single screen.

  • Viaccess S.A. / Orca Interactive Ltd. : Announced a joint end-to-end solution for IPTV that combines digital video broadcasting (DVB) channels and advanced interactive Internet services, such as progressive video on demand (VOD) downloads, catch-up TV, push-VOD, and client personal video recording (cPVR). Although this is an OTT public-Internet system, it is indicative of the competitive pressures that are developing on the operators’ managed IPTV services.

Security
Unsurprisingly perhaps, because security software protects operator revenues, product activity among vendors of conditional access systems, DRM software, and the like remains high.

IPTV content is obviously a natural target for piracy and other forms of unauthorised use because users, especially with FTTH, automatically have the high-bandwidth connections needed for moving big video files around, or for streaming them onwards, and have plenty of computer power and storage with which to handle digital media.

Dolby Laboratories Inc. (NYSE: DLB) has come up with the rather grandly entitled Enhanced Revenue Protection extension to its Running Marks content watermarking product, designed to combat the illegal rebroadcasting or commercial misuse of broadcast content. This is of general applicability – not just to IPTV – and works rather unsportingly by discreetly displaying the set-top box identifier (STB ID), known as Perceptible ID, on the video display, thereby allowing visiting heavy gentlemen (field inspectors is the technical term) to identify pirated material easily.

There are various approaches to conditional-access security systems. A very common, long-established one is to use a hardware/software combination, with a user’s smartcard inserted into a slot in the STB.

An alternative, espoused by, among others, Verimatrix Inc. in its Video Content Authority System (VCAS), is to use a purely software approach. VCAS uses two-way Internet security protocols, a Public Key Infrastructure public/private key pair system, and X.509 digital certificates. The company argues that a downloadable security system for IPTV clients is more secure than a smartcard, enables cheaper STB or client-device hardware, and can be updated as required to combat piracy attacks.

Secustream Technologies AS , meanwhile, promotes another pure-software approach, SecuShow. This provides continuous security during content streaming, rather than just at a few key moments of the process, thereby allowing the content to be shared over any attached client IP device. It is a white-box system, meaning that there are no security codes or data stored on the client device.

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