Charter Might Paint Its Home Gateways & Devices 'Prpl'

Jeff Baumgartner
News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading
2/7/2019



Charter Communications is giving serious consideration to Prpl, a new open source software stack for broadband gateways and other devices, as the MSO mulls its next-gen plans for gateways and other broadband devices that can support and run a mix of new value-added smart home and IoT services and applications, multiple industry sources said.

Prpl, an open source software effort run by the Prpl Foundation , has some linkages to OpenWrt, a generic platform that's on millions of retail routers and has gained some traction with various telcos. As it's been retail-focused, OpenWrt itself doesn't have a service provider layer, but Prpl is adding those key elements, providing hooks into service provider backend systems. That effort emerges as carriers seek out open source software options that can provide consistency across different OEMs and establish a way for them to manage and orchestrate new services across their population of devices.

Despite some connective tissue, the Prpl Foundation is separate from OpenWrt, and is a non-profit, open source organization with membership that includes some major carriers, chipmakers and device makers such as ADB S.A. , Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS), Askey Inc. , Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), BT , Hitron Technologies Inc. , Humax Co. Ltd. , Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), Quantenna Communications Inc. , Technicolor (Euronext Paris: TCH; NYSE: TCH) and Vodafone. Several of them are also involved with another open source stack for broadband devices, RDK-B.

"They [Prpl and OpenWrt] are very separate, but they are definitely related … We are big supporters of OpenWrt," Art Swift, president of the Prpl Foundation, said, noting that his organization has helped to host and fund the initial three OpenWrt Summit events.

The general goal of Prpl, Swift said, is to establish open APIs and open standards for service providers and suppliers.

The Prpl Foundation is also doing some work around low-level APIs in a way that would enable chipmakers to define common APIs for kernel integrations and subsystems. General connectivity is one such targeted subsystem. The organization started with DSL and is working its way across FTTP and DOCSIS, according to Mirko Lindner, the Prpl Foundation's Community Manager.

Charter's fragmented world
Charter Communications Inc. declined to comment for this story, but sources said it's interested in Prpl because it's seeking a higher level of software commonality as Charter pushes forward on next-gen initiatives.

Charter's software situation is a bit fragmented today, thanks in part to its acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Charter uses a mix of proprietary firmware from suppliers such as Arris, RDK-B on newer broadband devices and gateways, and OpenWrt on the standalone access points from Netgear Inc. (Nasdaq: NTGR) that Charter has deployed.

"Charter has a broader sweep of different architectures that they have to accommodate," an industry source explains.

Charter's purported flirtation with Prpl is also intriguing simply based on the fact that it's a card-carrying member of RDK Management, the joint venture of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY) and… Charter. That effort, also open source, includes RDK-V (for QAM- and IP-capable video set-tops) and RDK-B, the version for modems and gateways.

Granted, Charter didn't have any skin in the RDK game from the get-go, as it inherited its involvement in RDK Management from the TWC acquisition, but it's not clear exactly what's driving Charter towards Prpl. However, people familiar with the operator's thinking see it as a confluence of factors, including the sheer benefits it sees in Prpl along with some political, not-invented-here attitudes, and the desire by some there to forge its own way and not travel down paths blazed by Comcast. (See Open Source Opening New Doors for RDK.)

A different but similar situation is also occurring at Vodafone, one of Prpl's big service provider backers. Vodafone, which is in the process is of acquiring certain Liberty Global systems, does use RDK-B, but is also looking at Prpl as it seeks some additional software commonality for a diverse access network environment that includes DSL, DOCSIS/HFC and FTTP/PON and, perhaps someday, 5G-powered fixed wireless. (See Vodafone Strikes €18.4B Deal to Buy Liberty Assets.)

Next page: Can RDK-B and Prpl coexist?

Can RDK-B and Prpl coexist?
But the rub is that Prpl and RDK-B are architecturally different. RDK-B uses a D-Bus messaging system and Prpl uses U-Bus. So that creates a significant technology challenge for service providers and device makers, as they are loathe to reinvent the wheel from a test and integration perspective.

So, fundamentally they are two different stacks. But since there's a distinct possibility that some operators will use both, there is interest in establishing a level of coexistence that might allow for a D-Bus-to-U-bus conversion at some level, or some type of common service layer.

Such liaison efforts are happening, and some device makers and service providers Light Reading spoke to welcome those activities, but there's still no telling if both camps might come together and hash something out.

"Both organizations have similar goals," says a source familiar with those talks. "They aren't competitive, but they have different starting points. There's lots of discussion and some talk about aligning technically."

Though Prpl and RDK-B have technical differences, no one has called them directly competitive. It's possible that device makers and service providers could end up supporting both. And there are efforts under way to establish some technology bridges that can foster a level of coexistence between them.

Swift acknowledged that the Prpl Foundation is eager to find "points of commonality" between Prpl, OpenWrt and RDK-B.

"We see it as a complementary effort or an opportunity for collaboration," Swift said, adding that the Prpl Foundation has had a "a great deal of outreach" with RDK. "They fully understand what our strategy is -- to find common APIs and to try to define a common interface layer that would allow people to use either and to migrate between OpenWrt and RDK fairly easily."

Swift said a number of additional "very large carriers" are in the process of joining the Prpl Foundation, but didn't identify them. "It's about to get bigger," he said of the organization.

RDK Management LLC , meanwhile, was non-committal about any plans involving Prpl and didn't comment on any individual activities that its members might have underway. "RDK appreciates and supports all open source projects," the JV said in a statement. "We leave it to the operators to announce their plans."

Broadband service providers are, of course, eager to separate the hardware and the existing software stacks to make it easier for them to create and launch value-added services, such as whole-home WiFi, smart home management services and IoT security. They'd rather focus on new revenue-driving services they can offer rather than apply resources to the technology plumbing.

"This is big money for them," Swift said.

Of recent note, Comcast, a champion of RDK-B, has been focused on xFi, its WiFi home management system, and recently introduced a security offering called xFi Advanced Security that's being sold for $5.99 per month. (See Comcast Uses AI to Clamp Down on Cyber Threats .)

Charter, meanwhile, recently teamed with Cujo AI for an in-home network security service that's set to deploy this year, so it makes sense that the company would want to establish more commonality in the software it's using in its in-home devices. As Light Reading reported last month, Charter is also pursuing a larger smart home initiative. (See Charter Picks Cujo AI as In-Home Network Security Partner and Charter in Talks With Ring, Others, About New Smart Home Product.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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