RDK Moves to Broadband Gateways Amid Surge in Adoption & Innovation

Espial, Metrological Contribute Market-Moving Technology

Via ScreenPlays Magazine

June 15, 2015 – With growing momentum the Reference Design Kit initiative spawned three years ago by Comcast is shaping MVPD strategies across the globe and, in the process, building a demand pool that is impacting device designs beyond the initially targeted set-top domain.

While uptake in North America has been slow to expand beyond Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Comcast’s initial partner in the RDK Management, LLC joint venture, there are now other NA players in the pool. Sources report Roger Communications, an RDK licensee, is building its next-generation IP pay TV service utilizing RDK-compliant middleware, and CenturyLink has become an RDK licensee, marking the first move in that direction by a U.S. telco.

Meanwhile, the pace of adoption elsewhere has been surprisingly strong.

“RDK is being adopted more aggressively outside the U.S.,” comments Jeff Huppertz, vice president of marketing and business development at Canadian middleware supplier Espial. “MSOs in Europe are more aggressive, and there’s tremendous interest among European telcos as well.”

The platform, acting as a universal SoC adaptor across customer-premises equipment from various suppliers, provides a common method to manage complex video functions such as tuning, conditional access, third party DRM and stream management. The business model, offering licensees access to RDK as a shared source, has been a winning strategy in a field where earlier attempts at enabling a common platform for next-gen services faltered.

“The RDK provides a modern software platform on which pay TV providers worldwide can provide new video services to customers,” says Steve Heeb, president and general manager of RDK Management, which now includes Liberty Global as a venture partner. “The community is starting to take advantage of the benefits of having source code access for their STB software, and the RDK continues to gain traction around the globe.”

Indeed, there are now more than 220 total licensees of the RDK software stack across CE manufacturers, SoC vendors, software developers, system integrators and MVPDs, according to the latest figures released by RDK Management. The MVPD count has gone up 60 percent over the past year to 25, with many more taking advantage of the technology by working with RDK-licensed set-top vendors, middleware system suppliers and systems integrators to launch new services.

The trend line marks a strong refutation of RDK skeptics who until recently doubted the platform would take hold in a meaningful way beyond the JV partners. This is great news for companies like Espial that early on put a lot of resources behind developing for RDK.

Espial Successes

“Three years ago we took a strategic bet to focus on RDK as one of the first licensees,” Huppertz says. “It has paid off for us in a big way.” He cites recent wins with two European and a North American MVPD representing a combined subscriber base of over five million for Espial’s RDK-compliant fourth-generation platform. The solution set includes the recently announced G4 STB Client, the set-top specific extension of the G4 User Experience framework, which Espial announced in 2013 as “a complete out-of-the-box HtmL5 user experience for TV, tablets and smartphones.”

As shown in recent demos, the G4 client software enables the cloud-based system to parse out immense amounts of metadata and to render UI windows and apps at lightning speeds with the option to present them as overlays or alternative screen views with whatever programming is being watched. For example, a Blue Jays baseball app created as a demo for Rogers allows viewers to watch game highlights and buy tickets in conjunction with bringing up a stadium graphic showing seat availabilities.

The HTML5-based G4 operates much faster than RDK applications written in commonly used C coding language and its variants, Huppertz notes. But G4 isn’t entirely dependent on HTML5 execution in the cloud, insofar as it uses another extension available in the RDK stack known as GStreamer to leverage the processing power of the set-top.

“It’s a balancing game between the set-top and the cloud,” he says. ”It’s fast with just the cloud, but with rendering on the set-top it’s almost instantaneous.”

The difference is especially evident in high-volume viewing situations like the recent Floyd Mayweather, Jr.- Manny Pacquiao fight, he notes. “You can have latency and scalability issues where you just can’t render for everybody at the same time if you’re doing it from the cloud,” he says.

“Based on the processing capabilities, the media player determines how much metadata and other content to package on the set-top,” adds Kirk Edwardson, director of marketing at Espial.

Along with enabling the best possible rendering performance, the platform can leverage the set-top hardware to limit the impact of app glitches. “If something happens with an app, we can close it off without affecting the whole user experience,” Edwardson says.

The RDK App Development Framework

Another supplier benefitting from a bet on RDK is Metrological, a Dutch company specializing in publishing platforms for TV and multiscreen app stores which earlier this year announced it was working with RDK Management to provide a framework enabling app developers to remotely develop and test apps on top of the RDK. “This gives us a unique spot with RDK,” says Thijs Bijleveld, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Metrological. “Many people supply device and software frameworks aligned with RDK, but we’re the only ones in the app space.”

“Supporting app developers to create apps on top of the RDK is a very important part of the RDK mission,” Heeb says. “Thanks to Metrological, the RDK can attract an even larger base of app developers that can provide apps to operators.”

Metrological, which was founded in 2005 to provide remote performance monitoring for M2M, airport and subway environments, moved into video when it saw the video industry had the same needs – namely, the ability to run their software on a unified platform without having to develop their apps separately for every type of device, Bijleveld says.

“Our app framework employs an abstraction layer that helps deal with all the complex things, like determining if a device relies on touchscreen or keyboard prompts, that would be hard to do on a native device development basis,” he explains.

Once Metrological moved into the video space, it started working with Liberty Global to provide a single framework to deliver apps across a footprint spanning 17 countries. With that project accomplished, the company has expanded beyond Europe with offices in the U.S. and Brazil.

In the new initiative Metrological uses the RDK and RDK Emulator to allow developers to prototype, develop and test RDK applications remotely on a laptop without using a physical RDK device or set-top box.

“For some time we’ve offered a transparent ecosystem that allows developers to create apps that can be launched across multiple networks and countries,” Bijleveld says. “Now that’s possible for developers working in the RDK environment as well.”

The paradigm is a boon to developers and MVPDs alike, he says.

“I was talking to a big content owner looking for RDK operator reach in Europe,” he notes. “They needed to develop their app for 20 different networks on five screens. Using our service they can develop once and reach 20 million subscribers on RDK systems.”

Using the Metrological SDK (software development kit) developers can create apps for multiple environments, including DVB, OpenCable and IP as well as RDK, Bijleveld continues. “If a customer wants to build for RDK, great,” he adds. “If they don’t, we provide the same development architecture and solution for the other environments.”
Operators can engage with Metrological to tap into all the apps it hosts to create their own branded app stores to enhance their main screen TV content with feeds from OTT sources, Bijleveld says. “We’ve currently aggregated over 250 apps available for operators to publish,” he adds, noting the aggregation includes self-care, social, sports and game apps as well as OTT sources.
The cloud-based Metrological TV app framework, delivered as a device- and software-agnostic managed service, includes app store deployment, lifecycle management, service assurance and legal content management. “We’ve made it possible to contextually merge different sources onto a single screen,” Bijleveld says. “If you’re offering YouTube content you can automatically offer options that are relevant to what the subscriber is watching.”

Supporting Legacy  Platforms

Along with taking steps to foster more app developer participation with RDK, RDK Management has expanded applicability of the platform on two other fronts – the all-IP broadband device environment and the legacy DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) domain. According to RDK Management, in-band DVB Service Information (DVB-SI) elements are now available to the RDK community through an advancement made possible with significant contributions from Arris Group.
In-band DVB-SI provides a high degree of data reliability for TV service providers that operate one-way networks or that are in the process of transitioning to two way networks. Specifically, the administrators say, Arris’s new contributions extend the RDK Media Framework (RMF) to support a common method for extracting DVB streams, and also provide an open source reference DVB implementation that can be adopted and extended by DVB-based operators and suppliers. This new RDK capability adds to previously supported DVB components such as teletext and subtitles released last year.

Espial, too, has taken steps to bring its RDK-optimized middleware into the legacy set-top domain by working with operators to tailor use of what Jeff Huppertz describes as a “toned-down” version of the G4 STB Client with OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) set-tops.

“We can download our client software into OCAP set-tops, which gives operators an opportunity to deliver high-graphics user interfaces consistently across legacy as well as new RDK boxes.”
Without HTML5 capabilities, the rendering from Flash memories on older boxes is slower and requires a good deal of customization work to fit specific OCAP set-top models, he adds. “Maybe you can’t cache as much as we do with G4, which means you can only have so many VOD posters and days of live programming on display at any one time,” he says. “Virtually every major operator is talking to us about this.”


Moving RDK into Broadband

Where broadband devices are concerned, RDK Management last year launched the RDK-B initiative aimed at providing cable modems and broadband gateways a software baseline of commonality and standardization that could be enhanced by an RDK-like structure. At CES in January Broadcom made known it has incorporated support for RDK-B into its DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1 silicon.
According to Comcast vice president of hardware design Fraser Stirling, who appeared at a press conference during the recent INTX show in Chicago, the MSO is now launching RDK-B trials with plans to begin a second wave later this year utilizing the MSO’s new Gigabit Home Gateways. The initial trials are being conducted in collaboration with Arris using that vendor’s Touchstone TG1682 DOCSIS 3.0 voice gateways.

Samsung, which has been using Espial’s G4 User Experience Framework with its RDK set-tops, is another early RDK-B adopter, as demonstrated at INTX with a display of its new DOCSIS 3.1 gateway. Along with running RDK-B, the device supports MoCA 2.0 and dual-band 4×4 Wi-Fi connectivity. “As more and more devices connect wirelessly to the home network and MSOs move to IP delivery of content, the data gateway in the home becomes the critical CPE component for delivering these services,” says Randy Westrick, director of STB product marketing at Samsung Electronics America.