Set-Tops Finally Get Exciting

Set-tops Finally Get Exciting The set-top box market suggests a dynamic that is something like American politics, in which the headlines are dominated by the extremes -- the Tea Party and Occupy movement -- at the expense of the vast middle. The traditional set-top box is barely holding its own or is receding while the two extremes -- limited capability digital terminal adapters (DTAs) and fully featured media gateways -- are expanding quickly.

The sector, driven by the desire to elegantly and efficiently evolve to offer advanced video and other services to all the devices cable operators are supporting, is getting a lot more interesting than simply allocating a STB or two per home. The goals are to establish a solid and integrated home network to support advanced video and related services and to bridge the QAM and IP worlds.

"The total numbers are coming down," said Mike Paxon, a principal analyst for In-Stat. "That's not unexpected. We are seeing a saturation of the market. There is a reduction of the overall cable households due to competition [from telcos], and the analog-to-digital shift in North America is pretty much over."

Traditional STBs only handle part of that job. A further issue limiting their success is that existing units being returned by subscribers -- who may be churning or moving up to media gateways -- are being reallocated to other subscribers. Each reassigned STB, of course, reduces by one the total number of STBs that operators must purchase.Where traditional STBs are fading, other devices are gathering steam.

The changing dynamic perhaps is more important than the total sales numbers. The bottom line is that cable operators' old friend, the STB, is being redefined. Insiders describe a landscape that, like much of what is happening in the cable world, is in transition. The explosion of end points in the home and the desire to mediate and make sense out of the stew of traditional and IP-based services and applications is driving operators to more aggressively create an interconnected home network -- a real residential LAN -- that speaks with one voice to the headend.

The role of the set-top box within that framework is changing, at least for the top tier of cable operators. In some cases, functionality formerly handled by the STB is a feature of a media gateway; in others, it's the function (perhaps the sole function) of the DTA. It could eventually be integrated into consumer electronics devices themselves.

The bottom line is that the STB no longer is a truly discrete category. Since homes are increasingly networked -- via MoCA, WiFi and other wired and wireless standards -- services brought in via the media gateway that generally is directly linked to the main and most feature-rich TV set in the home can be passed on to other devices, including those with less functional DTAs.

Rob Folk, the senior director of product management for Motorola, said the current DTAs can only accommodate standard definition MPEG-2 signals. The company -- and, presumably, others -- is working on somewhat more functional DTAs capable of handling high definition and MPEG -4 signals. "The principle purpose is to enable all the digital [services] for our customers," he said. "There still is a ways to go for full digital."

In the networked home, the DTAs in essence will be subservient to the media gateways. The earliest implementation of this approach is whole-house digital video recorder (DVR) capability. There will be multiple other services deployed in this manner as time passes, experts say.

The year ahead will see more of the trends that characterized 2011, observers said. "I would say that it will be a continuation of [the growth of] multiscreen video gateways," said Ken Morse, the CTO of the service provider video technology group for Cisco. "We see those picking up on the high end during 2012."

Whatever the speed, the key is that the functions of the STB are changing and being dispersed to a much wider range of devices. "The residential gateway and thin client model will begin to really take hold, but not in the next few months," said Jordan Selburn, a principal analyst for consumer electronics for ISH iSuppli. "Operators will start dipping their does in the water this year, but it tends to be weighted toward the end of the year."

The dynamic in which high-end media gateways and DTAs squeeze out the STBs in the middle most accurately sums up the situation in the top tier of cable operators. Tier 2 and 3 operations are more likely to take a more direct approach. These operators have a specific problem: Their infrastructures may not yet be able to support media gateways, but they need to battle against DISH Network and DirecTV today.

These firms, said EchoStar Vice President of Sales and Marketing Michael Hawkey, can jump ahead by using cloud-based services that can essentially supplement any infrastructure that the operator already has. "They have digital cable plants and DOCSIS, and are providing the rest of it through the cloud," Hawkey said.

The bottom line is that the definition of a STB as understood by cable operators even a few years ago is antiquated. The good news is that there are creative ways to bridge the gap between that world and the all-digital future for cable operations of all sizes.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at

Get the Broadband Technology Report Newsletters Delivered to Your Inbox

Subscribe to email newsletters today at no cost and receive the latest information on:

  • Video Technology
  • Network Technology
  • Technology Alerts
  • BTR LATAM (Latin America)

SCTE-Cable Tec Expo 2016 Video Show Dailies

BTR's SCTE-Cable Tec Expo Video Show Daily, Day 3

BTR's SCTE-Cable Tec Expo Video Show Daily, Day 3

In our Video Show Daily for Day 3 of exhibits at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Philadelphia, BTR Editorial Director Stephen Hardy covers trends in distrib...

BTR's SCTE-Cable Tec Expo Video Show Daily, Day 2

BTR's SCTE-Cable Tec Expo Video Show Daily, Day 2

In our Video Show Daily for the second day of exhibits at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Philadelphia, BTR Editorial Director Stephen Hardy highlights furt...

BTR's SCTE-Cable Tec Expo Video Show Daily, Day 1

BTR's SCTE-Cable Tec Expo Video Show Daily, Day 1

BTR Editorial Director Stephen Hardy reviews the hot technologies and announcements from the first day of exhibits at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2016 in P...

Diamond Technology Reviews - 2016 High Scores

Diamond Technology Reviews 2016

Diamond Technology Reviews 2016

BTR's Diamond Technology Reviews, now in its twelfth year, is a technology recognition program wherein vendors serving the broadband cable ...

2016 Diamond Technology Reviews Slideshow

2016 Diamond Technology Reviews Slideshow

Related Articles

Cable ONE

2 More AZ Towns Get Cable ONE Gigabit

October 7, 2016

Cable ONE (NYSE:CABO) is expanding its GigaONE gigabit Internet footprin...


Comcast Launches Enterprise IoT Trial

October 6, 2016

Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) announced machineQ, a business trial venture focu...


2016 SCTE Cable-Tec Expo Wrap Up

Whether you couldn't make it to Cable-Tec this year or want to see if you missed anything while you were there, you'll want to join BTR editors Stephen Hardy and Ron Hendrickson as they reveal their picks for the...

October 12, 2016
Sponsored by

Counting the cost: Efficiently transitioning from HFC to FTTH

HFC networks are uniquely positioned to provide compelling and competitive services, and are also uniquely positioned to transition to symmetrical FTTH as commercial requirements demand.  This webinar will d...

Date:September 22, 2016
Sponsored by

Maintaining High Quality of Experience in an Adaptive Bitrate System

This webinar will look at the many points in an ABR system where the video is touched.  From ingest (satellite, file, and IP), to egress, each point should be qualified for compliance to help maintain a high...

Date:August 25, 2016
Sponsored by

White Papers & Special Reports

Enhancing Revenues by Mining Subscriber Data

Enhancing Revenues by Mining Subscriber Data

October 2016

Cable operators have long collected data on the operation of their networks. Such data has helped warn of impending problems or assisted in overcoming failur...

Cable VoIP 2.0: Voice Moves to the Cloud

October 2016

Cable providers led the charge on the VoIP evolution and won customers and market share. Now voice networks are evolving again. The cloud voice platform has ...

Understanding Ultra High Definition Television

October 2016

Over the last 10 years, high definition television (HDTV) has been replacing standard definition television as the expected viewing format for television pro...

BTR Blogs

BTR Managing Editor Ron Hendrickson

FCC Rethinks Set-Top Plan

September 10, 2016

By Ron Hendrickson - The FCC has reworked the "unlock the set-top b...


In Memoriam: Richard Covell

August 18, 2016

By Rob Stuehrk, Publisher - We at Broadband Technology Report were sadde...

BTR Managing Editor Ron Hendrickson

Court Overturns FCC Municipal Broadband Order

August 11, 2016

By Ron Hendrickson - You win some, and you lose some, and the FCC just l...

Featured Hangouts

4K 4 U: How to Prepare for UltraHD Video

4K 4 U: How to Prepare for UltraHD Video

4K/UltraHD video is coming - consumers are buying the TV sets, and more content is becoming available. Watch this inf...

DOCSIS 3.1: A Look Ahead

DOCSIS 3.1: A Look Ahead

Watch a 30-minute video chat of experts from a variety of related disciplines discuss how close deployments really ar...

Featured Hangout

4K 4 U: How to Prepare for UltraHD Video

4K/UltraHD video is coming - consumers are buying the TV sets, and more content is becoming available. Watch this informative Hangout on demand by clicking the link above.

Sponsored by Verimatrix.