STBs, RDK & the environment: how Smartlabs is designing for the future

February 14, 2022

Set Top Boxes (STBs) are the point where subscribers and providers meet. They are an access point for delivering content to the home, and a platform through which operators can grow and retain an audience through innovation and by offering new features.

“If an operator requires a new or custom feature, we can design it into an STB for them,” says Alexander Shmelev, head of system software and engineering at SmartLabs. 

Hardware and software solutions

“The vast majority of STB vendors rely on the chipset makers’ reference designs when producing STBs,” continues Alexander. “Instead, we optimise our hardware and use our software experience to deliver the desired functionality at the right cost.

“One example is a customer in the US. They wanted to replace a household cable network with a wireless solution that delivered multicast TV streams by adding a Wi-Fi access point to the STB. The traditional approach was to take expensive 4×4 Wi-Fi modules and create an STB that can deliver multiple UHD streams to other STBs. This works, but it doubles, or even triples the cost of the STB.

“We have played a lot with 4×4 Wi-Fi chips in the past, and this experience has also helped us to implement a truly innovative solution. In cooperation with Realtek, a Wi-Fi chip manufacturer, we took a standard 2×2 Wi-Fi chip, created some additional software and optimised many of the wireless settings. As a result, we have delivered a very powerful, yet inexpensive, STB to the US market.”

“This STB works on 5GHz frequencies, supports DFS channels and uses our software to analyse the wireless environment to select the best Wi-Fi channel to transmit high-quality streams to 4-5 STBs. Additionally, we have implemented technology that is similar to MABR to convert multicast into unicast in the STB, providing better reliability of the video delivery and avoiding the usual drawbacks of multicast over Wi-Fi.” 

Lengthening the life of an STB

“It is important to us that, when we manufacture a new product, it uses the smallest amount of material possible and that, once made, it lasts for as long as it can,” says Alexander. “Our plastic consumption has been reduced in our newest boxes, and it is common for devices that we made ten years ago to still be going strong. That means that the customer’s investment will keep working for it, as well as a lot less waste from an ecological point of view.

SmartLabs can even work with existing devices designed and built by other manufacturers. “We can integrate our software stack with the boxes that have already been deployed in the field, and in doing so, implement new features. This way, we can extend the life of the STB, while allowing users to access new services. 

“By giving these boxes a second life, we help to reduce environmental waste, as there is no need for the operator to throw the old boxes away and replace them with new ones. It also helps the operator financially, as they know that by working with SmartLabs we are committed to extracting as much value as possible from the STBs they have invested in”

STBs of the future

At the same time, SmartLabs’ STB design team finds itself explaining the fundamentals of various technology choices and helping providers to select appropriate hardware.

“All operators now want to offer access to the most viewed content and services like Netflix or Youtube. That’s why the Android TV solution has been so popular. Despite a challenging certification procedure and commitment to open up access to third-party competitive services via a built-in Android marketplace, operators actually feel the importance of high-demanded content and service offering. 

“From this point of view, while Android TV continues to dominate the market, it is facing its most serious competition in years, in the shape of RDK – Reference Design Kit – a Linux-based solution that enables comparable features while making far more conservative hardware demands, being relatively easy to implement, and keeping STBs under operator’s total control.

“I have heard some people say that, with the development of Smart TVs and mobile apps, the days of the STB are numbered. I don’t think that the market will ever get rid of them entirely. The STB is a key element and a point of presence for service providers, and it will continue to be. Just have a look at service providers’ offers – all of them are offering STBs. If you, as a service provider, offer your service on SmartTVs and other platforms, you are at the end of the row after big players such as Disney, Netflix, YouTube and the like. It is important to offer your own STB to subscribers in addition to targeting as many other screens as is reasonable. 

“Many service providers see a higher content consumption rate on STBs, and they are also keen to add high-rated content through a partnership with content owners to make a subscriber’s user experience smoother and more attractive.

“SmartLabs has a wide range of solutions, and the team is very experienced in working with STBs as part of a wider offering. If operators are not sure what step to take next, they can simply have a chat with us. We can give them the lowdown on the full spectrum of technologies, software and hardware solutions available. We are a great starting point.”

Find out how SmartLabs can help you grow and retain your audience by emailing today.

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