It Slices, It Dices, It Juliennes Fries

“Gateways.” Over the past decade, this column has mentioned that term 33 times, across a gamut of uses. In the beginning, gateways ganged around home-networking conversations, and how to accommodate the range of wired and wireless options that were then nascent.

Since then, gateways invaded the lexicon of voice-over-Internet protocol (”signaling gateways,” “media gateways”), cable modems (”DOCSIS signaling gateways”), and digital video (”residential gateways,” “home media gateways”).

Lately, gateways are grabbing the spotlight again. This month, at IBC2011 in Amsterdam, Liberty Global detailed its aggressive “Horizon” gateway plans; over on this side of the ocean, Canada’s Shaw Communications, BendBroadband and Comcast are all active with gateway tests and deployments.

What’s it all about? In this 2011 chapter, gateways are about extending the reach of your video subscription to all the screens you’ve bought (or will buy) that take a broadband connection.

In engineering lingo, these things we’re buying that play video and want broadband connectivity go by “unmanaged devices,” or, in Comcast’s case, “customer owned and managed” devices (COAM).

By contrast, “managed devices” are those things designed, installed and maintained by the service provider - set-tops, cable modems, digital terminal adapters (DTAs), and for voice, EMTAs (embedded multimedia terminal adapters).

Gateways help to make those unmanaged devices more manageable.

Here’s a sample bill of materials for a gateway: Six QAM tuners (for “traditional” digital video), four DOCSIS tuners (for broadband stuff), dual-band Wi-Fi, Ethernet, a big hard drive (for DVR). MoCA and DLNA, for multiroom DVR and unmanaged device recognition. Chips that convert MPEG-2- compressed streams to MPEG-4, or vice versa.

The idea is this: Lots more glass is going into people’s homes, from big-screen HDTVs to laptops to tablets. Instead of putting a $300-ish dual-tuner HD-DVR on all the big screens, put in one $350- ish gateway, connected to as many $50 “slave” or “client” devices on the other TVs. And, be able to better service the other connected devices, fed by broadband.

The logic makes sense, except for the other big trend: Virtualization, and the making of everything into software, set-tops included.

Are gateways an interim step to a world where everything’s invisible, constructed of malleable lines of code? If so, the vendor community carries a cheery view of what “interim” means. Gateways started showing up at trade shows in 2009; we’re watching for another gateway glut at the SCTE Cable Tec-Expo in November, and through next year. The players: Arris, Cisco, Motorola, Pace, Samsung, and Technicolor (formerly Thomson).

Expect a mish-mash of inclusions, exclusions, and jargon around this one. Or, as this column noted in January of 2001: “Note that there’s serious lexicon confusion around this device.’ ” Still.

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