CommScope SMD drive risks muddying waters

CommScope channeled much of its IBC 2019 efforts into attempting to coin the term Smart Media Device and incite widespread adoption throughout the industry, based on an underlying frustration about smart speakers stealing the limelight from devices like advanced set tops equipped with voice functionality and other so-called ‘smart’ features. We can see where the Arris side of CommScope is coming from here, but Smart Media Device is far too generalizable for our liking.

Unfortunately, CommScope used those very three words together in one of two updates to its RDK Accelerator portfolio introduced in Amsterdam over the weekend, giving us little choice but to use the term. The company launched the Smart Media Device 7852 platform with WiFi 6 connectivity, alongside a new IP Client VIP7802 also kitted out with WiFi 6, for enhancing connected home entertainment.

“WiFi 6 is the most transformational thing in WiFi since the beginning of WiFi,” implored CommScope CTO Charles Cheevers, speaking to Faultline Online Reporter at IBC. “The industry is moving to the services delivery era with device ID and fingerprinting. We are dropping software and services directly into the home gateway and operators are beginning to add IoT hubs,” elaborated Cheevers, highlighting CommScope’s continued focus on DOCIS 3.1 and WiFi 6 products.

Both new platforms have been built in conjunction with open source consortium RDK Management, with CommScope’s device portfolio coming pre-integrated with major OTT video apps via the Metrological app store, and these devices also support the latest AV1 codec from AOMedia, plus HDR support.

The next few quarters are crucial for CommScope, having just recruited Joe Chow from Quantenna as Bruce McClelland’s replacement, serving as SVP of the CPE segment. “Joe is not here to sell the CPE business,” Cheevers made clear, addressing various rumors and highlighting Chow’s experience in WiFi which includes securing a Quantenna chipset deal in Comcast’s Xfinity XB6 gateway.

Second on the immediate CPE roadmap under Chow’s guidance is addressing multi-AP architectures, with Cheevers speaking promisingly of mesh WiFi software enabling Gigabit speeds in premises as large as 6,000 square foot. There are wild comparisons between the average size of a US home at 2,600 square foot while the European average is about 1,200 square foot, although European homes are often less signal-friendly. Either way, CommScope sees a dual-AP approach as plenty.

Circling back to the Smart Media Device push, CommScope has already won a customer with Altice France using Arris technology to launch the new SFR Box 8 Smart Media Device – including far-field voice command technology including Alexa and SFR’s own voice assistant. French software vendor Wiztivi developed the UI.

Initially, we suspected Sagemcom had been booted from the Altice SFR account by Arris, but Cheevers confirmed that the SFR Box 8 was jointly developed by the two vendors. Arris describes its new Smart Media Device platform as combining the functionality of the primary devices in the connected home – set top, speaker, smart assistant, far-field voice command technology and remote control – into a single piece of hardware.

Conclusively then, while Cheevers assures us the CPE business is here to stay amid long-standing speculation over its future under new ownership, clearly a significant transformation is underway inside CPE – with Arris willingly working with rival set top manufacturers with the aim of accelerating RDK and WiFi 6 adoption.

However, Cheevers was reluctant to address the downward trend of the Network and Cloud segment, where net sales decreased 36.7% to $347.7 million year on year in the company’s second quarter 2019 results. Lower cable operator spending was particularly visible in this segment, declining across North America, EMEA, Latin America and the Caribbean. Asia Pacific was the only area to increase Network and Cloud sales, but this was not enough to offset declines elsewhere.

The CPE division meanwhile saw net sales increase by 6% to $889.7 million as a result of higher sales volumes, partially offset by reductions in certain selling processes. On a regional basis, lower sales in Asia Pacific were offset by strong CPE performance in North America and EMEA. Operating income climbed healthily by 24.2% to $98.5 million, so clearly the CPE business isn’t the problem here, with Arris contributing over half of total net sales at $1.4 billion.

“Smart Media Devices are the next big thing. We are encouraging operators to deploy these with apps, skills and more, while promoting RDK middleware with Alexa integration,” continued Cheevers. But where is the line? Do smartphones, tablets, games consoles, smart TVs or even connected TV devices not fall into the Smart Media Device category? CommScope risks creating more confusion than it does clarity here.