Blog Post

Faster feature rollouts and fewer house calls: Why Telefonica is virtualizing the set-top box

The set-top boxes in our homes, the gateways for our broadband connections, are fairly complex pieces of equipment — too complex, some operators might argue.

According to a train of thought in the carrier industry, many of the functions embedded in these devices can be virtualized and pulled back into the network, in an extension of the burgeoning software-defined networking (SDN) trend. This would allow for much simpler set-top boxes that require less maintenance, while also letting the carriers roll out new services much more quickly.

As we reported back in February, Spain’s Telefonica(s tef) and the Japanese equipment manufacturer NEC partnered up to tackle this problem. On Thursday, they announced a trial of their new technology in Brazil, so what does this pilot involve?

Simpler kit

In principle, Telefonica Network Innovation and Strategy Manager Antonio Elizondo told me, the carrier wants its set-top boxes to provide just a handful of things that can’t be virtualized: Ethernet switching, the modem and the wireless access point. “The rest of the functions will be shifted to the network,” he said.

Functions that are being virtualized include IP routing, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), Network Address Translation (NAT) and so on. Security features such as the firewall will also be shifted to the network.

All this can be done using the trial participants’ existing home gateways, which are effectively just being made dumber, rather than being replaced – for now. In the future, if this pilot works out, customers could expect to see simpler equipment installed in their homes (Telefonica’s labs have already created a prototype).

Faster deployment

The benefits for Telefonica are numerous. For a start, adopting this “virtual customer premises equipment” (vCPE) approach will allow the carrier to migrate its customers to IPv6 (the new IP standard that people really, really need to adopt) without having to replace everyone’s home gateway.

Similarly, if Telefonica decides it wants to push out some new IPTV feature, the vCPE route is much simpler and cheaper to take. Currently, deploying such a feature would involve updating all the customers’ set-top boxes, a certain number of which will usually then fail, requiring Telefonica engineers to head out and fix the problem. Execute the update in the network, and that issue vanishes.

“We are right now very cautious when updating our services,” Elizondo told me. “This is limiting us with time to market, and it’s critical to have a very short time to market.”