Integrator Designs, Builds His Own Replacement Cable TV Set-Top Box

FCC’s ‘Unlock the Box’ initiative enables CE pro to create 4K-capable cable set-top box replacement with DVR integration, Apple TV compatibility and access to OTT and locally shared file content.

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When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its ‘Unlock the Box' initiative, it said one of the byproducts would be a framework for innovators to create competitive solutions – either hardware or software-based apps — that give consumers freedom of choice.

Well, one entrepreneurial custom integrator isn’t wasting any time. Wesley Mullings of Digital Lifestyles in Roselle, N.J., has developed his own replacement for the cable TV set-top box using Kodi software. The 4K-capable box can integrate with a DVR, Apple TV and access OTT and locally-shared content. And, he plans to make the box, which he calls ZION, available to other integrators for their own clients.

First, a quick bit of background. Most integrators are familiar with the landmark announcement on February 18, 2016 when the FCC announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that will create a framework for bypassing cable TV set-top boxes. According to the FCC, 99 percent of pay-TV subscribers have limited choices today and lease set-top boxes from their cable and satellite operators. Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers – on average, $231 in rental fees annually for the average American household.

Altogether, U.S. consumers spend $20 billion a year to lease these devices. Since 1994, according to a recent analysis, the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185 percent while the cost of computers, televisions, and mobile phones has dropped by 90 percent. Congress recognized the importance of a competitive marketplace and directed the Commission to adopt rules that will ensure consumers will be able to use the device they prefer for accessing programming they’ve paid for.

The FCC NPRM recommends that pay-TV providers be required to deliver three core information streams:

  • Service discovery: Information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as the channel listing and video-on-demand lineup, and what is on those channels.
  • Entitlements: Information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording.
  • Content delivery: The video programming itself.

Creating a Legal STB

Mullings' story is a long one. He started attempting to create “the ultimate media server” 12 years ago using a combination of hardware and software, based on a Microsoft platform.

“After I began my work, Exceptional Innovation released and marketed their version heavily. Kaleidescape was going strong, but rumors of a crippling lawsuit circled them. I tried to continue, but never gained traction,” he recalls.

That experience helped lead him to where he is today with the development of his own STB, dubbed ZION.

“I had gone through several versions with Windows Media Center, MediaPortal, SageTV, MythTV, changed my preferred platform to Linux, LinuxMCE, and finally settled onto XBMC/Kodi. I have kept ‘my ear close to the ground,’ and ‘my nose to the air’ with innovative and high-performance hardware, software, and services that allow my family to get what it needs and desires for entertainment. I have tried almost every type of platform, hardware/software combination, and online service to create a dependable product offering for that same media server I envisioned 12 years ago,” he says.

“One thing I’ve learned in my 23 years in IT and 17 years in home automation is that a single device, software, or service will not create your solution. There are several supporting factors that actually form the solution. Day to day, we integrate several disciplines into a singular, congruent electronics entity that become, what we call home automation and custom electronics. Likewise, the solution here includes a number of moving parts,” adds Mullings.


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The Replacement for the Cable Box: Check Out the UI


Besides the FCC NPRM announcement, the growth of robust home networks, and the displacement of physical media by streaming media, Mullings says the development of new network broadcast tuner technology from Ceton, Hauppauge, Elgato, AVerMedia, and SiliconDust will have a major impact on the eventual “unlock the box” trend.

“These devices take a broadcast signal, cable feed or antenna, and stream the signals live to other devices on the same computer network. This technology is designed to work with electronics devices that live on your network, both Ethernet and Wi-Fi,” he notes.

But most significantly, the development of the Android media center using Kodi software has moved the needle ahead.

“Android has quickly become the platform of choice for media playback for its price point, consistent hardware performance, quiet operation, OS robustness, function dedication, and physical size. The Android media center’s User Interface (UI) is the ‘sink-or-swim’ factor that determines the success or failure of that software. To date, Kodi has emerged as the software of choice in this arena. It offers several thousand add-ons to expand its functionality quickly and easily, without requiring a technical background or experience to add or delete, maintains a low learning curve, offers a number of standardized means of control and integration, and offers easily understood settings for all levels of experience. Since its initial release in June 2004, Kodi’s software has grown to be so inspirational, that it has spawned up to 40 forked projects, to include Plex, to date,” says Mullings.

He adds that the singular factor to differentiate between representations of Kodi purchased from different sources is what is called a “Build.” A Build is a combination of settings and add-ons within Kodi that the author prescribes for every installation, he describes. Settings are not unique to an author, and add-ons are limited by the author’s awareness, proficiency, and application of the add-on.

Where Do Integrators Fit In?

Instead of waiting around for someone else to build it for the custom industry, Mullings’ company, Digital Lifestyles LLC, has created an OEM product named ZION that combines its own unique build for Kodi, MythTV, and an integrator’s choice of networked broadcast tuners to create a true replacement for the cable box, according to Mullings. Every aspect of ZION is geared towards cable box replacement, but also adds in DVR integration (with a DVR exclusively designed by Digital Lifestyles), OTT content access, and locally shared file access.

ZION, via Kodi, is also capable of playing 4K content, which is limited only in the hardware selection which Kodi is installed. The device can be operated via Wi-Fi using a growing number of Wi-Fi-enabled remote control apps on Android and iOS. It also has integrated AirPlay and Chromecast functionalities that allow it to not only receive content from other devices wirelessly, but it can send content to other devices wirelessly. The product  also can access network-shared files via AppleTalk, DLNA, FTP, Samba, HTTP, NFS, uPnP, WebDAV, and RSS, and can playback all generally known file formats.

Mullings says that Kodi is not installable onto an Apple TV 4th generation unit using its normal channels, but there is a way to add Kodi onto an Apple TV 4 or a number of newer iPad models using a method called sideloading, which does not require the device to be jailbroken. The app will be accessible, as intended, through the native interface of the device, he says.

“After Kodi loads, the software will operate as it is intended. Being that most integrators’ clients already have one or more Apple TV 4s already installed, it is reasonable to say that the ability to ‘own’ their cable box is already halfway achieved,” he comments.

Digital Lifestyles has started a service that will sideload Kodi, and install its ZION build onto AppleTV4, iPod Touch (6 Gen), iPad Mini (1/2/3/4 Gen), iPad Air (1/2 Gen), and iPad Pro devices for a nominal fee per device.

“As stated earlier, this makes that device your new cable box. It requires that the device(s) be shipped to Digital Lifestyles for installation, and those devices will be returned promptly after verifying operation and navigation of Kodi on that device,” he notes.

The company is also offering Kodi installation and/or ZION build installation for the NVidia Shield, NVidia Shield Tablet, Amazon FireTV (not stick), and its own brands of Android- and Linux-based devices.

“I do not condone the use of popular and cheap ‘preloaded Android boxes,’ as these devices often will not have the hardware capabilities that Digital Lifestyles selects its hardware. Highest in the priority of these capabilities are Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, 2GB DDR3 RAM, and hardware accelerated 4K video playback,” says Mullings.

“Your selected networked broadcast tuner works on the primary technology for receiving and decoding digital TV signals for basic use, so unless cable providers and broadcast stations change their transmission or encoding infrastructures, these devices will live well into the foreseeable future without requiring much more than a firmware update. Also, your client can use the same tuner regardless of the cable provider that covers that municipality. This is helpful with clients that have multiple homes or locations that are serviced by different cable providers,” he says.

How the Software Works

So how does it work .. exactly? Mullings explains in his own words:

A Kodi Client needs to be deployed as one device per simultaneous stream, just like a cable box. Whether you design in terms of concurrent unique media streams or number of monitors, you can directly replace whatever you would use for a cable box with a Kodi Client.

Depending on the model tuner you need or desire, each tuner will serve out between two and four independent streams. This means that you should design for that many simultaneous streams for your project. Tuners will typically be located nearest the cable demarcation or entry point into the premises. If your equipment closet or Network Operation Center is located elsewhere in the premises, ensure you have at least one Ethernet cable pulled between the two locations.

All hardware should be connected via Ethernet. Wireless will not be more dependable than hardwired components, by virtue of each technology’s nature. This requires that for all locations where a ZION device is to be located, Ethernet connectivity should also be provided.

All ZION components should be assigned reserved IP addresses on their router. This ensures Wi-Fi-enabled remote controls will be consistent in accessing and controlling ZION clients, and all backend hardware will maintain their connectivity with ZION clients.

For the software to show its best performance, Internet service should be added, upgraded, or maintained to the client’s cable services. The second-tier speed package is a minimum performance level, which can be anywhere from 75MB download to 100MB download.

How To Sell It to Clients

Mullings says the sales pitch is pretty straightforward … it will save clients’ money starting day one.

“Your users can reduce their cable bills from upwards of 40 percent to start. When comparing renting vs purchasing any item, whichever method maintains a higher valuation while maintaining a lower payout at the end of its term will be the better method.”

Each ZION device would pay for itself (break-even) with the following schedule:

  • Stationary devices – 4-month ROI average, depending on the cable provider
  • Tablet devices – 6 to 14 months ROI, in direct proportion to the device’s screen size
  • OTA DTV tuner – adds 1-month ROI average, depending on the cable provider
  • CableCARD tuner – adds 23-month ROI average, depending on the cable provider
  • Converted devices – 1 month ROI, regardless of device
  • Converted devices + OTA DTV tuner – adds 1-month ROI average, depending on the cable provider
  • Converted devices + CableCARD tuner – adds 10-month ROI average, depending on the cable provider

Mullings says these calculations are determined by dividing the cost of the equipment listed by the difference in savings on the cable bill after switching. The system also can be troubleshot remotely. Digital Lifestyles plans to get the product built and offer a three-year warranty.

“Digital Lifestyles is looking forward to becoming a manufacturer in this sector,” concludes Mullings.

About the Author

Jason Knott
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Jason Knott:

Jason Knott is Chief Content Officer for Emerald Expositions Connected Brands. Jason has covered low-voltage electronics as an editor since 1990, serving as editor and publisher of Security Sales & Integration. He joined CE Pro in 2000 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of that brand. He served as chairman of the Security Industry Association’s Education Committee from 2000-2004 and sat on the board of that association from 1998-2002. He is also a former board member of the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation. He has been a member of the CEDIA Business Working Group since 2010. Jason graduated from the University of Southern California.

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