The Future of the Fiber Edge Device

Settop boxEvery once in a while I see a new technology idea that really makes me pause. I recently ran across Virtual Gateway Labs, a group out of San Jose that has come up with a radically different way of looking at fiber edge devices. The company has developed a fiber ONT (the edge device for a PON fiber network) that puts a lot of processing power into the ONT.

There is tremendous potential for this approach. They have created an ONT with multiple powerful processors that can be programmed as virtual machines to emulate all sorts of other virtual edge devices. With a software download you could use the ONT to emulate a settop box or an IoT hub. This would allow a fiber provider to avoid having to deal with the plethora of expensive boxes they have to deal with today. Instead a home only needs  this one device that can act as an ONT, a WiFi router, a settop box and an IoT home automation hub.

The company has created this box as their vision of how a software defined network might best be implemented in a fiber network. Since the ONT processors are remotely programmable and configurable they can be changed or updated as needed to keep up with innovations or customer needs.

The company is taking a very different approach from much of the rest of the industry. In general the SDN movement envisions creating dumber edge devices with the brains in the cloud. And so we see companies starting to develop a settop box in the cloud where the brains are at a central hub and a much cheaper device like a dongle is placed at the TV. Under that concept of SDN, the edge devices get simpler and less expensive, but rely on the Internet for all services.

Virtual Labs’ concept creates a single box at the home which can be segmented into multiple virtual machines that can be programmed for a myriad of purposes. Their version means that the single intelligent-box-at-the-home will only communicate sparely with the cloud. This gives the customer more autonomy with their services while giving the operator control over the services, without completely requiring the cloud for all activities.

Virtual Gateway Labs also envisions that their device would enable a truly open access network. With their device there could be different ISPs offering different services at a home using the same ONT. That would enable the ultimate version of open access where service providers wouldn’t just compete for customers but would compete for each service.

The problem with that idea is that it’s a solution for an industry that doesn’t exist. Talk to the handful of open access network operators and they will tell you that they have a very difficult time finding quality ISPs to compete on their networks even when those ISPs can sell bundles of products. It’s extremely unlikely in the current environment in the US that anybody is going to get any traction trying to operate an open access network with service level competition. But this idea might be of interest in Europe where there are already some very large open access networks.

But the Virtual Gateway Labs ONT might be a good solution for getting rid of the settop box. The FCC is currently considering an order that would try to force settop boxes to be standardized and generic so that customers can own them. But this new technology can eliminate the settop box completely and instead perhaps only need a dongle or small device at each TV to talk to the smart ONT hub.

Like with any new technology there is no telling if the idea might catch on. The company has a long way to go from concept to sellable unit. But if they could develop the software to emulate edge devices like settop boxes and IoT hubs then I think they might get some traction. They are designing the ONT to work with the major brands of PON equipment. I don’t know any service provider that wouldn’t like to get rid of settop boxes. They are one of the biggest hassles of being in the residential triple play business.

If these devices get traction there is no end to the range of future possible uses. The ONT processors could be programmed to act as a virtual reality or enhanced reality hub. They could be used to finally create the health monitoring systems that we have been hearing about for a decade but have yet to see. This is an intriguing concept and I hope they can make this happen.

3 thoughts on “The Future of the Fiber Edge Device

    • And I don’t know that anything has changed and that settop boxes are going away now. The big cable companies have a vested interest in keeping them since they have crept monthly prices for the boxes as high as $10. Not a bad revenue stream for a $100 box (which if I’m Comcast I probably buy for $70).

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