The Re-invention of the Set-top Box

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October 01, 2010
Television Technology
Trevor Warner - trevor@warnerconsulting.com

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Technology can be a wonderful thing.  While the argument might be made that it doesn’t improve our lives it certainly is making the hotel room more efficient.  Specifically in the media solution we went from bigger and bigger bulky tube TVs with wires and boxes hanging all over to advance to PriDiom installations with programmable TVs that use  only one wire, a beautiful HD picture and a clean, simple appearance.

But now it appears the trend is reversing and the set-top box is making a come back.  How has technology failed us and why do we seem to be reverting?  The appearance may be the exact opposite of the reality.  Technology is advancing the set-top box to a new level. The three primary drivers for the reinvention of the set-top box are technology, cost of ownership and flexibility.
 
“Consider it now a computing device in the room centrally managing multiple products and services,” said Ken Barnes, VP of IT for White Lodging.  While the original set-top box was used as a method to deliver media the current set-top box can control products such as wired and wireless Internet, climate controls, door locks, sensors in the room and of course, media to the TV.  A single set-top box can contain the standard wireless connections Bluetooth, 802.11x, Zigbee, and RFID (and wired connectivity) providing multiple vendors options for connecting into the broader network.  Integrators can now offer multiple services, multiple products and multiple ways to connect to the network.  Another important step is the ability to use coaxial as the back haul for the network versus traditional Ethernet (Cat6 and Cat5).  Not all hotels have an Ethernet environment but every hotel has coaxial.  This technology, which is deployed in Europe, is coming to America.

Vice President of IT for Magnolia Hotels Jeffery Parker said, “Going back to a control box, either set top or hidden behind the TV, gives us the flexibility to select from many different providers and solutions.”  Flexibility breeds competition and keeps the hotel in a position to always meet guest needs.  The set-top box is also the lowest cost piece of equipment in this configuration.  “Replacing the set-top box to upgrade, change or repair becomes a cost effective option in this environment even when you are within an agreement with a provider,” Barnes said.
 
The new set-top box brings efficiency through a controller-based environment. In simpler terms, the brain resides in a single-network device in the network room resulting in a TV that is nothing more than a monitor and a set-top box that becomes a conduit for the data to be routed.  This configuration has many positives both short and long term.  For the owner it’s a lower cost of ownership.  For operations it is less labor distracted on technical issues.  For the guest, it’s speed to resolution.  In a PriDiom environment each TV must be programmed for the initial install, channel line up changes, loss of power during a storm, or other maintenance issues that arise in a PriDiom television environment.  The anticipation for PriDiom was great, but when it arrived we were not ready for the complexity that it brought.  PriDiom is a programmed environment which requires onsite skill and equipment.  Unlike PriDiom, the set-top box does not require onsite expertise and equipment which can greatly increase uptime and speed to resolution when a problem occurs.  By simply replacing the set-top box with a spare, all the technology work can be completed remotely.
 
The upfront cost is an easier baseline to compare than ongoing maintenance but both are important financial pieces.  Barnes said, “The initial expense needs to be at least cost neutral and we are seeing that or better in the industry finally.” 

In the past, the technology was still maturing so the pieces needed to put together this configuration outweighed the potential benefit.  With the brands pushing hard to implement HD and the maturity of the technology, those numbers have changed.  “Many of these boxes will do IP TV over COAX (or Ethernet), have wireless (Zigbee,Wi-Fi or both) connectivity for in-room automation and come at a price point that is often less than the difference in a PriDiom set versus a standard unit,” Parker said.  More options for the same money or less always sounds good. 

While the set-top box could cost approximately $250 per room, a PriDiom television can cost three times more and it requires on-site expertise to troubleshoot and repair.  Many times hotels have to carry spare TVs and the equipment to program the new television.  A set-top box is plug and play which allows for lower labor time and cost in addition to a greatly increased speed to resolution for the guest. 

The improved design and the reduced size of a set-top box has changed minds as well.  As mentioned earlier the set-top box was an eye sore with multiple wires going in multiple directions.  While the new set-top box is not integrated into the TV, it is much smaller and can be hidden behind the TV or with the design of the room.  It is also developed to rely more on wireless and less on wires so it’s much less of an octopus than its predecessor.  In our modern hotel room that is designed to have clean lines and a high quality feel the box doesn’t detract from the ambiance.

Like any technology it’s still improving but ultimately cost is still the factor.  The technology has not reached the point of a black and red ROI.  While the coaxial distribution technology makes it more universal in appeal, limited service properties with older in-room technology may not have the buying power or capability to take advantage of all the features that a new build full-service hotel may be able to do.  However, this is clearly the direction the technology is heading.  At some point the set-top box may be integrated into the TV (similar to the idea behind PrCentric).  For now, it’s a set-top box—again.

Trevor Warner is the president of Warner Consulting Group and can be reached at trevor@warnerconsulting.com.

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