What is RDK?

Cable companies across the country are racing to change over from the old way of doing cable TV, known as QAM, to new IPTV technology. With IPTV, all the TV information comes through as digital data in much more flexible “channels.” Some of it can be multicast, meaning that just like traditional TV you can have a lot of people watching the same feed. Some can be a single feed just for you like on-demand viewing. This makes the most efficient use of the cable operator’s capacity.

The problem is that cable boxes haven’t changed a lot since they went digital about a decade ago, and the basic technology is the same that has dominated cable since the 1980s. Doing IPTV takes a whole new technology, one that’s more like youtube and less like television. Providers like UVerse and FiOS have been doing their own IPTV systems but there are still plenty of local carriers who haven’t gone that far.

That’s where RDK comes in. RDK stands for Reference Design Kit, and it’s a standard “jumping-off” point that cable companies can use when they’re designing these next-generation systems. According to Light Reading, Comcast and Time Warner are on board and that should make things move quickly.

RDK will let these cable companies add additional HD channels more easily and more importantly it will let them add the kind of services that people really want like on demand and internet connected apps. It means every company won’t be reinventing the wheel and hopefully it will avoid the kind of hardware problems that have always plagued the cable industry.

It’s too soon to tell for sure, but it could actually pave the way for a single standard for cable boxes that could be used with every provider. That’s exciting because it means the same technology could be integrated into standalone DVRs or connected TVs while keeping the price to the consumer fairly low. If all services worked with RDK, you might not even need a cable box, and that’s an exciting prospect to a lot of people.

Everything’s not all wine and roses yet, though. The RDK platform is just a beginning and if it’s handled poorly there could be just as many problems connecting between boxes as there are now. There’s no standards body, no firm enforcement, and each manufacturer and service provider could take steps to lock their boxes to their service and make it impossible for a company like TiVo to get in.

It’s a start, though, and a good one at that. There’s no doubt that IPTV is the next wave of cable TV and this is where it all begins.