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Media networking is the next big thing

Posted: 16 Jun 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:media networking? stb? home network? pc? media center?

As broadband and home networking connectivity move toward mainstream, market gurus are beginning to look for "the next big thing." While there are plenty of possibilities, there is a growing consensus that media networking has the potential to drive significant growth across multiple industries. Simply put, media networking is the ability to seamlessly transfer multimedia data streams from a source device to a display/storage device, anytime and anywhere.

Open issues

While the destination is clear, the path to full media networking has three critical open issues: Will the PC or STB rule? What technology will connect these devices? And how will advances in the semiconductor technology help us get there?

Microsoft's Windows XP media center has made a strong early showing, simplifying the tasks of managing digital picture, audio and video files on the PC. It has also introduced an innovation that has had a tremendous impact on watching television - the remote control. However, even with all the functionality in the latest media center PCs, they remain disconnected from televisions, eliminating the possibility of displaying entertainment content on the highest-quality display.

As digital STBs for cable and satellite TV grow more powerful, so does the desire to access premium network content from high-end, as well as simpler, less expensive "bedroom" boxes throughout the home.

Several issues remain to be resolved before the STB can rule the media network. First, QoS and content protection must be guaranteed. Second is the ability of STBs to emulate the video editing and storage resources typically found in PCs and gaming devices.

New, old and no wires

For both PC and STB, the question remains as to what PHY technology will connect multiple devices in the home. There are three main classes of solutions. First is wired solutions including 10/100 Ethernet and 1,394, best applied to data applications and video transmission, respectively. However, neither satisfies the wide-ranging and demanding requirements for simultaneous high-quality video and data transmission. It is also unlikely that most people will run new wires to all the areas that they would like to have a source or display device.

The second class includes a phone line, coaxial cable and power line, under the banner of "no new wires." While Home Phoneline Alliance 3.0 is being built for the purpose of delivering video and data, its heritage as a data-only standard will limit its deployment. With an average of two to three outlets in a U.S. home and even fewer in typical European and Asian households, it is difficult to justify the investment in creating a network.

This return-on-investment limitation extends to solutions based on using existing coaxial cables. Only homes built within the last 10 to 15 years feature multiple coaxial outlets, which limits usefulness of the technology and precludes it connecting the video network to a large number of other networked devices in the home.

HomePlug AV represents the final entry in this area. With dozens of outlets conveniently located throughout the home, power line offers an attractive solution.

The third class, the WLAN, currently has the greatest momentum in data networking. The rise of 802.11 solutions has been swift, creating a virtual circle of lower prices and rising unit sales. At its most basic level, 802.11 is wireless Ethernet and delivers all the robustness required by corporate data networks. Unfortunately, its data-centric focus may limit its effectiveness in delivering high-quality video distribution.

The 802.11e QoS working group is creating a new MAC layer protocol to resolve the current issues. However, the standardization process has resulted in compromises that fundamentally limit this technology's ability to deliver true, high-quality video.

Heart of next-gen platforms

At the heart of today's data-centric residential gateway platform is the network processor, performing all high-level networking functions and combined with physical interface chips to adapt to the external access network and the internal physical home network. Moving beyond today's data-centric platforms, network processors will also be the heart of next-generation media processing platforms.

The preferred architecture for network-processor chips consists of a programmable microcontroller core with embedded software for implementing the residential gateway functions and, unlike hard-wired logic, enabling the designer to download programs that support new features and field upgrades.

NPUs like Conexant's CX82100 device integrate an advanced processor core, internal memory and controller, two 10/100 Ethernet MACs, a USB interface, general purpose I/O ports, and timers, host interface for expansions, and embedded test capabilities for monitoring and debugging the embedded programs.

While the final technology choices for media networking platforms continue to evolve, there is no question that in time, media networking will emerge as "the next big thing."

- Peter Kempf

VP for Wireless Data and Networking Components

Conexant Systems Inc.

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