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Multiple options tie home networking in knots

Posted: 03 Apr 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mike clendenin? ee times? home networking? networking? network?

Pretty soon, the joy of soap operas, sitcoms and sports will be coming to any room near you. And it won't be just the cable guy transforming homes into multiplex theaters.

This year, phone and satellite companies as well as cable providers will ramp up efforts to deploy home networks that will eventually pipe video throughout the house.

Until now, thin air has been the home network of choice, thanks to Intel Corp. and its massive marketing machine, which is backing Wi-Fi. That's been fine for data and mobile Internet connectivity, but Wi-Fi in its current guise doesn't hack it for video and voice!and may not be up to the task for a few years.

In the meantime, service providers are pushing ahead, anxious to get expanded video services like whole-home digital video recorders (DVRs) in place as a way to combat footloose customers. To do so, they will slowly roll a handful of wired technologies into the field that use coax, power lines or telephone lines. The mix will ensure that a master stb tunes in to IPTV" target=_blank>set-top box (STB) can serve sports fanatics in the basement rumpus room who are watching ESPN's high-definition Sunday night football at the same time that Junior is streaming an archived version of "Spider-Man 2" to his bedroom.

Fundamentally, these wired technologies won't look like your basic data network, where it's a self-install and 30 percent are returned. The home network taking shape today is an extension of the access network, where service providers install them and handle diagnostics remotely.

"It's a well-thought-out implementation," said Richard Nesin, VP of marketing for CopperGate Communications. "This is billions of dollars of investments in the access, video head-ends and all the other pieces, so they are not going to scrimp on the home network." CopperGate designs chips for the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance specification.

No one is betting on a single technology as a silver bullet, either. While most experts agree that video!especially high-definition commercial content!will be a crucial driver for home networking during the next few years, there is little agreement on which wired medium is the best for shuttling video around the house. So far, the only consensus is that a few ingredients are needed to craft the ideal solution, and that the end result will vary according to numerous factors, such as the service provider, maturity of the technology, number of chip suppliers, standards debates, geography and quality of the house's wiring.

Hybrid home nets
At this early stage of home networks created for voice, video and data or triple play, few doubt the need for a combination of wired and wireless topologies. "I don't think you will get any operator support for only Wi-Fi in its current configuration," said Tom Flanagan, director of technical strategy for the DSP systems group at Texas Instruments Inc. "Certainly, 802.11n is going to have a play in video distribution, but it will take a while to get there. So there are real solid reasons to have all these different wired technologies in place."

Each of the wired technologies!coax, phone line and power line!has its pluses and minuses. Few believe that one will dominate. Because of this, STB makers like Motorola are taking a tempered approach to the alphabet soup of acronyms and design their systems with flexibility in mind. "What we really see is that the performance differences of these three approaches is not appreciable," said Ray Sokola, CTO of Motorola's connected home solutions.

Not to be ignored are a handful of alternative approaches. In Asia, Ruckus Wireless Inc. is making noise with a limited deployment through Hong Kong-based telco PCCW-HKT Ltd, the largest operator of IPTV in the region. Ruckus uses its proprietary BeamFlex smart-antenna technology and SmartCast software packet sniffer to prioritize multimedia packets and steer Wi-Fi signals around interference for better throughput.

"We believe that wireless can be made reliable enough for general distribution of paid content throughout the home," said Bill Kish, CTO of Ruckus.

Incremental changes
IEEE's 802.11n is also on the horizon, with its PHY-layer throughput of 100Mbps or more. Before that, incremental changes, such as those included in 802.11e, will also improve the throughput of Wi-Fi and its reliability for video delivery over self-installed home networks. Microsoft Corp. is also expected to make improvements in Windows Vista that will make it easier for consumers to set up home networks.

"The Windows Vista network stack has been rewritten from the ground up, resulting in significant throughput improvements, which directly benefit high-bit-rate video streaming," said Gabe Frost, program manager for transports and connectivity at Microsoft.

Then there is the emerging role of UWB in wired home networks. "We are demonstrating the early parts of 1394a over coax today, and it's UWB technology being pumped through the coax that's doing it," said Bruce Watkins, PulseLink Inc president and CEO.

With all of the various technologies invading the home, one thing is clear: Consumers shouldn't be able to notice them. Unlike today's Internet-oriented home networks, tomorrow's triple-play networks need to be inconspicuous and that's what operators are pushing for. Even as additional devices such as cellphones are drawn into the home network to enable things like control of DVRs from outside the home, the most likely path to popularization will be if operators take the lead and merge the functionality into an overall service package.

As the industry moves toward such a milestone, organizations like the Digital Living Network Alliance and the recently formed High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance have huge potential to help the process along. But making the network invisible to users won't be a cinch. An observer noted that the effort has been mired by conflicting interests arguing about how these acronyms and those acronyms are going to work better than the other acronyms. "When I can explain it to my friends simply as 'You plug this wire into this hole and then you use your TV remote control to run everything,' that's when people are going to start using it," said Watkins. "Anything less is more of the same."

Mike Clendenin
EE Times

- Junko Yoshida contributed to this article.

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