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Taking charge of the in-home network

Fri, 07/31/1998 - 8:00pm
Roger Brown, Editor
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Imagine a consumer's home that includes a digital TV, a digital VCR, a digital cable set-top, and various other gadgets like stereo systems, computers and camcorders all interconnected. The power of such a home "network" would be immediately apparent in that consumers could view programs or information from any of the above-named sources without problems.

Is this scenario simply a gleam in a blue-sky dreamer's eye? Not at all. In fact, devices are already being built to make the vision a reality, and the cable industry is girding to be a leader in the push by becoming the central "brain" through which it's all controlled.

The key is a digital interconnect standard known as IEEE 1394, better known by the more palatable "FireWire" name it was given by the marketing department at Apple Computer, where the whole concept started. Because of FireWire's enormous bandwidth, multiple digital data streams can be simultaneously transported around the house, giving viewers full, unfettered access to content from a variety of sources, including digital camcorders, DVD (digital versatile disk) players, VCRs, TVs and cable set-top boxes.

"Digital technology gives us a chance to look at a different demarcation point," says Mike Hayashi, vice president of advanced engineering at Time Warner Cable, referring to the fact that the cable set-top has historically played the role of a bandwidth bottleneck because of its single-channel output. This one-channel constraint has long hampered the many consumers who wanted to take advantage of advanced television features such as picture-in-picture.

The consumer electronics manufacturers are currently designing equipment with a FireWire "plug" in it. Some camcorders already have the plug attached. Consumer electronics industry analysts predict that as many as 25 million devices using FireWire will be sold by the end of 1999.

During this year's National Cable Show in Atlanta, Scientific-Atlanta and Mitsubishi Electric America's Digital Broadcasting Business America division teamed up to demonstrate HDTV signals passing through an OpenCable-compliant digital set-top using a FireWire-compliant chipset manufactured by Texas Instruments. The purpose of the demo was to show that the cable industry can take full advantage of the emerging standard.

It's this momentum toward interconnectable digital gear that the cable industry intends to ride, according to Hayashi. But there are some "cable-specific" issues that have to be addressed to make the standard palatable to all the MSOs.

A few weeks ago, key architects of the cable industry's OpenCable initiative met for three days with representatives from consumer electronics manufacturers to put forth their thoughts for a digital platform. FireWire is considered a key component of that specification, says Michael Adams, senior network engineer at Time Warner Cable.

Although FireWire holds promise as a method to interconnect an entire home, the immediate focus is on passing high definition television (HDTV) signals of all formats over the cable system, said Laurie Schwartz, director of advanced platforms and services at Cable Television Laboratories. FireWire is appealing because it can pass any of the 18 existing HDTV formats, she notes.

The FireWire-equipped gear that debuts later this year will be able to transport digital information at 200 megabits per second; and plans are already on the boards to increase the speed beyond the 1 gigabit-per-second threshold. When you consider that a full high definition TV (HDTV) channel requires a data rate of about 20 megabits per second, the capacity of FireWire becomes quite attractive to cable operators who want to avoid any future bottlenecks.

A draft specification that includes FireWire has been posted on CableLabs' Web site and is currently being circulated among the members, as well as consumer electronics vendors, for additional comment. Efforts going forward will be focused on encouraging those manufacturers to integrate the specification into their products as soon as possible.

Adams, for one, remains optimistic. He said there has been some resistance from the CE vendors, but he expects a "good compromise" will emerge that includes some of the features that the cable industry is seeking. "There's a lot of room for invention here," Adams says.

By utilizing the high bandwidth of FireWire, cable operators intend to ensure that it's their user interface that gets used when a viewer tunes in to watch TV, play an interactive game or do anything else in what has become known as the cable TV "space."

But that doesn't mean the TV will be reduced to a "dumb" monitor — something the consumer electronics manufacturers fear and will vigorously fight, says Hayashi, who understands that side of the business as a result of his lengthy stint with CE manufacturer Pioneer Electronics.

"I think they (manufacturers) are hungry to have this stuff work because it will benefit them, too," Hayashi says. "What we're asking for is not much more than what's needed for a TV to receive digital signals. If we wanted a 64 QAM receiver, a two-way modem and a 200 MIPS processor with 64 megabytes of graphics application space, that (would be) a much tougher request."

But what about cost? Will this new feature raise the price of TVs and set-tops to unacceptable levels? Not necessarily, according to cable industry engineers. Adams says the FireWire capability can eventually be integrated into another chip inside the set-top, driving the cost of the device to, ultimately, less than $5.

Howard Mirowitz, vice president and deputy general manager for Mitsubishi Electronics America's North American Multimedia Business Center, concurs that the cost for that circuitry can be driven that low, probably within the next two years.

Schwartz and CableLabs acknowledges that in the short-term, the cost will be higher than that, but operators could choose whether or not to have the feature built in to their set-tops. For example, some MSOs are looking at adding the FireWire solution in only a portion of the digital set-tops they deploy, while others are viewing it as a core component in all set-tops.

One major stumbling block to locking down the FireWire standard is program copy protection. Presently, there are two factions that have developed different approaches to ensuring that consumers can't make pristine digital copies of movies and other programs without paying an additional fee, which the major Hollywood studios are insisting upon.

But Schwartz said the two sides have already worked out several problems, and could soon work together to solve the rest. "I'm fairly optimistic," she says. "These people have solved many of the problems; the question is how to make them work together."

Mirowitz is one who's excited about the prospects of cable joining the FireWire party. "We'd like to see this happen as soon as possible," he says. "We're interested in being cable's partner because we think digital broadcasting will be enhanced by it. The puzzle is coming together."

e-mail: Rbrowner@aol.com

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