Is cable WIRED into home NETWORKS?
... part II
The magic demographics that have captured the imaginations of the home networking proponents are based on the astounding growth of Internet usage and the popularity of home offices. The Yankee Group estimates there are more than 12.5 million multi-PC homes in the U.S., while estimates of U.S. homes with Internet access vary greatly. HomePNA, citing figures from Jupiter Communications, says more than 47 percent of U.S. households will have Internet access "devices" by 2002, with 20 percent of these households owning multiple devices.
It's not difficult to find people who buy into those forecasts, especially once high-speed connections to the Internet are part of the equation. "Particularly when these households get cable modem service," says Vedat Eyuboglu, vice president of Motorola's Home Networking Product Operation, "they'll quickly recognize the need to connect multiple PCs to the broadband pipe."
Home offices with existing local networks now number 910,000, according to estimates from IDC. By 2002, IDC predicts the number of U.S. households with local networks is expected to leap to 8 million.Wireline or wireless?
Home networking technology today is divided into wireline and wireless camps. Some companies, like Motorola, are hedging their bets by placing one foot in both. According to Eyuboglu, Motorola is developing two "gateway" networking devices, one for wireline applications and the other for wireless networks.
"We see the phone-wire approach coming out first," says Eyuboglu, adding that once standards develop and are more mature, "long-term, wireless (networking) will be very, very significant."
Motorola's wireline gateway, says Eyuboglu, will utilize the HomePNA adapter hardware (based on Tut Systems' 1 Mbps Ethernet-based time modulation coding method) and an integrated Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specification cable modem with software and hardware enhancements to employ existing telephone wiring to deliver broadband services to multiple PCs in the home. The gateway would be plugged into a room's RJ-11 phone jack to complete the network.
PCs must be equipped with adapter cards to allow for an interface to a HomePNA network, however. In January, Compaq became the first PC manufacturer to include a HomePNA interface in its off-the-shelf Presario computers.
Motorola's wireless gateway will accomplish roughly the same thing as its wireline cousin, allowing for the wireless distribution of broadband information to multiple PCs.
Importantly, Eyuboglu says Motorola hopes to "broaden the availability of these kinds of (home networking) capabilities beyond the very advanced user."
While the HomePNA 1.0 specification is centered around a packet-based 1 Mbps throughput, 2.0 is expected to permit 10 Mbps rates and above. Already, sky-high throughput rates that can support both data and video transmissions over a network are being marketed by a competing wireline technology developed by San Carlos, Calif.-based Avio Digital Inc.
According to Keith Crosley, product manager for Avio Digital, the physical and media access control (MAC) layer of its "MediaWire" protocol is synchronous, not packet-based. That's key because packet-based protocols are "unsuitable for audio, not the best for video and perfect for data," says Eugene Van Bergen, CEO of Avio Digital. Avio Digital, in which Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has an equity stake, claims the stream-based protocol of MediaWire can support throughputs of 88 Mbps. Van Bergen says rates of 200 Mbps are on the drawing board and can be expected to be rolled out next year.
On the wireless side of the home networking spectrum, Eldorado Hills, Calif.-based ShareWave Inc. networks devices by establishing a hub, such as a PC, set-top box or gateway, to distribute digital content wirelessly. Connections between devices are made with radios operating at 2.4 GHz.
ShareWave's data link MAC layer protocol, says John White, vice president of strategic planning, is intended to keep communications ordered on the network and transmit "all types of digital media."The HFC connection
Both Avio Digital and ShareWave introduced themselves to the cable industry last December at the Western Cable Show.
However, as home networking technologies seek to conquer the "last 100 feet," there are significant questions about how home networking will figure into a cable operator's portfolio of services.
Bennington cites higher data rate and better architecture issues as immediate obstacles to a wider acceptance of home networking by the industry, but he also points out that most households will have a hard time with setting up, maintaining and configuring a home network. "For some cable operators, that may be a (business) opportunity."
With the interfaces that HomePNA and its wireless counterpart, HomeRF, are pushing still not incorporated in more than a few computers and consumer electronics devices, home networking is still a few years away from simple "plug-and-play" functionality. "This is not a mature business," says Bennington. "It's not what you do in the first 1,000 homes, but in the second thousand, it will have to be bulletproof."
Ambitiously testing the waters is Rogers@Home, which, according to Krstajic, is planning to commercially launch home networking services at the end of the second quarter of this year. "There's definitely a category of our customers that requires a 'pro' product," i.e., one which supports multiple PCs and greater bandwidth.
Echoing concerns of others in the industry, Krstajic says maintenance of a home network "has been one of the big stumbling blocks to launching this." To avoid what he calls a "customer service nightmare," Krstajic says Rogers@Home is considering providing customers with an approved list of devices that can be connected on a network. "Anything that can be classified as noise generating," says Krstajic, "can be huge" in its negative impact on the network.
Still another concern for Krstajic is customers who consume huge amounts of bandwidth, such as users who've connected Web servers to their broadband connections, thereby using several gigabytes of upstream bandwidth to serve up Web pages. Bit caps and metering will then factor into the equation.
Undaunted about the challenges ahead, and hot on the heels of the residential home networking launch, Krstajic expects to launch a commercial networking product later this year aimed at extending the corporate Local Area Network into the home. "There's so much demand for this, we'd be crazy to not get this going," he says.