Welcome to the 'SMART HOUSE'

Mon, 07/31/2000 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

Thanks to the potential of the residential gateway, the home of the future is starting to take on Jetsonian proportions. Get ready, George and Astro, the future may not be very far away.

Serving as the "brains" of the "smart home," the residential gateway is being touted as a portal device that distributes and shares the bandwidth that runs in and out of homes, enabling a cadre of voice, video and data services and applications. Together with a wireless or wireline home networking platform, that same bandwidth can then also be flowed to all classes of consumer electronics devices in the house, including televisions, personal computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), Web pads and cellular phones. Additionally, that same gateway could also serve as a bandwidth hub for smart appliances. For instance, when a gateway is married with a home network, refrigerators potentially could notify owners when a component is failing, and coffee machines could be directed to prepare a fresh pot of Joe by 8 a.m. every weekday.

OK, sounds good. But will the consumer market actually support or even want this futuristic web of equipment and networking? The early indication is a resounding yes.

Provided the forecasts are correct, the potential for such consumer needs could drive an extremely fruitful market for both service operators and equipment vendors. Indeed, research firm Allied Business Intelligence (ABI) predicts global residential equipment revenues alone could skyrocket from $298 million in 2000 and approach $5 billion in 2005.

Figure 1: Worldwide annual revenues from residential gateway shipments, 2000–2005 (Source: Allied Business Intelligence Inc.).

With that much green at stake, the current crop of set-top vendors and cable modem manufacturers, as well as a new breed of broadband gateway players, are lining up to offer varying products, all with the "residential gateway" label firmly affixed.

Like any nascent service, of course, the requisite "debate on several fronts" runs rampant. For residential gateways in particular, the issue being discussed with the most frequency today centers on the type of equipment that should be installed, and its physical location.

Some companies simply want the equipment to resemble today's set-top—a glorified advanced digital box sitting atop the television or inside an entertainment center. At the same time, a host of vendors are extolling the virtues of a network interface unit-esque chassis that is mounted to the side of a home. Still others believe that residential gateways could evolve to become a device that is housed under a stairwell or in the basement. Each approach has its own unique set of merits.

Also up for argument is how home networking, which will work hand-in-hand with residential gateways, will enter the picture. Will it be a wireless or wireline platform, or a mix of both? If the cable industry embraces wireless networking as an option, which platform is the most suitable for HFC? Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (CableLabs) and its member and vendor partners are currently cooking their noodles over this conundrum.

Figure 2: The home/residential gateway could potentially network everything from TVs to personal digital assistants to utility meters. Reproduced from a diagram supplied by Pace.
Elements of the gateway

The concept of the residential gateway is not new. In fact, the idea has been bounced around and has been gaining momentum for several years. For example, an informal group made up of B&C Consulting Services, Bellcore, the David Sarnoff Research Center, IBM, GTE, Hewlett-Packard and Reliance Comm/Tec came together in early 1995 to spearhead the design principles of the residential gateway approach.

"It was a little ahead of its time," concedes B&C President Clifford Holliday, whose latest project for the Information Gatekeepers Group is called "Riding the Lightwave," a big-picture look at the optical networks market. "The problem was that there were too many different viewpoints of the concept."

However, the group did blaze plenty of trails, including the identification of two key home gateway functions: to serve as the physical interface to terminate all external access networks to the home, and to become the termination point of internal home networks for myriad residential services such as telephony, television and data.

Many others have followed suit in their thinking about what will constitute the residential gateway of tomorrow.

"I think the industry will define what a home gateway is over a period of time, but our strategy is very much toward transforming the set-top box into a residential gateway," offers Chuck Kaplan, vice president and general manager for Philips Consumer Electronics' North America cable division. The difference between a gateway and a set-top box, he says, is that a gateway has to channel more than just TV signals. Philips, which is building an in-home gateway that resembles the look and feel of a digital set-top box, can handle multiple audio and video streams, Kaplan says.

In fact, European cable operator United PanEurope Communications (UPC) is set to deploy a Philips box this fall in Amsterdam using a TriMedia processor, which is offered by Philips, Sony and about 10 other partners. Philips expects to debut a gateway for the U.S. market in 2001 that is powered by a second-generation TriMedia chip.

"That box will be flexibly architected for things like hard disks for program recordings, DVD players, writeable CDs and other accessories that can be used over a home network," says Kaplan.

Com21's wall-mounted DOXgate residential gateway will be fit to ship the first quarter of 2001

Other vendors that are building residential gateways also agree that video will make up only a fraction of the applications these boxes will enable.

According to Dan Moloney, Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's senior vice president and general manager of IP network systems, the broad definition "is that a gateway serves as the focal point for broadband communications into the home." Motorola BCS has attached the gateway descriptor to its line of DCT-5000 set-tops.

While there is general consensus in the industry regarding the functionality residential gateways will offer, ABI analyst Navin Sabharwal offers up a host of items he believes it is not.

"Generally speaking," he says, "the term 'residential gateway' coined a device that connects a home network to the wide area network. The problem, some people will say, is that's basically what the modem does. In my opinion, if there is no home network there and it doesn't support multiple services, it's not a residential gateway."

Sabharwal adds that a residential gateway is not just a product, but a functionality. "A whole new product category is evolving with broadband modems and set-tops embedded with home networking interfaces. That device is acting as a home hub with routing functions."

Innie or outie? Location, location, location

While most agree on the basic definition of residential gateways from a functionality perspective, opinions often differ when it comes to the kind of device it should be. Today, most vendors fall into either the in-house camp or the out-of-house camp.

One company that is championing the cause of the latter is Com21, which announced earlier this year its plans to offer the DOXgate, a gateway designed to be mounted to a home's exterior to support voice, data and video over HFC lines. Expected to begin shipping the first quarter of 2001, Com21's DOXgate will be located inside a weatherproof, lockable exterior box. Com21 says it also has aspirations for an in-home gateway, as well.

One of the most popular arguments for an out-of-home gateway is the access it affords operators. Though it would cost a truck roll to provision the device, operators would not need to enter a home to alter or repair it. A wall-mounted device also serves as a nice demarcation point for an HFC network that funnels telephony services.

"To those who come at it from a very voice-centric environment, which is more prevalent in the international arena, the concept of a side-of-house or basement location for the gateway is much more appealing," says Moloney, whose company develops gateways for inside and outside the home, as well as advanced cable modems with native home networking elements.

Today, though, most of the movement on the residential gateway front has been headed by the set-top vendors. The move to sell set-tops via retail channels has helped to fuel that charge.

"A gateway inside the home is certainly something that lends itself to a retail model," says Kaplan. "Outside the home, it's more of an operator push model than a consumer pull model."

Adds Perry Tanner, Scientific-Atlanta's vice president of marketing, whose company is preparing to market the Explorer 6000 as a residential gateway: "Today, all of our research and development programs are focused on the Explorer as the platform to build off of, but that doesn't mean we'd pursue doing something outside the home if our market research indicated that we missed something. We were in the interdiction business at one time. We know what it means."

Though both sides of the equation have compelling arguments, cable operators will most likely determine which camp will survive.

"Both will definitely play in the market, but we haven't made a determination," says Chris Bowick, Cox Communications' vice president of technology development. "It might even be a combination of the two, depending upon what the operator has deployed to his subscriber base. However, I think the real estate on top of the television set still remains a very valuable piece of real estate."

Moloney agrees. "I think the jury is still out on whether any one of these solutions is ultimately the right implementation, or whether each of them has different applications where they make more sense to serve as the gateway."

"Both models will live," adds Kaplan. "But the inside-the-house box is a bit more entertainment focused, and the outside-the-house one is more telecom or communications focused."

Tying it all together: Home networking

Looking to Sabharwal's definition, a residential gateway cannot live on equipment alone. It must be linked symbiotically to a home networking platform.

CableLabs, which earlier this year launched a home networking initiative, is taking heed, hoping to accelerate the residential gateway market—a market that could touch up to 21 percent of all homes by 2005, according to a Strategy Analytics study.

Though still in the early stages, CableLabs' initiative is beginning to pore over the myriad wireline and wireless home networking platforms that are available.

"We've been talking to people in all of those communities in wireless and wireline," explains Terry Shaw, CableLabs' senior advisor of network systems, adding that some "substantial" specification work will get underway by this fall.

Adds Shaw, "Some of these (home networking) products are already beginning to arrive on cable networks, but they're not taking advantage of the things that are provided by DOCSIS 1.1. We may have some rather simple things we need to do to grab the low-hanging fruit so that the services can be delivered."

Set-top manufacturer Pace Micro Technology, which got off the mark in the U.S. with deployment deals with Time Warner Cable and Comcast, is working aggressively on the home networking front. Indeed, the company expects to launch a wireless home networking product called the Gateway Expander this year in the U.K. using the DECT (Digital European Cordless Telecommunication) standard. Pace plans to employ the PWT (Personal Wireless Telecommunications) standard—a DECT variant—in the U.S. Pace also has pushed its home networking strategy forward via a partnership with Invensys, which develops "controllers" that are incorporated into products such as refrigerators to regulate factors such as temperature control.

Ericsson, meanwhile, has been leaning heavily on Bluetooth to serve as the home networking platform for its PipeRider cable modem, which the company hopes to eventually transform into a home gateway.

Though Bluetooth has been privy to plenty of buzz, its limited bandwidth capacity and connection range (about 10 meters) have been criticized. Ericsson believes future Bluetooth releases should erase those questions.

"There's some confusion about what Bluetooth actually is," says Curt Matson, Ericsson's manager of product marketing, noting that two different chipsets for Bluetooth exist today. "The (chipset) we will use will provide 100 meters, which will definitely cover most of the homes today."

Vendors forging their keys to unlock the gateway

While household names like S-A and Motorola BCS spin their wares as home gateways, there are a host of vendors that have their products available today, or in the works. They include MacroDyne's wall-mounted RG-2000, 3Com's HomeConnect Home Network Gateway, SOHOware's BIG (Broadband Internet Gateway) device and Broadband Gateways Inc.'s modular EVOLO Intelligent Premises Gateway (IPG), which is currently addressing DSL. Broadband Gateways also plans to build an EVOLO model for the cable market, as well, the company says.

The gateway's grand opening

Though a few more questions need to be answered and a number of specifications need to be addressed on the home networking side, the time for the residential gateway appears to be sooner, rather than later.

Sabharwal believes there could be some moves during the second half of this year. "Up to now, service providers have kept their cards pretty close to their chests. They've all expressed interest in residential gateways. We could see a number of announcements maybe this year and certainly into next year."



PC potshots

Using the PC as a home networking hub has been getting a bum rap for years.

Hollywood, however, did take a stab at such a possibility in a corny 1984 romantic comedy called "Electric Dreams." In it, Miles, the main character, buys himself a state-of-the-art computer named Edgar that can carry on a conversation as well as network and automate everything in the home by tapping specially-built adapters that plug into the home's existing power line infrastructure.

That's about as believable as the movie gets, however. True to Hollywood style, the computer gains consciousness after Miles spills a drink on the keyboard. From there, a bizarre love/jealousy triangle develops after Edgar falls for a neighbor named Madeline. Of course, Miles pines for Madeline, too, creating a rift with Edgar. Suffice it to say that home networking anarchy ensues.

Of course, stories built for Hollywood are one thing; reality is definitely another. Reality still says PCs aren't ideal residential gateways.

"Some people think that a PC can serve as a residential gateway," offers Sabharwal. "I don't give it any credence because you need a dedicated device. PCs are great for data, but not as great for video and voice."

If you don't believe it, just ask Miles.


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