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Getting to the nirvana-networked home

Sat, 09/30/2000 - 8:00pm
Leslie Ellis, Industry Analyst
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CableLabs' Dr. Terry Shaw provides an update on the In-Home Networking Project.

The TV knows you don't want to be disturbed unless it's important, like one of your kids calling to report a fender-bender. You elect to send the big game to the big screen, and set your options to let only certain calls through—but opt to view the caller ID info of any incoming calls on the TV. Maybe you want Eric Clapton's new CD to play throughout the house. Maybe your car knows to download the next few chapters of the novel you're listening to on the long drive to and from work.

The challenge of the nirvana-networked home isn't so much building it, but knowing how to identify all the possible scenarios to best attract and serve cable customers. It's a tall task, and one with infinite intellectual and technical challenges. At CableLabs, the industry's R&D mainstay, in-home networks are in the capable hands of Dr. Terry Shaw, project director/network systems and the lead executive in charge of home networking. Independent industry analyst Leslie Ellis visited with Shaw recently, to get the top-to-bottom on the project. An edited transcript follows.

Let's start at the very beginning.

Shaw: It's a very good place to start.

What's your goal, as the lead on the CableLabs In-Home Networking project?

Shaw: There isn't just one goal. It's lots of things. For starters, home networking should not be considered in isolation. It's going to be highly interactive with all other advanced cable services, and so it figures in to a number of different service deployments. Plus, in-home networking will create new and unique demands on the network. You can imagine what happens with things like Napster, running on a LAN—tremendous demands on the access network.

What's the status of the project?

Shaw: Right now, we've identified our initial focus teams, and we're working to get the intellectual property agreements ironed out with the vendors.

Focus teams?

Shaw: The groups of vendors that volunteered to work with us on specifications. Their initial job is to go through the specification portfolio we've developed so far, and identify specific areas that we need to further address. That way, we can create a home network that complements the access network.

What kind of specific areas need to be addressed, through specs?

Shaw: There are three. The first is quality of service, or QoS, which has to be there because of DOCSIS. The second is service provisioning—if you can't turn services on and off, you don't have a service. The third is network management: If somebody is paying for a PPV or VOD event being delivered over the network, who gets the call if something doesn't work? We do. So we have to anticipate that, and be able to have some insight into the network.

Are there any others?

Shaw: There are always others. There's security, which we've addressed in DOCSIS, OpenCable and PacketCable, and the security system we'll have to put in place for home networks will need to complement those. And, we need a good testing policy. We don't yet have a specific, going-forward set for network validation, and we'll need to address that.

Is craftsmanship an issue? I read on an SCTE List posting recently that home builders are starting to understand that you can't brutalize a piece of coax the way you can a length of twisted-pair copper.

Shaw: Ultimately, yes, that will need to be addressed. I'm not sure that will be addressed through us. It's maybe better addressed through the craft training that our techs receive. I do know that our techs in general will have to become very savvy to home networks.

Can you elaborate on that?

Shaw: Somebody in the field gets a call to do a cable modem hookup. While they're there, it's inevitable: "Hey, while you're here, can you hook up my home network?" It's a huge upsell potential, for several potential revenue streams that could come out of the home networking. So, our member (MSOs) will really want that addressed.

Are there any spectral issues in the home network?

Shaw: Well, we live in a number of different places in the RF spectrum, depending on the particular medium used: Power line, phone line, coax line, wireless. Each is different. Like on the power line.

Down low.

Shaw: Very. Then most of the wireless IHN systems were developed within a license-free spectral area, around 2.4 GHz.

What else is up there?

Shaw: Microwave ovens, things like that. There are many things crowded into that range that we'll need to address. And there are other areas, like one up around 5 GHz, that's being very seriously considered by some of the vendors. The nice thing about going up higher in frequency is, the higher you are, the easier it is to deploy broader systems.

I'm sitting here thinking about inadvertently cooking the geranium on the windowsill.

Shaw: We obviously don't want to do anything that creates or contributes to any biohazards! But, yes, those issues will be examined, to see how much power these services should be allowed to use.

Last time I looked, there were something like a dozen different individual home networking standards. Is that settling down?

Shaw: Well, let's see. There's the Home Plug Powerline Alliance (HPPA). And HomeRF, which is also an IEEE standard, 802.11. There's a cordless telephony standard, called DEC, which encapsulates that technique into the home RF spec. There are others; I didn't bring my big list. There are actually lots of others.

So no paring yet. Where is cable leaning?

Shaw: Cable is agnostic at this point in time. It's in our best interest to make sure everyone is franchised.

That makes your job harder, right? You have to deal with all standards, known and unknown?

Shaw: Sure, it makes it harder, but look at it this way: Will two competing home networking technologies be deployed in close proximity?

Living in the Geekosphere, as you know I do, we now have two in-home networks—plain old 10baseT, and wireless.

Shaw: (laughs) Whether or not typical homeowners would do that, remains to be seen. With all of this, for home networking, the hard part of the job is the structure of the interfaces. So that you include anything a cable customer would ultimately do.

Let's talk about the interfaces.

Shaw: I'm describing the logical interfaces. The thing we really need to get right in the IHN protocol is the logical pieces.

What does that mean?

Shaw: We're building an enabling platform that will enable a tremendous variety of new services, created by a new bunch of engineers, and technologies, and technologists. Think about the folks just now graduating from college. We're right now reaching the point where people will come into the workplace who have been playing with PCs since they were 2 years old. As demographics change like that, we'll get young people harboring thoughts like, "If only I could do this." Maybe they go out and get the training to know how to do it. That's part of what makes this an exciting time. It's not going to be just us technologists for much longer. The kids who grew up on PCs will be able to see things that we're not seeing, because we've been bound by more traditional notions of what constitutes entertainment and service delivery.

And until then?

Shaw: That's why we've got to get the logical interfaces right, while being flexible for the future—because we don't want to create anything that could be a barrier for a future new service.

So you have to plan for all media and all services. Whew.

Shaw: We want to have as many potential ways of touching a customer as we can get. The more opportunities we enable, the more customers there are that may want to consume our services.

What's the timeline on the project? Milestones?

Shaw: We're working on a fast track to produce an overall specification guideline, in the near term. That's a framework, to guide future work. We're using fairly standard CableLabs methodology there.

That means lifting a procedural page from DOCSIS?

Shaw: Yes. We'll parse that into chunks, and do a chunk at a time, setting milestones there. I think we're going to be thinking very seriously about test philosophies, starting around the first of next year. How to test, how long it'll take, that kind of thing.

How's the activity level right now, from vendors and member MSOs? It looked like your last big meeting, in July, was fairly mobbed.

Shaw: We've seen a very, very good response from the vendor community. There are 84 vendors, at least, under non-disclosure with us on this project. The members are staying engaged, too; we have volunteers from three different companies, to sit in on the deliberations of the focus teams, and provide the reality checks.

Do you have a mental picture of the nirvana networked home? The one where you drive into the garage, and the network sees that you've listened to chapter 6 of the Stegner novel on the way home, so it's time to remove that chapter and load 7 and 8?

Shaw: My image is more general. I'd like to see seamless integration across all of the delivery platforms— voice, video, data—and there, I'd like us to get away from the rigid bounds that we have on what services are delivered over what things.

Such as?

Shaw: I say a CRT is a CRT. Some hook to the PC, others, maybe into TV tuners. I'd like to see us delivering media to any potential device. However, other sorts of cross-platform services need some thought.

Do you have a favorite example? The smart fridge? Paint us a verbal picture.

Shaw: Enhanced services. Places where we can really add value. My favorite example touches several different things that we use. It's "The Big Game." You don't want to be disturbed, but you're expecting some phone calls that you need to take. And you also don't want to turn down any calls from your wife's cell phone, or from your daughter, calling home from college.

Or maybe you do.

Shaw: (laughs) Or maybe you do. But I'm giving the genteel example. So before the game, you sit down at the PC and call up a self-provisioning table. You say, for the next three hours, I want the big game, and shift it to the big screen. And you tell it you're expecting calls, so during the next three hours, only put these numbers through. Any other call that comes in, display it on the TV screen with caller ID, and give me some options: take it and automatically mute the TV when I do. Or route it to voice mail. Or play out the "no solicitors" message so I never have to deal with those calls.

A very handy example. Sounds more immediately useful than the fridge that scans the bar code of the milk container, and notifies the store to bring you more.

Shaw: There are some really far-out examples out there. But we need to get the basics down right, first.

E-mail: ellis299@aol.com

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