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Test time for CableHome

Thu, 10/31/2002 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Assistant Editor

Two residential gateway makers made major statements in mid-October after becoming the first vendors to submit products to CableLabs for official CableHome 1.0 testing.

The only vendors that decided to stick their necks out and gun for certification were Linksys Group Inc. and Netgear Inc. Whether those products passed the test won't be revealed until at least Dec. 19, when CableLabs is expected to release the official results of certification wave 24.

Motorola's SBG1000
Motorola’s SBG1000
"We decided to be very aggressive with our cable strategy and take a leadership role with CableHome," says Linksys Director of Broadband Matt McRae.

Linksys has rapidly bumped up its North American cable modem market share strictly through retail channels, moving to the No. 6 slot at the end of the second quarter of 2003 with 51,161 units shipped, giving it 3.25 percent of the market for the period, according to Kinetic Strategies Inc. Linksys has also gained some favor among MSOs through home networking sales and support deals with companies such as AT&T Broadband.

Residential gateways with embedded cable modem technology represent the "next battleground" for traditional cable modem vendors, McRae says.

Linksys will enter the fray with a new DOCSIS 1.1-certified four-port cable gateway, but–at least in the early going–will only sell the product directly to cable operators.

"Initially, this won't be a retail product for us," McRae says. "We've received a great response by MSOs [for the CableHome product], so we're not in a big hurry to go to retail." He adds that Linksys' cable gateway already is in trials with cable operators, and should be deployed commercially before the end of the year.

The CableHome 1.0 specification, released in April, was crafted to extend DOCSIS to other devices populating a home network, including residential gateways. Since then, CableLabs has conducted four major interoperability tests with vendor products to ensure that they're all speaking the "right language," says Rouzbeh Yassini, senior executive consultant to CableLabs.

Although CableHome 1.0-based products have only been involved in "practice runs" prior to certification wave 24, the products are well enough along their development curves that some MSOs have begun to trial equipment based on the specification, Yassini notes.

Like other CableLabs specifications such as DOCSIS, CableHome certification comes at a price. CableLabs, starting in 2003, will simplify and streamline some of its certification practices by combining its DOCSIS test programs with PacketCable and CableHome.

That will result in some lower testing fees. DOCSIS testing of cable modems will drop 26 percent to about $70,000, and CableHome testing of a stand-alone residential gateway will run $30,000. Likewise, a product that happens to be a cable modem, multimedia terminal adapter and a residential gateway all in one box can be tested against all three specifications for $130,000.

CABLEHOME CAPABILITIES

Toshiba's PCX5000
Toshiba’s PCX5000
CableHome 1.0, in addition to providing a consistent interface for cable operators, features a minimum set of remote management firewall functionality, a secure management message environment that links the headend to the residential gateway, and network management elements such as Cable Address Translation. CAT, as it's called, pulls the shade on Network Address Translation (NAT), allowing cable operators to "see" how a home networking device is impacting the DOCSIS network.

Those piece parts are designed to provide the functionality consumers need to handle basic home networking needs such as sharing Internet connections with multiple PCs and linking those PCs to printers, scanners and other peripherals. CableHome 1.0, in its current form, doesn't reach into the home network beyond the gateway device.

S-A's DPR362
S-A’s DPR362
Future versions of the CableHome specification will add several enhancements that will enable a variety of PacketCable-based applications such as IP telephony and multiplayer gaming. CableLabs is also exploring CableHome enhancements that could lead to other profitable services for cable operators. Among them: standardized virtual private network and firewall support for telecommuters, and a "discovery" capability for home networking devices that might hang off of the core residential gateway.

CableLabs has not set a specific timeframe on when those enhancements might be added to future CableHome specifications. "They are all [presently] at the feasibility level," Yassini says.

WHY CABLEHOME?

From an MSO's perspective, CableHome's benefit is clear: products based on the specification can open up additional revenue sources. Initially, operators can offer customers a home networking service package–perhaps based on a monthly fee–based on equipment designed to sync up to their high-speed DOCSIS networks. Longer-term, CableHome might also offer MSOs lower inventory costs and a bevy of low-cost and interoperable home networking gear.

Consumers, however, don't necessarily need to build their home networks with CableHome-stamped products. In fact, there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy buying equipment on their own and setting up their home networks sans cable operator intervention.

Yassini agrees that technically savvy consumers aren't the primary targets for CableHome 1.0 products. "CableHome 1.0 is for [people] who need home networking as a tool or a device to get a job done," he says. It's also for people who might not have the expertise to set it up on their own, or wouldn't mind if the cable operator lent some technical and general customer support.

"Instead of just a product, home networking can be a service," Linksys' McRae says, noting that home networking equipment sold from store shelves and directly through cable operators won't necessarily compete for the same customers.

CableHome can help the less technically inclined because it allows operators to peer into home networks and help customers troubleshoot the devices in the home through remote management tools and techniques.

One of those tools involves pinging the various devices on a home network to check for connectivity. Another, dubbed a "speed test," monitors the gateway to determine whether packets were dropped. "A cable operator can't [use those tools] without CableHome," says Steve Saunders, CableLabs' project director, home networking.

GROWING SUPPORT

Although only two manufacturers have felt confident enough to go for official CableHome 1.0 testing so far (and paid the full $95,000 fee–prices don't drop until next year), several other vendors are building a diverse line of gateway products for high-speed cable environments as they prepare to pull the testing trigger in 2003.

Motorola Broadband, which held off on official CableHome testing in wave 24, will be pushing the SBG1000 to operators, retailers and consumers.

The SBG1000 "is our first product that's designed around the CableHome specification," says David Grubb, vice president of advanced network technology for Motorola Broadband's IP communications gateways division.

Toshiba America Information Systems marks another CableHome hopeful with its new PCX5000 residential gateway. Already certified for DOCSIS 1.0, Toshiba's 802.11-based wireless device will help cable operators offer more advanced services that extend beyond the scope of CableHome 1.0, says company Marketing Communications Manager Christopher Boring.

Although Toshiba will sell the PCX5000 direct to cable operators, the CE giant will also sell the device through consumer channels, and already has deals in place with two "major" retailers, Boring says.

David Lin
Lin
Fremont, Calif.-based vendor HighSpeed Surfing Inc. isn't submitting a product for CableHome testing in wave 24, but plans to go for full certification when CableLabs launches wave 25 in January 2003, says company President and CEO David Lin. HighSpeed Surfing participated in the CableHome practice run CableLabs conducted during wave 23. "We believe, based on our past experience, that [CableLabs] is still fine-tuning the test process," Lin says.

When HSS decides to make its official CableHome 1.0 push, HSS expects to test the SM 300, which will be formally introduced at next month's Western Show. True to its design, the SM 300 wireless (802.11a) base unit will accommodate a variety of independent modules.

Scientific-Atlanta submitted its new DPR362 residential gateway for DOCSIS 1.1 certification in certification wave 24, but has decided to hold off on official testing for CableHome 1.0. Like S-A's WebStar cable modems, the DPR362 is the product of the company's relationship with Askey Computer Corp.

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