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Sun, 10/31/2004 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

New and emerging wireline and wireless technologies are enabling consumers
to ship and share high-end photos, music and video with a wide range of devices

Life isn't as simple as it used to be in the home networking world. Though the technology is still used to splice bandwidth among PCs and to printers and other peripherals, consumers are also tapping their home networks to ship around their digital entertainment–music, photos or even video.

Because no one wants to string ugly Ethernet cables around the house, and because a home outfitted with Cat5 is still the exception rather than the rule, a raft of wired and wireless platforms have risen up as solid enhancements, or outright replacements.

And there seems to be a solution for just about any situation–a good thing considering the fact that the location of audio and video equipment isn't always in the same place in every home.

"The video network and the audio network might not be the same network. Video might be wired and audio might be wireless. It's convenient to have coax to the television, but not to your stereo necessarily," notes Michael Collette, CEO of Ucentric Systems, a maker of software for media centers. And that is part of the reason why so many options have sprung up.

Wired and ready

Because very few homes are outfitted with Ethernet wiring, three wired technologies are bubbling to the top of the heap as prime distributors of high-end media: HomePlug, HomePNA...and good ol' coax.

HomePlug is becoming popular because of the availability of power outlets, which typically outnumber the phone lines and coax drops in most domestic homes. But the current generation, 14 Mbps HomePlug 1.0, is largely limited to data, voice and some audio applications. But adding video to the mix isn't very far away.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance announced this fall it had entered the final stage of HomePlug AV, a next-gen standard that aims to push information over powerline networks at a theoretical 200 Mbps–enough to distribute multiple streams of standard-definition and high-definition video signals over a home network.

Despite the progress, HomePlug AV won't productize until late 2005, according to Cameron McCaskill, vice president of sales and business development at Intellon Inc., primary supplier of HomePlug silicon.

Networking Adapters
Belkin has built a line of wireless video
networking adapters based on Magis
Networks’ ‘Air5’ technology.
But Intellon isn't in the mood to wait that long for product that can at least do SD video. As an interim step, the company has created a new chipset that can produce speeds approaching 85 Mbps. Intellon's INT5500 chip, set to hit production levels in Q2 2005, can talk to HomePlug 1.0 devices, but incorporates a "turbo mode" integrated circuit extension. Intellon believes a "clean line" will enable the chipset to enable true throughputs in the 40 Mbps to 45 Mbps range.

Domestically, the second most common wire in the house is usually the phone line. The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) has been tinkering away on a third-generation platform for multimedia networking. Aptly named HomePNA 3.0, backers claim the technology will offer data rates of 128 Mbps, and up to 240 Mbps via an option that expands the bandwidth up to 28 MHz. Field trials have elicited usable throughputs of about 104 Mbps.

Well ahead of some competing advanced home networking standard efforts, HomePNA ratified the 3.0 standard in June 2003, and hopes to make it an ITU standard by late this year or early 2005, says Rich Nesin, HomePNA's vice president of marketing, and a spokesman for HPNA chipmaker CopperGate Communications.

Nesin says CopperGate's 3.0 chipset is entering production and a handful of CE companies have created prototype products. Scientific-Atlanta, for example, is using CopperGate's silicon inside an IP video bridge that uses HPNA 3.0 to distribute media over coax networks. It looks much like a coax splitter.

Next to powerline and phone outlets, the next most available wired element is coax, which is typically installed near home entertainment areas.

Coax networking has an effort of its own: the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA). The Alliance aims to use the unused bandwidth in in-home coax to network and distribute content to TVs, set-tops, DVRs and MP3 players. And it hopes to do that at speeds up to 270 Mbps. MoCA kicked off with a handful of "name" backers, including: Comcast Cable, EchoStar Communications, Panasonic, Motorola, RadioShack Corp. and Toshiba. Silicon startup Entropic Communi-cations is also a member and one of the project's primary drivers.

The Alliance has already conducted technology trials reaching more than 200 homes, according to Ladd Wardani, president of MoCA, and vice president of business development at Entropic.

Those pilots are conducting a variety of performance tests related to data rate, QoS, packet-error rates and latency. Although 270 Mbps is the physical level rate of MoCA, the usable rate is dependent on elements such as network traffic and how many applications are running at once.

The goal/requirement is for 95 percent of the MoCA outlets to maintain a usable rate of more than 100 Mbps under pre-determined conditions, Wardini explains, citing figures from tests Entropic has conducted on its own, independent of the Alliance.

Entropic, which hopes to make its chipsets commercially available in Q1 2005, will support MoCA adapter products at first. The plan is to start integrating the technology in set-tops and other devices by mid-2005.

The wireless way

On the wireless side of the fence, the various flavors of Wi-Fi grab most of the attention these days, but some analysts believe that an emerging wireless technology called UltraWideBand (UWB) will serve as a better option for the shipment of video signals via a home network.

Eric O'Brien, a principal with Lightspeed Venture Partners, believes UWB overcomes a number of Wi-Fi bandwidth and QoS limitations.

UWB sends data in bursts over a wide swath of frequencies and transmits at low power to avoid interference with others operating in the spectrum.

The goal of UWB, O'Brien says, is to transmit data at up to 480 Mbps over short, 10 meter distances. That would enable a consumer to hook up TVs, DVRs and other CE devices to each other without dealing with a rat's nest of wires.

But the standard is not complete. Though UWB has support from companies such as Texas Instruments and Motorola Inc., the standard likely won't be finalized until sometime next year, O'Brien says. Some chips will begin showing up in mid- to late-2005, but UWB-enabled consumer products probably won't emerge until 2006, he predicts.

Another company that's making a run at wireless distribution is M2, which might be better described as a "restart" rather than a "startup."

M2, before it was M2, was known as Magis Networks. Magis plunged into bankruptcy last year, but recently emerged under the guidance of company founder Clarence Bruckner. He purchased the original Magis assets, and expects M2 to take on the Magis moniker once again.

Magis made some waves in the early part of the decade with a wireless technology based on the physical layer of 54 Mbps 802.11a. The initial requirements were to have the capacity to deliver five simultaneous SD streams, plus voice and data.

Thanks to higher MAC efficiencies, Magis' technology is capable of sending out solid 40 Mbps throughputs–well above the 25-30 Mbps one can get with standard 802.11a. M2/Magis claims that its technology can even shoot through walls and maintain throughput levels at extended range–up to 150 feet inside a building, and 300 to 400 feet in open areas.

The new M2/Magis already has some deals under its belt. Belkin has integrated M2's technology into a line of A/V adapters that can use any analog video input to send video signals wirelessly to another device, be it a PC, set-top box or DVD player, where another adapter decodes the signal.

A "major" TV manufacturer also has plans to embed the technology in its LCD and plasma displays, but Bruckner was not yet able to disclose the company's name.

The initial set of adapters will re-encode data up to 15 Mbps. But that's because the technology is limited by the end-device's internal decoder.

"Our chipset will do 40 Mbps and multiple streams, but today the encoding technology is only up to 15 Mbps," Bruckner explains. But that still leaves out high-definition signals for now.

M2/Magis has completed reference designs for 1394 inputs, which would enable the platform to do full HDTV over the air. But there's another issue–very few boxes in the field have the 1394 port activated.


Box support

But what will actually use those wired and wireless connections? That answer is getting larger by the day as set-top vendors and media center makers come forth with new products set for direct distribution through operators or via retail channels. Much of the recent activity and innovation has involved retail-only products.

This fall, Microsoft Corp. MSN TV division revealed more details about a new broadband-enabled box that looks like WebTV on steroids. The new product, dubbed the MSN TV 2 Internet & Media Player, is capable of storing and playing digital music, videos and photos, and grabbing content directly from the Internet and PC hard drives.

The new MSN box doesn't integrate technologies such as Wi-Fi or HomePlug, but offers USB and Ethernet ports that, in turn, could support a variety of adapters.

"At a high level, it's about unlocking the media on the PC to a comfortable place," such as the living room, says Sam Klepper, general manager of MSN TV. "We use the existing home network to achieve that."

Video Without Boundaries (VWB), another startup, has built a media center called the MediaREADY 4000 that comes equipped with a hard drive (40 gigabyte or 120 gigabyte), a DVD/CD player and multiple USB interfaces. The company has also made a version that sports DVD-burning capabilities. Like Microsoft, the idea is to share content with other devices, but to use the TV screen as the home page.

VWB is also playing the content card, planning to make available a large array of music and video "channels" delivered through the box's broadband connection.

In addition to mainstream content, the company will also provide access to special interest content that's cheaper to distribute and offers more encoding and encryption flexibility, notes David Novak, VWB's executive vice president of sales and marketing.

But when it comes to obtaining and distributing content, none may be as ambitious in this area as DAVETV. DAVE, an acronym for Distributed Audio Video Entertainment, claims its IPTV broadcast network will have 30,000 hours of content available by early 2005. At press time, DAVETV had yet to announce any programming deals.

Whatever those deals are, the content will be sent directly to a DVR-like set-top called the "Xport." The box will have the ability to download, decode and distribute audio, digital photos and both standard-definition and high-definition video.

"It's really being designed as an IP receiver of media," says DAVETV chief Ken Lipscomb, the former CEO of ZapMedia. "It's more akin to what you feel with a TiVo, but with a network."

 

Say hello to 'Internet 0'

Of course, not all networking needs to be done through fat, speedy pipes for high-quality video and audio. It might make lots of sense to slow things a tad for tasks that don't require gigabit speeds, such as home automation and simple authorization functions. A concept making the rounds these days is "Internet 0," a lightweight networking architecture that does not rely on big iron routers and servers found in Internet 1 or the emerging Internet 2. Instead, Internet 0, in the spirit of lesser-speed platforms such as X10 and ZigBee, extends standardized networking functionality onto everything from light bulbs to house keys to home security systems.

The idea, explained in detail in a recent issue of "Scientific American," is to extend "interdevice internetworking" of unlike devices.

More information about Internet 0 is available on the Web at http://cba.mit.edu/projects/I0/. –JB

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