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Home Networking: Multi-Room Strategies

Tue, 09/30/2008 - 8:30pm
Jim Barthold

Pay now or pay later.

It wasn’t surprising when the cable industry crowned Silicon Image’s “next generation of digital connectivity” the best product idea at CableLabs’ summer Innovation Showcase. The concept promises something every cable operator desires: whole-home connectivity through consumer electronics equipment.

What more could the penurious industry want than putting the burden of connecting a plethora of broadband-enabled technology on the shoulders of the CE guys?

Home Networking Options - (click to enlarge)

For one thing, a more accelerated timetable than the one laid out by Tony Werner, Comcast’s CTO, who said that if all goes right (which it rarely does), Silicon Image products would be ready for field trial deployments late in 2009. That depends on cooperation from a consumer electronics industry that has been burned so often by cable that it’s covered with ugly purple splotches.

“The CE industry is very interested in it simply because it simplifies their life,” said Steve Tirado, CEO of Silicon Image, who usually deals with CE manufacturers with his company’s core chips for high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI).

THE HDMI OF MULTI-ROOM
Cable sees Silicon Image as the HDMI of multi-room connectivity: Put the chip in a television and spread the broadband wealth without paying a cent for the in-home network. Cable box vendors put HDMI ports on their boxes so the TVs do all the HD work; why not put that same onus on the TV or some other in-home consumer electronics equipment?

The pin that’s threatening to burst this bubble of cable optimism is that Silicon Graphics is “still a proprietary solution, and if you look at the timeline they have for getting specs together where people can build silicon and put it into products, you’re talking three or four years out,” said Chris Cholas, principal engineer for Time Warner Cable’s Advanced Technology Group-West. “We want to move to a cheaper CPE solution within two to three years.”

Want might be the wrong word; must would seem to better describe the urgency based on past history. When cable is slow to market, competition jumps in. As cable began its tortuous turn into digital, satellite not only grabbed a foothold but planted a flag. Today telephone companies, a decade ago seen as dinosaurs with no competitive technological chance, are ambushing cable with broadband bandwidth and IPTV in neighborhood guerrilla warfare. And they think inside the home is the final battleground. Cable, meanwhile, has no cohesive strategy to tie home electronics into a tight bundle with its broadband pipe.

“CableLabs is getting mixed signals,” Cholas said. “If you sit in the OpenCable home networking meetings, we’re still all trying to figure it out. Comcast has its own view of the way the home network looks, and I think we have our own view. In many ways they overlap, and in some cases they don’t.”

Cable doesn’t have much time because Verizon and AT&T, with nothing to lose, approach the home and everything in it as part of their birthright.

“Our service does not terminate on the side of your house anymore; it terminates on your TV, it terminates on your voice-over-IP phone or your PC. Until we can assure that that data is getting through to the right device, you’re not going to have a good experience, (so) a home network is absolutely as critical as the access and the core networks,” said Tushar Saxena, director of technology for Verizon Communications’ home networking technologies group.

FIBER IN, COAX THROUGHOUT
Verizon arrives at the house with new fiber, then uses MoCA to recycle the coax that cable already installed. Dead spots are fed with Wi-Fi, putting the whole home under a Verizon cloud.

“Ninety-five percent of existing homes are coax,” said Saxena, who couldn’t resist gloating that “we didn’t put that wire in there, cable companies did, and we’re happy to use it. We’ve been doing this over three years now; every set-top box we’ve ever deployed has MoCA built in, which allows our technicians to use existing wiring.”

One knock against Verizon’s FiOS fiber-to-the-home rollout is that installations take longer than a highway worker’s coffee break. Saxena doesn’t discount this criticism but notes that a correctly installed residence doesn’t require later truck rolls.

Verizon’s offering has, from “day one,” included the seemingly important whole-home DVR. AT&T, which is rolling out DSL-based U-Verse, last month introduced Total Home DVR, which connects up to eight TVs in a home to a single DVR.

The network relies on HomePNA 3.1 to distribute video throughout the home.

AT&T plans to roll it out through its entire U-verse footprint by the end of this year. Alan Weinkrantz, a blogger and AT&T U-Verse consumer who has both insight and influence with the carrier as he records his experiences with the network, said, “Whole-home or multi-room DVR is one selling point, (but) I think most of the people just want to come home, have good, reliable service, enjoy their entertainment, pay their bill, and make sure it’s reasonably and competitively priced.”

MAINTAINING THE HOME
Prior to introducing Total Home DVR, AT&T introduced ConnecTech, a service that in many ways will support and complement it. ConnecTech is a broadband home installation, maintenance and service program.

“It’s important that when we set up a customer’s advanced television, the broadband, that we have everything up and running and it’s running to full capacity and they get to take advantage of the full capabilities that that service provides,” said Randy Seger, vice president of consumer home services at AT&T. “Customers’ homes are getting complex, and we want to make sure that customers can take full advantage of the services that we sell as they lay equipment on those services and ensure that from room to room, if they want to network their PCs, we’ll set that up for them.”

Prices start at $100 for the basic installation service and include customer tutorials; another $15 buys ongoing remote phone technical support service.

Most cable operators avoid involvement inside the home – and even charge for maintenance calls – but subscribers still seek help, so “we’re finding ourselves supporting them even though our official demark is really just our cable modem,” said Shawn Fisher, vice president of advanced services technology at Bresnan Communications. “We’re supporting them because we want to maintain happy customers and we just want to help.”

It would be nice, he conceded, to make a little money on it or have better control, but “home networking is pretty much a commodity. You can go out and buy a device and most of our houses have them,” he said.

But when something goes wrong, those users generally call the cable operator.

“It’s not good telling your customer, ‘Sorry, can’t help you, here’s a number to call,’” Fisher said. “You want to do that, and it’s a hard line that you should probably draw.”

It begs for the service provider to take control in the first place.

“We’re looking at the various solutions out there,” Fisher said. “It’s really easy to do it for data, but when it comes to video it changes a little bit.”

BACK TO THE CE
That’s why Silicon Image snared the summer spotlight; it puts the tough part on the CE equipment.

“It’s an aggressive solution,” said Marwan Fawaz, CTO of Charter Communications and one of those supporting the company at CableLabs. “This is from the company that co-invented HDMI, which is becoming one of the most popular connectors for us in the home with consumers.”

It’s also taken most of this decade for HDMI to grab a spot on the retail shelves. Silicon Image, Fawaz conceded, “is a great technology, but at this moment there’s not enough population of devices to make this a viable (retail) solution.”

Cholas, who sees the Silicon Image timeline as a problem, said he isn’t in a rush yet because Verizon “hasn’t yet” had a bottom line impact on Time Warner’s business. Because that window is closing, Time Warner will “get into the field by next year” with its Santa Monica (SM) box, so named because it was brainstormed on the pier of that name. The SM is a cable modem-eMTA with some storage and a media service and ports for MoCA, Ethernet and Wi-Fi. The MSO plans to use Wi-Fi for data and voice and, if there are dead spots in the home, to use Wi-Fi extenders off MoCA in those rooms.

“We are looking at an all-IP distribution inside the home, taking that gateway concept and leveraging that position within the home, and putting tuners into it and leveraging all-IP devices behind it,” he said.

Comcast has a service it calls Anyroom, which works only for those subs who have digital STBs in multiple rooms. Ideally, however, home networking should require less equipment, not more.

The usually unified cable industry is fractured on its multi-room strategy. Comcast and Charter are hoping for Silicon Image to take the burden off their books; Time Warner is sittin’ on the dock with its Santa Monica box; and Bresnan is waiting to see what develops. Among other cable operators questioned for this story, Cox Communications was uncharacteristically uncooperative, Cablevision was characteristically quiet and Insight offered no insights.

Meanwhile, while everyone pays attention to the telcos, few seemingly notice the satellite providers. DirecTV, which has been hammering cable with its triple-digit HDTV lineup, has also started networking the consumer home.

SATELLITE HOME NETWORK
“The first feature we offer to customers is a personal computer with a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) server … that can be downloaded so you can watch television for personal use and personal video. That’s the tool we found to learn to talk to a variety of PCs and a variety of routers and devices in the home,” said Romulo Pontua, DirecTV’s CTO.

DLNA-enabled gear is first being used for VOD.

“Every customer we have just has to plug in their box to the home network, and we find a way to get to the Internet by ourselves. Today you can get Internet radio and television, but in the future it might be via PC or directly through us,” Pontua said.

Because DirecTV has no direct landline for high-speed data return and interactivity, its home network is necessarily convoluted. On the other hand, some subscribers enamored with that big HD package won’t care if the home network is a little inelegant. DirecTV is taking no chances, Pontua said, by using a “plug-and-play device” to make the network invisible to the end user.

“It’s taken years to make our device smart regardless of what you have in your home. When you plug your broadband home network to our device, it finds it, understands the router, understands all the devices on the network and coexists,” Pontua said.

DirecTV has a long history with CE vendors, and it’s stepping up its work with “the big players in the industry, router players, PC players … to forward video throughout the home, first from our box to a PC to watch TV on the PC, and later between boxes,” he said.

The other satellite player, EchoStar, has sheared its Dish Network into a separate entity and stayed behind to focus on home networking. EchoStar lists Dish as its biggest customer and has NDAs with major cable operators and “has looked at wired, wireless, distributed storage, single storage, back in the headend storage … but none are jumping out and saying ‘this is what we’re going to do,’” said Michael Hawkey, vice president of sales and marketing. “When you’re talking about whole-home strategies, it’s about sharing the pipe around the house, and it’s about sharing storage around the house. How it gets to the house … doesn’t upset the architecture of the whole home.”

How it gets to the house, in fact, is pretty much settled. What happens inside that house, as Verizon and DirecTV and some cable operators seem to understand, is where the consumers will make their ultimate decision on which bundled service to keep.

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