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HOME NETWORKING: Home is where the network is

Tue, 03/31/2009 - 8:55pm
Jim Barthold, Contributing Editor

Phone companies aim for ‘seamless’ network experience.

Phone companies know home networking. They also know that there’s no single route running over a single type of infrastructure from the central office to the home gateway. In fact, when it comes down to it, there’s not even a single format of content, be that voice, data or, increasingly, video.

Despite the straw to which some traditionalist competitors cling, phone companies are no longer wed to twisted pair copper; in fact, quite the opposite. Every telco is taking on more fiber than Larry King on a diet, led by Verizon’s FiOS fiber-to-the-premises architecture, followed by Qwest and AT&T with fiber-to-the-node delivery, and including the cable-like HFC networks that SureWest Communications deploys in some of its systems along with more traditional copper and more advanced fiber.

‘seamless’ network experience

Multiple transports deliver multiple speeds, introduce multiple problems and, directly and indirectly, impact the content before it gets the chance to move around a residence via any of the established wireline or wireless networking routes.

“While there are always these dreams that a variety of different homes will have one network that will meet every need, that’s never happened in my lifetime,” said Paul Whitehead, executive director of video planning for AT&T.

While FTTN dominates AT&T’s architecture, the carrier also has FTTP and some twisted pair, depending on the neighborhoods it serves. To make things easier for its techs, AT&T moves all of its content to the IP layer, so while the transport might be different, the content being transported is uniform.

“From a consumer’s point of view, they don’t realize whether they have FTTP or FTTN, and they don’t really care whether the in-home network is HPNA over coax or 100 megabit Ethernet over Cat-5. The services all look the same, and everything works the same from the consumer viewpoint,” Whitehead said.

That’s an important element for the telcos as they deliver voice, video and high-speed data over their networks and then transport that content to various devices within the home. Techs, of course, must understand what network is being used outside the house and what’s being used inside; consumers, though, shouldn’t see anything other than a triple-play service.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in the last few years moving our video, our data and our voice services to IP. Even though it was a hard transition, a lot of work in IT, a lot of work investing in these home network technologies … as we bring in new transport layers, it will now be simpler to embrace the technology [and] new devices. We’ve talked a lot in the industry about video on PCs, video on cell phones, video on your Xbox … but we think since we moved all our services to IP, we’ll be able to make that migration to support lots of different services in the home, regardless of what IP network they’re on.”

A big home networking key is providing enough bandwidth to deliver multiple services that can be transported around the home. The champion in that area is Verizon, which bit the whole bullet with FiOS, and which boasts of virtually unlimited speeds to the home and still delivers its video content using MPEG-2.

The trick for Verizon is translating a different batch of IP and traditional MPEG content at the home and moving that to the right devices within the home.

“The fiber terminates on the ONT, and what comes out is coax. The gateway goes from it in a central location in the home and to the set-top boxes where the TVs are,” said Tushar Saxena, director of home networking architecture and design at Verizon. “The ONT talks to the gateway over coax using MoCA, and the set-top boxes talk to the gateway over IP over coax using MoCA. The gateway has Wi-Fi, as well as Ethernet, and it talks to the computer within the home using Wi-Fi Internet, and sometimes MoCA.”

The latest crinkle in the home network space is a big jump in the capabilities of Wi-Fi via 802.11n. All of the carriers are studying, but none have adopted, this new powerful transport method.

“802.11n gives you comparable performance to wired networks and lets you do a lot with not just devices that have the latest protocol, but give you benefits for whatever you have installed,” said Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Here’s a way to really get the most out of your investment dollar in terms of your Wi-Fi gear. The more you look, the more compelling benefits you find for investing money in Wi-Fi.”

Wi-Fi could also get a boost from newly opened white space wireless spectrum – a powerful, albeit limited, bunch of airwaves that are part of the detritus that remains when the broadcasters migrate to digital transmissions and the mobile players – and Cox – grab the best licensed spectrum. While white space is seen as an excellent wireless transport for rural areas that have no broadband connectivity, it could easily be configured to Wi-Fi specifications to serve home networks in suburban and urban residences.

“Wi-Fi sometimes has a difficult time reaching across the house or upstairs or down in the basement. All those issues will go away using these [white space] frequencies,” said Rick Rotondo, chief marketing officer of Spectrum Bridge, which has developed a Web site to show consumers where white space is available.

White space, or any kind of wireless, is a home networking possibility that has nothing to do with how the signals get to the home. Mostly wireless is for moving data around the home from one computer to the other, although 802.11n and white space spectrum do offer up potential for moving video, as well.

“Data is important, but it’s not a very complicated task,” said Eran Rom, CEO of Jungo, a residential gateway software company. “[People] have video in the home, but not in every room, and not in all the home, [so] if you want to change something, it’s very difficult to add or change the video connections if they’re wired. Going forward, wireless connectivity and the wireless way of moving data will become more evident and required.”

That’s going forward. For now, telcos are investing their bucks and time in making certain that the signals reach the home, and that the home networks don’t complicate life for the subscribers.

“For us, the home network is really critical. It’s all about moving whatever the media is around the home in an efficient manner, and ultimately giving ourselves as a service provider and the customer the right level of visibility into what’s going on with that home network,” said Eric Freund, director of business innovation and development for SureWest, a carrier that is surely the most schizophrenic of the group.

“At times we have a split personality,” Freund agreed.

SureWest is an ILEC in its hometown of Roseville, Calif., “and everybody thinks of us as the telephone company,” he said. In its Kansas City and Sacramento franchise areas, the carrier is known as an “integrated service provider.”

Still, when push comes to shove, SureWest is like its telco brethren: “The average customers, when it comes to video service, don’t care if they’re getting service over fiber versus copper versus coax; they just want it to work, and they expect the reliability to be there and the installation is going to be done quickly,” Freund said.

The customer might not care, but the tech does.

“When we hook fiber to the side of the house, we know we have a 100-megabit symmetrical connection to the house,” he said. “With HFC, it really isn’t a whole lot more difficult than with fiber … It’s more of a homerun model in terms of not doing an IP-over-coax for home networks; so in terms of home networking to the home, we have a little more work to do relative to what we’re able to do on the fiber-to-the-home side.”

Twisted pair remains a twisted problem.

“When you’re talking about delivery of services over twisted pair or copper, it becomes a challenge to diagnose whether the problem is an issue inside or outside the home,” Freund said.

Issue or not, easy or hard, doesn’t matter in the end because SureWest, like all of the telcos, is committed to the home network as its service differentiator.

“We have a competitive advantage over the cable companies in providing home networking, and this is an area that we are trying to own going forward,” said Travis Leo, director of product development management and broadband services at Qwest Communications.

Just to prove that no two telcos are alike, Qwest is yet again different in that it doesn’t offer its own video service. Qwest subscribers who want video get DirecTV, as do some Verizon and AT&T subscribers, but those carriers also have their own video services. A standalone satellite offering is yet another element in the home network, especially since DirecTV is trying to level the playing field with cable’s VOD play.

“Their video-on-demand service uses the [Qwest] broadband connection, [so] having a reliable broadband connection allows you to offer better consumer DirecTV video-on-demand content,” Leo said. “You have to take that [satellite] set-top box and connect it to your gateway via a variety of different technology possibilities, whether that’s wireless or HomePlug or hard-wired Ethernet.”

Qwest is also preparing for the day when video in the form of user-generated content (UGC) puts a strain on its outside networks. The carrier is feeding fiber to smaller nodes and tweaking its copper while building out next-generation VDSL2 transport to subscribers’ homes, because “the core of any home network is a strong, reliable and fast broadband connection,” he said.

“As user-generated content becomes a big deal, upload speeds become more important to consumers,” Leo said. “That’s a lot of what’s driving our adoption of VDSL2 technology, because the ADSL standard is limited. We’re very fortunate that our copper and our plants are in very good condition. The customers that we deliver our faster speeds to already, our 20 meg services, we’re seeing extremely good response, extremely high quality of service, low trouble rates. We’re really pleased with what we’ve seen.”

There is a unified point of view among the telcos: The home network will no doubt be refined with improved wireline transport and more powerful wireless, but without a dependable and high-speed broadband connection to the home, there will be no need to network anything.

Building the do-everything gateway

The home network is by nature a complex area. Aside from an actual network structure that can use home electrical wiring, home phone wiring, existing coaxial cable or various forms of wireless, there are the devices that receive and disseminate the data signals throughout the home – primarily the gateway and the STB, but more recently including other peripherals such as DEC phones and femtocells.

These are “fundamentally different devices” that add to the complexity of the home network and, importantly for service providers that offer these networks, the cost.

“In the coming year, they are going to become much more similar, or at some point will become indistinguishable from each other from an applications perspective,” promised Jonathan Symonds, marketing product manager at 2Wire, a home networking vendor.

2Wire is something of a telecommunications vendor anomaly: It’s telco-specific in its product line and its customer base.

“We have no cable customers; we have no customers outside the core telco mix,” said Symonds, pointing to the company’s biggest customer, AT&T, as evidence.

This tunnel vision lets the company focus on what best serves its customers and the telecom space, primarily by taking as many steps as possible to simplify the base or products to do more for less, starting with the newly developed GEM platform, which at base is a Gig-E, 802.11n, four-port Ethernet gateway – and then some.

“What distinguishes it from other devices in our portfolio and other devices on the market is that we’ve added a layer of modularity that will enable operators to provision additional hardware attributes, either when they ship it out for the first time or at subsequent points where the customer can just snap these modules on,” he said.

That modular approach, he said, will “give rise to a whole suite of applications” and help telcos that provide home networking solutions to stay flexible with new applications and services as things evolve.

“If a customer is interested in femtocells, rather than providing them with a standalone femtocell that plugs into the gateway, we have the opportunity for providers to give them a gateway platform that has a snap-on femtocell module. The same could apply to a multitude of other peripheral devices, such as intelligent home servers, home security, home media and DEC phones,” he said.

The model mirrors the one cable followed when it gradually rolled out digital boxes, and then added features such as DVR and on-demand to those boxes.

“We’re not talking about a forklift upgrade,” Symonds said. “We’re talking about operators beginning to mix this into their product portfolio over time, and it will take a larger and larger portion of that portfolio.”

 

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