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Home Networks are a Gateway to Gateways

Fri, 09/30/2011 - 8:55pm
Brian Santo

If you're going to do home networking, might as well consolidate CPE.

In the process of simultaneously supporting their subscribers’ use of iPads and consumption of streaming video, multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) have been forced to get deeper into home networking (HN) faster than intended. They’re beginning to get all of the HN pieces to fit on the board, but it’s still only a beginning.

As much as service providers have had a presence in their subscribers’ homes for decades, that presence – first a set-top box, then a broadband modem – represented a network terminus. The rest of the home was virgin territory, and for the most part it still is.

The need to be able to distribute subscription video within the home has been in evidence for years, and more than a few service providers now have solid experience with multi-room DVR. Some of those same companies also have some experience with modems integrated with Wi-Fi routers. Both represent significant extensions of reach into customers’ homes.

Technicolor DCW775 Gateway

MVPDs remain uneasy with Wi-Fi, however. They need to support it because it’s their subscribers’ preferred means of interfacing with their broadband services, but only recently have versions of Wi-Fi been available that get the technology to where the service providers consider it an adequately reliable option for their own subscription video.

And while multi-room DVR is most certainly an instance of home networking, it is also by nature focused almost exclusively on the distribution of subscription video.

That’s taking care of business, but it’s also only a step on the way to home networks that integrate other electronics and other services in the home. That’s the type of home network that consumers expect right now and are busy cobbling together as best they can.

“A lot of operators are buying MoCA boxes for their home network installations,” said Evan Groat, Motorola’s senior director of product management for set-top boxes, “but there is a growing trend with a lot of the CPE that you see on the consumer side, with things like Wiis, PlayStations, Roku boxes and those types of things, of being able to get access to the Internet through Wi-Fi. There’s been a lot of interest on that being done in terms of the set-top box. We’ve released a product that is used to provide that wireless connection between your set-top box and your home wireless router through 802.11n.”

Which goes to show that the gap between what consumers want and what they’re getting from their MVPDs needs to be narrowed significantly for everyone to be happy. Happier, anyway.

CONSUMERS LEAD
MVPDs were as blindsided as everyone else by the enthusiastic adoption of smartphones, tablets and handhelds; the stunning growth of over-the-top video services; and the rise of the apps model.

It’s a testament to how innovative Apple and Netflix have been that years after the former popularized handheld computers and the latter popularized OTT video, nearly everyone else in the electronics industry is still reacting to both phenomena.

All of that is compounded by the evolution of networked game systems, the introduction of broadband-enabled TVs, and the desire of everyone from home security companies to utilities to piggyback on broadband connections in order to gain access to home networks to offer their own services.

Consumers are ahead of their service providers, but it turns out they’re still heading in directions that service providers have been thinking about going for a long time – away from set-tops and toward gateways, away from parallel networks and toward converged networks, and perhaps ultimately to all-IP networks.

“We think the home network is a more important part of service delivery for a vast majority of our customers,” said Steve Reynolds, Comcast’s senior vice president of customer premises equipment.

“A lot of what we’ve done has been an extension of our access network – running coax to every room where it’s wanted. That’s the old cable model. Now there’s a cable network and a premise network. The premise network has grown out of customers’ desire to hook up to our broadband network,” he continued. “Initially, the direction we went in was to go with off-the-shelf wireless access points. But that led to operational challenges. We’d have to go in to homes and install more than one device.”

That was an impetus toward the gateway model. Earlier this summer, Comcast started offering its first gateway. Called the Dory, its features include a twoline embedded multimedia terminal adapter (EMTA) with an integrated router, a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem and a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi access point that can connect 802.11b, g and n clients simultaneously. The Dory gateway also has four Gigabit Ethernet RJ-45 ports.

Dory, Reynolds said, was a first step with consolidated devices. “It simplifies the install; it simplifies operations. There’s one device to manage, and it gives us visibility into a managed box.”

Reynolds said that when Comcast launched multiroom DVR last year, it looked into using Wi-Fi for video distribution, but it decided that using MoCA on existing coax was the better option for being able to maintain video quality.

“Moving forward, we’ll build home networks using coax to create a carriergrade network in the house, augmented with Wi-Fi to bring in IP-enabled devices,” he said.

Comcast will continue to deliver most video through QAMs, in part to be able to continue to use set-tops in order to satisfy CableCard requirements. “So that leaves us with two centers in the home – one video-centric, one broadband-centric,” Reynolds said. “Now, how do they converge?”

The set-top the company introduced in Chicago indicated the way. Code-named Parker, it is, Reynolds said, Comcast’s first hybrid set-top. “It has a QAM front end, with QAM tuners and demodulation, and it also has a DOCSIS 3.0 modem. It lets us bring applications in interactive data and interactive video into the box.

“The roadmap is to continue to have a separate box for broadband, but as you can see, there is a path toward convergence,” Reynolds added.

Comcast/Motorola TelevationTOWARD ALL-IP
Groat noted that for service providers, the transition from whole-home DVR to home networking is actually the first step in moving toward gateways and on to IP delivery.

And once you have all-IP, the technology comes full circle. Home networking takes care of itself.

“There’s an evolution that is happening within the home, where we’re starting to see everything networked together,” Groat said. He pointed out that Verizon is using MoCA for its FiOS installations, and operators like Time Warner and Comcast are now using MoCA.

“So that starts to move in terms of the capabilities of IP in the home,” he said. “Then when you look at the next-generation platform, to be able to do advanced guide experiences, centralized distribution of content in the home, transcoding. …”

With transcoding applied across multiple tuners, that gateway will be able to serve IP video to any number of devices in the home.

Pascal Portelli, Technicolor’s senior vice president of gateways and connected devices, starts with the desire to connect iPads, with different service providers favoring different combinations of connection standards, but also finds that the ultimate destination is IP.

“A lot of what’s going on is being driven by tablets and other platforms with Wi-Fi. Not having that managed will become a real problem,” Portelli said.

He said that while North American service providers remain wary of using Wi-Fi for video, it is being adopted by providers in Europe and Asia. Homes tend to be smaller in those regions, so Wi-Fi is somewhat less likely to have problems reaching far corners.

“But everyone is thinking about using it,” Portelli said.

Wi-Fi technology available today improves the robustness of the technology in several ways. One is directing, or focusing the signal (beamforming), and another is increasing the number of sending and receiving antennas (2 x 3, 3 x 3, 4 x 4). Developers are working on a new version of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac, theorized to achieve 500 Mbps to 1 Gbps, but commercialization is unlikely before 2013.

Ethernet is being added to a lot of products, Portelli noted. “MoCA and HPNA are mostly in the U.S. Few customers are doing either outside of North America. In Europe, meanwhile, HomePlug is very widespread, with every IPTV deployment using it. You can argue it’s not as robust as MoCA, but in European homes, there are fewer cable outlets. In European apartments, there’s just no coax.”

“On the remote control side, RF4CE has tailwind,” Portelli said. “We’re doing a lot of integration of RF4CE, and often we’re asked to include both IR and RF4CE.”

(Reynolds noted that Comcast’s demonstration of its Parker box at The Cable Show this summer included the use of a remote control based on RF4CE.)

Part and parcel of this trend for MSOs is more IP set-tops, Portelli observed. “They’re preparing for a transition to using IPTV, and that’s the U.S. and Europe. We’re seeing more and more boxes that can do both.

“IPTV is not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’ It’s not just for TV Everywhere. The big question is about legacy boxes, which won’t go away for years. So expect IP conversion in gateways, or maybe a set-top combined in a gateway – that’s coming,” Portelli added.

GATEWAY PERMUTATIONS
There are plenty of possible permutations for the home gateway.

“Everyone’s doing something different,” observed Arris senior vice president of marketing and business development Stan Brovont. “All technologies are still on the table.”

Arris bought Digeo two years ago, conpicking up the Moxi gateway in the transaction. Perhaps a bit ahead of its time, the latest incarnation of the Moxi box is beginning to gain some market traction, with deployments by Shaw in Canada and by BendBroadband, a small but innovative operator in Oregon.

“On the home networking side, and on the technical level, we’ve settled on MoCA as the best option, mostly because our customers understand coax,” Brovont noted.

Inputs include MoCA to connect to coax, Wi-Fi to reach mobile devices, Ethernet for any broadband-enabled devices and two phone jacks. (Arris could add I/O for PON or DSL but has no plans to, Brovont noted.)

“With our whole-home solution, we’re moving toward a Moxi gateway with six MPEG-2 tuners, plus a DOCSIS 3.0 modem and a 500 gigabyte hard drive,” Brovont said.

The interesting thing is that once people have a gateway in their homes, that gateway becomes an intriguing point of connection for others, as well.

Qualcomm Atheros makes chips for those that have decided on a combination of powerline, Wi-Fi and Ethernet, including some new silicon it says brings carrier-grade reliability to Wi-Fi in the home. The company just created an implementation of Wi-Fi 802.11n in 3 x 3, optimized for video distribution, and expects to eventually graduate to 802.11ac, the version of Wi-Fi still being developed that could theoretically provide throughputs between 500 Mbps and 1 Gbps.

“On powerline, we see 1901 to 1905 and then AVZ,” said Ganesh Swaminathan, senior product manager at Qualcomm Atheros.

IEEE 1901 is essentially the current HomePlug standard. IEEE 1905.1 is still in development. The aim is to provide an abstraction layer that will allow powerline, MoCA, Wi-Fi and Ethernet to work together. The HomePlug Alliance endorses this approach.

The HomeGrid Forum, meanwhile, backs G.hn, being developed under the auspices of the ITU. The aim of G.hn is roughly similar to that of 1905.1: to develop a standard that will unify home networking across phone lines, coax cable and powerlines.

Qualcomm Atheros is also working on a device that would allow consumers to transfer, via Wi-Fi, anything they can access on a laptop to their TVs.

“We’re also working on Smart Grid stuff. That’s also happening now,” Swaminathan said, adding that the company has some of its Smart Grid chips in commercialized smart meters.

“From the service provider perspective, yes, there’s a concentration on video,” he said. “But we’re looking at an ecosystem that includes video, Smart Grid and smart home management.”

Smart Grid connectivity, Brovont said, “is at the concept level. Because we’ve got a DOCSIS wideband modem, I can connect to any IP device in the home. It’s in the right place in the house to control other things, too,” and that’s the appeal to other service providers.

Cox/Cisco DVR Gateway

“We’re evaluating other services that could be controlled through our gateway. The first is over-the-top services, so consumers get an integrated experience with traditional linear and video-on-demand, plus over the top," Brovont added.

When Arris bought Digeo, it picked up home control, but Brovont said there were only nine customers, so they discontinued that service, pending a resurgence in interest, which might come as “green” initiatives become more popular.

Pulling mobile telephony into the home network is a real possibility, according to Brovont: “We’ve done a number of projects with cable operators that want to let their subscribers roam from femtocell to Wi-Fi hotspot.”

Arris is also considering security services and social networking. “They’re all feasible and in discussion right now,” Brovont said.

He recalled the process a few years back when music became easily distributed. We’re in a similar situation today with video, he observed.

“The challenge in the video universe is that the value of the asset is enormous. Content owners want to ensure the security of those assets. Everyone gets it. We’re all working really hard to make this happen.”

Senior Editor Mike Robuck contributed to this feature.

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