By Roger Brown, Why not let the marketplace decide who has the better product?

A few months ago, when CED first wrote extensively about the home networking phenomenon and its relation to cable TV network operators, we found a dearth of interest in it. Yes, most cable operators were aware of some emerging standards and alliances, but few had much to say about it.

Turns out that maybe we just asked too soon.

CableLabs said last month it will soon start a standards-setting initiative related to home networking, in order to capitalize on the growing popularity of such networks. Why the sudden urgency? Because, according to a recently-completed Intel study, there are already about 15 million homes that have multiple personal computers—and that number is predicted to steadily rise. Of that number, about 80 percent have Internet access and more than half of the homeowners said they'd find it "appealing" to connect those PCs to one another and share that Internet connection.

Dan Sweeney, Intel's general manager of home networking, predicts that as many as 25 million PCs will be connected to in-home networks in the next four years.

Of course, cable MSOs hope that a large percentage of those will be connected to high-speed access providers like @Home and Road Runner. Some even envision a new, higher-speed premium tier of service so that each connected PC would still enjoy fast access, even if multiple PCs share the bandwidth.

CableLabs, of course, has been extremely successful in using the market muscle of its MSO membership to forge "specifications" that later become standards. The Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specification was born in that manner and other similar projects include PacketCable and OpenCable. Those efforts have galvanized vendors and service providers alike toward the common goals of interoperability and retail availability of in-home devices. But with home networking, there are already several standardization initiatives that have made significant headway. Perhaps the biggest is the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), which is being supported by more than 80 companies, some of which have already debuted products that conform to the spec. Another initiative, also already in the works, focuses on a wireless RF approach.

Clearly, the cable industry is a johnny-come-lately to the home networking party, and any efforts to derail the progress made to date could be viewed by the incumbents as nothing short of destructive if not handled properly. CableLabs and MSOs will need to tread carefully and hope there's plenty of common ground between their specific needs and the work that's been done to date. If not, cable could be the odd-man out.

E-mail: Roger Brown