LOS ANGELES Home networking was hot at this week's The Western Show as set-tops and other gadgets displayed built-in links to wired and wireless domestic nets. But the industry showed no signs of consolidating around any particular technology yet with wireless, phone line, power line and other options all getting some attention.
The desire among cable operators to find fresh conduits for delivering new services to and around the digital home is propelling the rise of home networks in the latest gateways and gadgets. "All cable operators recognize that they don't want to be just a fat dumb pipe," said Chris Boyce, head of strategic business development at Pace Micro Technology (West Yorkshire, England) "They want to offer services."
Those new services range from video-on-demand, high-speed Internet connection and voice-over-IP to interactive gaming and grocery shopping. But once such services reach the home gateway, cable operators need to ensure that there is an in-home networking technology in place capable of distributing services to TVs, PCs, handheld devices, game consoles and kitchen appliances throughout the home. Then, as cable operators offer more interactive services to build incremental revenues, it becomes less likely that the TV in the living room will be the only screen for displaying those services.
Set-top box vendors and home network technology suppliers showed off a variety of wireless and wireline home networking solutions at The Western Show in Los Angeles.
Scientific-Atlanta, for example, has teamed up with Intel Corp. to demonstrate Intel's HomeRF-based AnyPoint wireless home network unit, hooked up with Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 6000 set-top via Universal Serial Bus connection. Explorer 6000 has a high-speed cable modem inside its set-top. Such a set-up, according to David Akerson, Intel's OEM account manager in home networking, allows consumers simultaneous high-speed Internet access to the set-top box, PCs or Web tablets while watching TV. He added that the HomeRF's ability to wirelessly transmit data will grow from today's 1.6 Mbits/second to 10 Mbits/s by the second half of next year.
Scientific-Atlanta presented yet another wireless home networking solution by connecting the company's new Explorer 8000 with a notebook PC via an 802.11b device. Still billed as a product concept, the device in the demo showed cable operators that the 11-Mbit/s data rate enabled by 802.11b makes it possible to deliver wirelessly a live video stream from a set-top to a PC. The Explorer 8000 integrates two tuners for personal video recorder applications.
Meanwhile, Pace demonstrated a new product called "Gateway Expander" originally designed for the European market. The Gateway Expander melds wireless, wireline and powerline networking technologies into a basic building block. Integrated inside the Gateway Expander are DECT, Ethernet connection and Powerline modem based on the European Home System (EHS), with an ARM-based network processor functioning as a network translator. As a wireless base station, the Gateway Expander enables two-way communication from the broadband network external to the home, to peripheral electronic devices connected internally to the home network. The idea of the Gateway Expander is "to enable the gateway to reach all corners of the household," said Pace's Boyce. The unit runs an embedded operating system called NET OS.
To further expand the networked home concept, Pace, in collaboration with Philips and HighPoint Systems, has designed an integrated display device called Shopping Mate. It is a handheld device the size of a Palm Pilot with an integrated bar code scanner that offers a way to create shopping lists away from the main TV screen or PC. Consumers can use Pace's Shopping Mate to scan a product's bar code and add it to their shopping list. Once compiled, the list can be transmitted to the retailer or content aggregator via the home gateway. Then the goods are delivered to the customer's home. "Shopping Mate is designed to live in a kitchen," said Boyce. "Compared to making a shopping list on a PC where one needs to boot up a PC first and then get connected, this handheld device can make home grocery shopping really convenient."
Inside the Shopping Mate are a bar code scanner, database, touch screen, DECT to connect to Gateway Expander and Dragon ball CPU. The bill of materials for such a device depends on the screen size and wireless technology adopted, but it will be between $200 and $400, said Boyce.
Pace chose DECT as its initial wireless technology in Gateway Expander and Shopping Mate for the European market. DECT is already available on millions of handsets in Europe today, it's relatively inexpensive, it can cover the whole house, and the DECT using the 1.8- to 1.9-GHz band faces no contention. While it's relatively slow at 0.5 Mbit/s, Boyce said, "it's enough for handling data." In addition, DECT, originally designed for cordless phones, lets service operators add voice telephony at a low investment.
While phone-line-based HomePNA is emerging as the initial home-networking solution for residential gateways in the U.S. market, "There isn't a clear winner yet," said David Barringer, director of marketing, digital video interactive at Philips Semiconductors. "And there won't be for some time." He said the list of home networking connectivity solutions requested by cable operators today ranges from HomePNA, 1394, DVI, USB to Ethernet, 802.11b and Bluetooth. "As a semiconductor company, you have to be able to do them all."
Networking solutions could also vary with a market's geography. Daniel Sweeney, general manager of Intel, said his company has not been able to push HomePNA abroad, explaining, "There are not enough phone jacks in a house outside the United States." Moreover, he said, "Consumers just don't understand it why a telephone line, used for voice communication can be also used for home networking." For certain overseas markets the HomePNA could be a hard sell.
Ofir Shalvi, manager of advanced technology at Texas Instruments, said that ultimately what cable operators really care about in their home-networking implementations are "high data rate at 50 to 100 Mbits/s, high quality of service with low network delays, popularity, no new wires, low cost and reliability."
CableLabs has been developing in-home networking specifications. Rather than picking a particular physical layer as a winning home-networking solution, cable operators hope to define open, interoperable interfaces for various home-networking solutions on application and protocol layers.
CableLabs' CableHome Initiative is now broken into three groups: one developing Quality of Service (how to extend the Docsis 1.1 QoS spec. into home), another developing the provisioning mechanism (how to register each peripheral unit to a gateway device) and one developing home networking architecture. At The Western Show, CableLabs announced that more than a dozen key companies, including 3Com, Broadcom, Cisco, Intel, Conexant Systems, Intersil, Philips Digital Video, Proxim, ShareWave and Terayon Communications Systems have joined a royalty-free pool for intellectual property rights in the proposed CableHome home-networking interface specification.
It's been said that there are no killer apps to push new cable-based services. The cable industry has been slow to build-out interactive TVs. Nine years have elapsed since cable operators first predicted the emergence of interactive TV as a "500-channel universe." But many cable operators defended themselves by insisting that the interactive TV is already here.
Compared to nine years ago, cable operators today claimed that the killer app quest is irrelevant. Rather, they are looking for multiple new services to help them amortize the investment they made in turning their infrastructure two-way.
Barry Diller, chairman and chief executive officer of USA Networks Inc., referred to killer apps as "those . . . antique words from another era."
Dan Somers, president and chief executive of AT&T Broadband, agreed. He said AT&T Broadband is constantly upgrading. "We are developing multiple products as rapidly as possible, which will result in a plethora of interactive services," he said. "It interactive TV is sneaking up. It's happening as we speak. This business is interactive now."
But Diller said of interactive TV, "We are at this early period of a radical revolution." While acknowledging that it's taken 10 years for the cost of hardware to come down far enough to make the interactive dream possible, he said that the development of set-tops integrated with TiVo or Replay type of personal video recorders can only push interactive TV applications further. "Once you start functioning interactively, you are never going to turn away from it," said Diller.