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The home network, rewired

By Dan O'Shea
Aug 14, 2006 12:00 AM

Futuristic visions of the fully networked home have long enthralled the telecom industry and consumers, and until fairly recently, the home network was thought to be a solar system whose sun was the personal computer. However, that PC-centric view is giving way, courtesy of IPTV, to a more TV-centric view of the home network — or at least a view in which IP-infused TVs and other devices play just as significant a role as the home PC.

“The home network has sometimes been defined as being more about the computer, but among telcos, that thinking has begun to change,” said Lesley Kirchman, director of partner marketing at Actiontec, a maker of residential broadband gateways that has worked with Verizon Communications for some of its FiOS rollouts. “They've seen the overall convergence of the market taking place. It's not all about the device, but who owns the customer.”

To own that customer, telecom service providers can't simply focus on delivering reliable communications services, and even evolving to deliver convergent communications services won't be enough. The convergence they need to address involves the entertainment content coming over the IPTV connections, and to adequately address it, they need to take their provisioning and managing skills further into consumer homes than they traditionally have.

The challenge isn't a matter of determining the best last-mile solution. Service providers already have made those decisions, and the fiber-based solutions they have chosen will bring all the bandwidth needed to fulfill a variety of home-networking applications. The challenge now is not in the last mile, but in the last 100 feet — how to overcome old home wiring and construction that wasn't necessarily planned with the concept of an entertainment-rich home network in mind. Older homes in particular may have some faulty wiring, or just not enough non-copper wiring to extend broadband connectivity to multiple rooms and devices within a home.

“You want to reach as many homes as possible as quickly as possible, and cable, power and phone are the three things that are wired into every home,” Kirchman said.

Potential in-home wiring solutions based on these three technologies have been proposed, and after years of debate and at least a few months of initial deployment, the technology battle for the last 100 feet is no closer to having a single, clear winner than it ever has been. The contenders include the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA) specification, currently available in its 3.0 iteration, applied over twisted-pair copper; Multimedia Over Coax (MoCA), which runs over the coaxial cable feeds already wired into many homes for cable TV service; HomePlug, which uses power outlets to create home networks and wireless technology, such as 802.11n Wi-Fi and related solutions. All of these solutions are capable of more than 100 Mb/s usable bandwidth, the rate threshold for new home networking applications.

Among those solutions, HPNA and MoCA have gotten the most attention in the U.S. market. AT&T so far has used HPNA in its IPTV roll-outs. “AT&T liked HPNA because it wanted something that would immediately work over two sets of wires,” said Jamie Fink, director of product marketing at 2Wire, the broadband gateway supplier that AT&T is using in some deployments, and in which the carrier invested earlier this summer.

Meanwhile, Verizon has used MoCA because it took the position that it didn't care what kind of wiring was involved once its broadband service entered the home, according to Fink. HomePlug has seen more fervent support in other markets around the world than in the U.S. Meanwhile, wireless technology may be the under-sung solution of the four. Initially, wireless was posed as a home networking solution because of its obvious advantage over wireline solutions — homes wouldn't require rewiring, and new devices could be easily connected and configured without consideration for how to hide an increasing amount of wiring.

But, so far, wireless hasn't made much progress. The initial HomeRF proposal fell by the wayside as it became obvious many consumers already were installing Wi-Fi in their homes to expand Internet connectivity throughout. However, existing Wi-Fi solutions based on 802.11 b/g/a flavors have too little bandwidth and aren't reliable enough to support more advanced home networking applications like content sharing. The 802.11n standard could change that perception. It was ratified by the IEEE earlier this year, and probably will be broadly commercially available next year.

Even so, telcos have mostly given Wi-Fi a cold shoulder in the past, and vendors like Actiontec and 2Wire question its future viability. “Wireless is definitely cool, but the farther away you get from the access point, the signal degrades,” Actiontec's Kirchman said.

2Wire's Fink added, “eventually, the higher bandwidth of 802.11n will work pretty well, but it will never be as good as coax. And with 802.11n having two bands, service providers can use the 5.8 GHz band, but there's too many things in the home now that 2.4 GHz will interfere with.”

Still, Ruckus Wireless, a maker of Wi-Fi-based home networking gateways, insists that Wi-Fi can work as an in-home wiring solution to support IPTV and content sharing applications — and that service providers don't have to wait for 802.11n. The company uses widely deployed 802.11b/g technology, but offers a version enhanced with smart antenna array technology.

“The first, knee-jerk reaction that telcos have to in-home wiring challenges is that they need to re-wire homes,” said Bill Kish, co-founder and chief technology officer at Ruckus Wireless. “And 802.11n doesn't solve this problem right now. Our antenna adapts to interference through the use of statistical techniques. It's very self-steering and adaptable so that it mitigates common problems that arise with wireless.”

The access point in the Ruckus system is also a dual-zone access point that allows service providers to partition different types of service to better ensure reliability and make services easier to manage. Ruckus has relationships with several European service providers and many small rural telcos in the U.S., but the company admitted that telcos still are slow to accept Wi-Fi as anything more than a physical layer technology for portable Internet access.

“They still approach it with some uncertainty, but we think they're ready to take some baby steps,” Kish said.

As telcos continue in the early phases of launching IPTV, focusing on gradual launches that they can take time to assess, the opportunity to provide home networks in which a variety of content is moving between multiple devices may not be so low on the list of priorities. Likewise, they may not be so concerned with finding a single in-home wiring solution for all deployments.

“There's no silver bullet,” Kish said. “There's no obvious home networking technology and still a lot of uncertainty.” Ruckus officials say it's likely there will continue to be multiple home wiring solutions, and that telcos could use the ones that make the most sense for each customer.

The in-home wiring environment remains the portion of the broadband service architecture that the telcos have the least influence over. IPTV and related applications may up the ante for telcos to install better home networks and actively manage them for consumers, but these skills are acquired through experience. 2Wire's Fink said the vendor has helped AT&T certify the wiring in some homes before installing IPTV. “If they test it, and it's degraded, they'll monitor it for a while to see if the video's clean,” he said, adding that AT&T has sometimes run into problems in which impulse noise has degraded a VDSL signal as it has traveled a home wiring system. To fix the problem, they install the gateway and VDSL modem on the edge of the house close to the wiring entry. “Then, they hope and pray nothing happens with it,” he said.