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Video Downloads Spark A New Need For Speed

Posted 1/17/2007

Anyone who's browsed YouTube lately knows that it takes a high-speed connection to watch even grainy video over the Internet. So imagine trying to deliver home-theater-quality movies, TV shows and interactive media over today's computer networks.

That's the challenge the Multimedia over Coax Alliance, or MoCA, faces as it works to deliver the living room of the future.

The group — whose members include 2Wire, Motorola, (MOT) Westell Technologies (WSTL) and Verizon (VZ) — is pushing a standard technology to zap rich sound and video over regular coaxial cable TV lines.

Many cable companies have integrated their voice and data services into a common network transport. Now they're looking to throw video transmission into the package.

Most people use at most only a few megabits per second of bandwidth, even when listening to live music or watching video clips.

Emerging video standards such as high-definition television need tens of megabits per second. That's going to require much faster connections than those in homes now.

MoCA proponents have crafted a standard to move video over coaxial cable at up to 270 megabits per second — about 30 times faster than most home broadband connections.

The MoCA standard offers several attractive features.

The first is speed: 270 megabits per second is more than enough to support high-definition video and sound. The standard also lets carriers deploy new video services using common coaxial cable.

"More than 80% of homes in the U.S. have coaxial cabling, and it is often found in the rooms that users would want to string their video connections — the family room, bedroom and home office," said Kurt Scherf, vice president at Parks Associates. This is much less expensive than alternatives such as fiber-optic cabling.

Some phone carriers, including Verizon, are using fiber for advanced video services such as Internet-protocol TV, or IPTV. Carriers spend about $1,000 per home to connect customers via fiber-optic.

As a result, the coaxial networking option has been gaining ground in the home.

"MoCA has seen some key design wins and rollouts in the IPTV space during 2006," said Michael Wolf, principal analyst of digital home and multimedia for ABI Research.

MoCA-affiliated hardware makers have integrated MoCA chips into some set-top box and gateway products, so it should get easier for carriers to deploy these services.

Despite its foray into fiber, Verizon has been one of MoCA's early supporters. It's using the two technologies together — fiber to the home and the MoCA standard for sending video room-to-room.

"The Verizon backing was unexpected and gave the technology a boost," Scherf said.

While it has been making progress, MoCA faces entrenched competitors in home networking.

The Wi-Fi wireless networking standard is the most popular way to build home networks. These products have been inexpensive to develop, easy to deploy and popular among vendors and resellers.

But speed and reliability remain concerns, especially for the demands of high-definition video. The farther one moves from a Wi-Fi transmitter, weaker the signal.

"Carriers do not want to deploy video networking technology that could be compromised by outside interference," said Ladd Wardani, MoCA's president. Cordless phones and microwave ovens, for instance, operate in the same wireless frequency band as Wi-Fi and can create transmission problems.

Another problem: Wi-Fi's current top speed of 54 megabits per second — and that's under ideal conditions — may not be adequate for video.

The technology also lacks quality-of-service functions, which give priority to video and other high-bandwidth applications for stutter-free viewing.

Vendors aim to address those limitations with the faster 802.11n standard, which runs at 100 megabits per second. It has yet to be finalized because of industry infighting.

Another home networking option is home wiring. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance advocates using electrical wiring to carry data, essentially turning home electrical outlets into networking jacks.

The main advantage is obvious: every computer user has electric wiring, and outlets are scattered all over the house.

Several companies, including Cisco Systems (CSCO) unit Linksys, Netgear (NTGR) and Siemens, (SI) have certified their products with the first version of the standard.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance has been working on HomePlug AV, a second version of its standard. It supports 200-megabits-per-second transmission and has quality-of-service features, but has gained only limited consumer acceptance.

Despite these challengers, ABI Research's Wolf sees a role for the MoCA standard.

"MoCA has a lot of positive attributes and enough market momentum," Wolf said. "So I think it will gain at least some acceptance for carrying home video traffic."