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Home networks boost broadband�s power

Telco service launches are only the beginning of advanced services extending to the house.

NXTcomm Daily News
6/19/2007, Joan Engebretson

It�s not the first telco service offering driven by Met-calfe�s Law, which says that the value of a network increases with the number of connections to it. But it is the first time telcos have applied that logic within the homes of their residential customers. After undertaking huge investments in broadband networks and new video and data services to run on them, telcos now aim to leverage that investment by extending those services to a range of devices throughout the home.

As Brian Whitton, executive director of access network design for Verizon, put it: �At the end of the day, IP networks are all about exchanging information from any device to any other device; whatever the network can do, we want to make sure the in-home environment can do.�

In recent months, both AT&T and Verizon have launched home networking initiatives in combination with their broadband offerings to enable a range of advanced capabilities. Customers now may be able to control a digital video recorder (DVR) using any TV in the house or display photos taken with their digital cameras on any in-home television screen. But such applications barely scratch the surface of what customers ultimately will be able to do with their new connections.

Customers who sign up today for Verizon�s fiber-based FiOS advanced data and video service automatically get a home router manufactured by Actiontec that is based on the multimedia over coax (MoCA) standard. That technology works over existing coaxial cable in the home and supports speeds up to 100 Mb/s.

Verizon chose the technology because it normally does not require any new wiring in the home, Whitton said. Another consideration, he said, was that MoCA offers higher data rates and more reliable coverage than wireless alternatives such as Wi-Fi�although the router also includes Wi-Fi capability to extend the home network to laptops or other Wi-Fi-equipped devices. Unlike some routers, Verizon�s router also supports quality of service.

�As you�re watching multimedia, your spouse or kids could be downloading a large file, and you don�t want the download to disrupt the video,� he said.

When used in combination with Verizon�s proprietary Media Manager software, FiOS customers� in-home network lets people view digital photographs stored on their home computer from other network-connected devices. Televisions connect to the network through MoCA-enabled set-top boxes. Boxes are available with or without a hard drive, and homeowners likely will not want more than one hard drive-equipped box because the networking capability enables content from that hard drive to be viewed on and controlled from all other connected televisions.

�All the set-tops are IP clients, and one acts as the host,� Whitton said. Using the example of a downstairs host and upstairs client, Whitton said, �You can be in bed, pull up a screen and select what you want to watch.�

AT&T has two different home networking options. Customers using the company�s fiber-based U-verse data and video service can get a residential gateway from 2Wire that supports the HomePNA standard, which provides high-speed connectivity over coaxial cable or in-home telephone wiring. In addition, the 2Wire device supports Wi-Fi.

Alternatively, AT&T offers Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity for its Homezone service, which combines DSL with Yahoo! Internet service and satellite video from DISH Network. AT&T developed its own Media Scout software, which Homezone customers load onto a PC to enable features such as media file sharing. Homezone�s approach to media file sharing is for customers to copy material from their computer hard drive to the Homezone hard drive.

Through their broadband connection, customers also can download any of 7000 video titles to the Homezone hard drive, then watch them on any network-connected TV. Customers do not have to wait for the entire video to be received but can begin viewing while the material continues downloading. The video library is similar to what U-verse customers can receive through switched digital video, including short how-to titles, feature films and other content.

Both U-verse and Homezone support remote connectivity via an Internet-connected computer or data-enabled mobile phone or other mobile device. �Customers can schedule the DVR from their cell phone and can access content when they�re away from home using their PC, including accessing photos and downloading movies,� Anderson said.

AT&T�s experience supports the notion that customers with home networks will use their broadband connection more heavily. �More data bits and traffic are used by a Homezone user than a standard Yahoo! user,� said Anderson, who added that much of the extra usage is driven by video downloads and streaming Internet radio to the TV.

As telcos plot further moves on the home networking front, the next phase of advances will likely be software-driven. Anderson said, for example, that AT&T plans to add �auto discovery� capability to the Home-zone software to simplify system operation. To copy a file today, he said, �You sit at your PC, open Media Scout and share files with the Homezone receiver. Then you go to your television to view them. In the future, you won�t need to go to your PC at all. It will just need to be turned on.� Customers will pick up their TV remote control devices and automatically discover the PC files, he said.

Another software-based enhancement planned for Homezone is what Anderson calls �permission slips.� That capability will let parents override television parental content controls from their cell phones in response to requests from their children. Anderson said that capability could be useful if, for example, parents were out for the evening, and their child wanted to watch a restricted program pertinent to a school assignment.

Microsoft, which provides much of the software underlying telco triple-play offerings, also envisions some creative software-driven capabilities that could be enabled through home networking. Ed Graczyk, director of marketing and communications for Microsoft�s TV division, is particularly enthusiastic about what he calls �social� applications. The earliest of these applications were enabled by the Xbox gaming device, which uses broadband connectivity to let gamers play against opponents across town or even across the world.

A new version of the Xbox 360, which will also function as an IPTV set-top box, could hit the market before the end of this year and will take this capability a step further. As Graczyk said: �It will take advantage of buddy lists and [voice-over-IP] integration and bring it to the TV experience. If you�re watching the Super Bowl, World Cup or Olympics, you can press a button, see who�s online and invite them to a voice chat while you�re watching.�

Once it becomes a networked device, the TV can take on other new functions as well. One potential application is a more practical form of videoconferencing than what has been available in the past, said Allan Linden, senior director of marketing communications for Kasenna, another supplier of software to support triple-play services. Linden envisions a set-top box with a USB microphone and camera that will allow a conventional television to be used for videoconferencing.

A networked television also can become the display mechanism for a range of new functions. One person who is very much in touch with the latest thinking in this area is Ron Zimmer, president and CEO of the Continental Automated Buildings Association, which has done a lot of exploratory research for members such as Cisco Systems, HP, Microsoft, Panasonic and Whirlpool. Although much of CABA�s research is available only to members, Zimmer shared some potentially hot applications, including one that could arise in an unexpected area.

Consumers expressed strong interest in networking their washers and dryers so that a message could appear on their television screen to advise them when a load was completed, Zimmer said. Realizing that they can�t always drop everything and go to unload the dryer, consumers also were interested in being able to remotely activate a �fluff mode� that would let the dryer continue to spin without heat to prevent clothes from wrinkling. Researchers explored the best place for washer, dryer and other alert messages to appear�including the computer, the cell phone, the PDA and the television.

�The television was the No. 1 place where people wanted to be informed,� Zimmer said.

Telcos are likely to proceed cautiously in enabling another potentially hot application for the television, however. Consumers are flocking to Internet-based video content such as YouTube, and many would like to be able to view it on their TVs. But, as Graczyk noted, there are several significant obstacles in the way. Streaming Internet video, he said, �is not the same kind of experience you get watching regular programming. It�s low quality; it�s not full screen. And you�re at the mercy, not just of your broadband connection, but the Internet.�

Regulatory challenges could be even more daunting. Noting that traditional television programming is subject to strict rules about appropriateness of content, Graczyk said, �There�s a gray line between high-quality broadcast over a controlled network versus the unmanaged, uncontrolled nature of Internet video.� Graczyk added that Internet content does not contain the metadata hooks that could tie it to parental controls.

As their functionality changes, we�re likely to see significant changes to devices in the home. �The television is effectively becoming a dumb device, and you add intelligence through the set-top box or the PC,� Graczyk said.

Meanwhile, home phones and cell phones could move in the opposite direction. �Customer premise equipment such as phones will be more intelligent,� Whitton said. Verizon envisions phones becoming IP-enabled so that they can connect to the network via Wi-Fi to provide cordless phone functionality. Once they are IP-enabled, home phones also can become multimedia clients, Whitton said.

�With a nice screen, you can use them to download recipes, directions or the weather,� he said. �People will be able to retrieve and display information while using their phone.�

CABA envisions other form factors for IP-enabled Wi-Fi devices as well. Some consumers may want a carry-around device that they can attach to a docking station in the refrigerator or take out to the back deck to send e-mail while watching TV, Zimmer said.

When dual-mode cellular and Wi-Fi phones become available, another opportunity will be to seamlessly hand off calls from the cellular network to the home Wi-Fi network. That capability could potentially generate savings for both the customer and the service provider. It also could help ensure wireless phone coverage for those residential customers�as many as 20 million by some estimates�whose cell phones do not work inside their homes.

Nokia Research Center, the research arm of the cellular equipment manufacturer, sees an opportunity for wireless phones integrated with the home network to bring a new level of convenience to home automation. Until now, home automation has had a bad name, said Toni Sormunen, director of Smart Home for Nokia Research Center.

�Many companies entered the market with a technology-first attitude,� Sormunen said. Nokia, however, sees an opportunity to reverse market perceptions. �We�re planning to use the mobile device at the center of ease of use,� Sormunen said.

Nokia envisions consumers checking whether doors are locked, lights are turned off and the alarm system is armed�and possibly controlling the functionality of those systems�using their mobile device, whether they are on the road or upstairs in the master bedroom.

A relatively unknown wireless technology also could make home networking applications more powerful. That technology, known as ultrawideband (UWB), targets short-range, high-bandwidth applications such as connections between a PC and a headset or camera. Until now, consumers wanting to connect such devices wirelessly have relied primarily on Bluetooth, which provides top speeds of around 1 Mb/s.

In comparison, �ultrawideband can be 100 to 200 times faster,� said Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst for Parks Associates, a research firm that specializes in technology for the home.

The arrival of new devices based on ultrawideband in 2007 and 2008 could increase the value of service provider offerings such as mobile camera phones by enabling fast and easy transfer of multimedia content to a PC or other networked storage device. And by supporting uploads as well as downloads, UWB could enable new applications such as moving video content to mobile devices for later viewing. As Scherf said, �As the mobile phone becomes a multimedia handset, and you want to transfer a file to the handset, it will take less time using ultrawideband.�

UWB isn�t the only contender in the short-range, high-bandwidth wireless market. New forms of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi also hope to provide similar performance�although they are likely to be later to market.

Considering the new applications that integrated broadband and home networks can enable, it�s not surprising that service providers� share of home networking equipment sales is expected to rise substantially over the next few years. Parks Associates estimates that, as of mid-2006, between 22 million and 24 million U.S. homes were networked, including about 10% whose networks had been deployed by service providers. By 2010, Parks Associates expects service providers to represent nearly 30% of a 39 million home market.

What also may contribute to this growth are the remote home network management services that telcos, including AT&T and Verizon, are offering. Both companies remotely monitor and troubleshoot the home network�and according to Microsoft research, some consumers are glad they do. �Consumers do like hand-holding,� Graczyk said. �Some of them see value in the service provider making things work for them and the convenience of getting everything from the service provider.�

Ironically, telcos got into the remote management arena as a matter of necessity to help ensure the success of their advanced video offerings. Only by taking responsibility for proper network functionality could telcos prevent customers from perceiving any network problems they might experience as simply poor video service.

Now that they�ve entered the remote management game, however, telcos are looking to expand those capabilities. Noting that current surveillance and troubleshooting capabilities are based on the TR-069 standard originally developed for DSL, Lesley Kirchman, director of partner marketing for Actiontec, said she�s seen increased interest in the DSL Forum�s TR-111 standard.

�TR-111 takes network management capability further into the home network so telcos can truly troubleshoot other devices,� she said.