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New home nets rise as MoCA gains traction


AUSTIN, Texas � Just as the Multimedia over Coax Alliance is gaining traction with a handful of service providers, a new standards effort and a startup are responding to a call for next-generation gigabit home networks. The new options come at a time when some chip makers say MoCA is rising above the field of competing coax, phone line, powerline and wireless technologies.

Europe's International Telecommunication Union is hammering out a home network standard designed to run over telephone, powerline or coax networks. At least one proposal for the so-called "" effort calls for a gigabit physical layer to deliver video throughout a home.

"Maybe this will help consolidate the [fragmented] home network efforts," said Barry O'Mahony, a senior staff systems engineer at Intel Corp. who has been attending the meetings. "This has potential to get traction as a next-generation offering, so we're taking a long serious look at it," he added.

Other companies active in the group include BT, Alcatel-Lucent, Broadcom, Intellon, Panasonic and Texas Instruments. The Intel engineer said technical requirements for the spec could be set by a February meeting in Geneva with a final standard possible by the end of the year.

"Everybody is there because we think it could work to stop the fragmentation, but the possibility it may define a lowest common denominator spec is the big fear," said a representative of Texas Instruments who asked not to be named.

Meanwhile startup Gigle Semiconductor (Edinburgh, Scotland) is preparing to ship in 2008 a gigabit device with similar targets. The company, still in stealth mode, was founded by two technologists from powerline specialist DS2 and two from STMicroelectronics.

The startup aims to deliver an integrated chip that supports two channels, one for powerline and the other for a flexible mix of twisted pair, coax and powerline media. It will integrate a processor core, cache, DSP, media access controller and physical layer block.

"This is designed to be installed in set-top boxes, gateways, PCs and video game consoles," said Davin McAndrews, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Gigle.

The new efforts come as MoCA has kicked off its own version 2.0 effort. The group has not disclosed its targets but its users are calling for the 175 Mbit/s net to push aggressively ahead.

"The next-generation MoCA spec needs to support about 400 Mbits/s within two years and a Gbit in four years," said Mark Wegleitner, chief technology officer of Verizon Communications in a keynote speech at the first MoCA technical conference here last week.

So far Verizon is one of the main pioneers of the technology, shipping about 3 million MoCA nodes to date as part of its FIOS fibre-to-the-home services. In a separate talk here, Jed Johnson, senior director of systems engineering at Motorola, which supplies set-top boxes to Verizon echoed the call for more bandwidth.

"There needs to be a gigabit path in the home," said Johnson.

Motorola also supplies for AT&T's IPTV service set-top boxes using the technology of the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA). In addition, Johnson said he anticipates delivering in 2008 set-tops using the HomePlug AV powerline technology for carriers in Europe and Canada, given the outlook for a powerline standard in the IEEE 1901 group.

Nevertheless, MoCA is likely to get the lion's share of the home net design wins in set tops, Johnson said.

Representatives from cable-TV providers Comcast and Cox Communications said they may start deploying set-tops using MoCA in late 2008.

"We will be entering the market with devices in 2008 that can communicate with each other, and there will also be [Wi-Fi] routers and access points with [our own] protocol, but there's not a strong bet on [the wireless] area," said Tony Werner, chief technology officer of Comcast in a keynote.

The rollout probably will begin in select markets in the third quarter once Comcast's software is complete. "I don't think we've said how many boxes will have the comms silicon, and I don't think we've made that decision yet," Werner said.

"Our MoCA trials got sidetracked by the FCC requirement for Cable Card by July 2007, so we had to redesign our set tops and tweak our software," said Vince Groff, director of video product development at Cox Communications Inc. "I suspect in 2008 we may go back to our MoCA trials and start deploying some MoCA systems," he added.

Jumping on the bandwagon, Cisco's Scientific"Atlanta group showed demos of set tops and home routers supporting MoCA. The company will offer the systems as an option in 2008.

MoCA will let users send video from a main set-top box to simpler set-tops in other rooms. Verizon is charging $7 per month for such multi-room digital video recorder services.

Werner of Comcast said carriers will have limited ability to charge for such home net features, so he pushed chip and system makers to deliver MoCA at the lowest possible costs to drive volume use. Jim Strothmann, a director of product strategy and management at Scientific-Atlanta suggested the MoCA support should rapidly move to silicon blocks in system chips or ASICs his group or chip makers will design.

That's exactly the strategy upcoming MoCA chip suppliers are taking, said David Jones, a marketing director for Conexant Systems Inc. The company will ship discrete MoCA RF and baseband chips in the second half of 2008, then follow them up with chips that integrate MoCA support as a block on DSL, MPEG and passive optical network chips for set-tops, routers and optical network terminals, he said.

To date, only startup Entropic Communications has delivered chips for MoCA. But recently, Broadcom and Conexant joined the MoCA board, telegraphing plans for MoCA silicon. The newcomers expect to add value by delivering greater integration, higher performance, lower costs and lower power.

Having Broadcom and Conexant on the board "will significantly increase the perception of MoCA as a viable RF technology over coax," said Charlie Cerino, a vice president of network technology at Comcast and president of MoCA.

Both Broadcom and Conexant have taken their share of arrows, developing then discontinuing chips for home nets that did not find significant design wins.

"We've looked at all the home networks to see where we wanted to place our bets. It's not been clear for the last couple years," said Jones of Conexant. "As a vendor of MPEG products, our customers are telling us MoCA is what they want now, so it's essential we get the technology in some SoCs, but the question is when it is viable," he said.

"We were well down the path for a HomePlug AV chip setbut [now] we see HomePlug having a transition problem going from being a data to a video network," he added.

Like Broadcom, Conexant also designed an HPNA chip. Today CopperGate supplies AT&T with those chips, the only major carrier to use the technology to date.

Services in question

Attendees at the MoCA conference debated the extent home networks will drive new services and revenues.

Verizon is considering opening up its home network as a platform, probably hosting apps on its back-end IMS systems. "We have not committed to offering this yet, but we believe third party applications make sense for the home net," said Wegleitner.

"Carrier competition has been all about how much HD, VoD and broadband they have, but that will come to be very similar, and then I believe competition will shift to applications," said Johnson of Motorola.

The company is developing applications for the cable-TV providers OCAP platform today. Johnson said long term he believes the apps should be created as Web services, ideally tying together the home management and discovery services provided by the ITU's TR069 management standard and the work of the Universal Plug and Play Forum.

Cable TV providers said they don't expect to gain revenues for installing or supporting home nets, but they are hopeful the nets could enable new services for which they can charge.

"I don't think home nets are a business as such for me," said Werner of Comcast. "Our customers fall into two camps: One group is so good at this they won't pay us a nickel for it, and another is so bad we can't afford to try to help them out," he said.

Groff of Cox agreed. "I don't think people will pay for a home network itself, but perhaps for services like VoD over it. It's an indirect business model," he said.