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Home Networking Is Left to Its Own Devices

12-31-07, by Bob Wallace

When Verizon Communications Inc. executives take the stage to update attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show this month on their FiOS triple-play package, they plan to talk progress toward the lofty goal of enabling device plug-and-play on the home network.

Why lofty? Because telcos will tell you comprehensive networking in the home is still a moving target, with consumers seeking to connect more devices � fixed and mobile � as well as share content as part of the evolving home entertainment experience.

At the same time, telcos are struggling to bring together their managed video-delivery networks with their unmanaged data networks (typically wireless LANs to link fixed and laptop computers). It�s a gigantic task for which there currently is no one approach, or architecture.

Though standards-based options exist for multiple media types (wireless, coax and twisted-pair), they were designed to cover TVs, set-top boxes, PCs and laptops. Companies like Verizon that want to add consumer electronic devices to these networks have been driven to proprietary means.

�We want as robust and as high-quality [systems] as possible, but standards are slow and we�ve had to join standards bodies to speed them up,� explains Tushar Saxena, director of home-networking technologies at Verizon. �We don�t want any complexity for customers that want to add third-party, retail electronic devices to their home networks.�

To that end, Verizon is one of four service provider members (Comcast Corp., DIRECTV and Time Warner Cable among the others) in the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), which boasts several dozen household-name retail device makers as members.

DLNA is a networking scheme developed by leading consumer electronic, PC and mobile handset companies to enable consumers to acquire, store and access digital music from almost anywhere in their homes. The scheme also aims to allow people to manage, view, print and share their digital photos. On a DLNA home network, users can access a home video from a DVR and watch it on a PC anywhere in the home.

Consumer electronics company members include Dolby Laboratories Inc., Kenwood USA Corp., LG Electronics, Nokia, Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., Phillips, Samsung, Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp. while networking members include Cisco Systems Inc., HP, IBM Corp., Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Motorola Inc. DLNA also counts the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America among its ranks.

And while the group has hammered out some initial specs to facilitate broader and more flexible home networking, Verizon has decided not to wait on others when faced with needing to close the gap between where the telco was and where it needed to be.

�From the get-go, we�ve had a home-networking architecture, but we�ve taken elements of the DLNA specifications and added our own secret sauce,� explains Saxena. Once the latest spec is released, Verizon will wait to see which device makers implement it.

In the meantime, the telco forges ahead with multimedia-over-coaxial cable (MoCA) as its media choice for home networking, largely because it enables customers to reuse existing coax to support devices and communications, thus supporting the telco�s �no new wires� approach to home networking. Saxena estimates 95 percent of U.S. homes have coax installed.

Verizon credits evolving home networking that supports retail devices as a key enabler in the rollout of its popular multiroom DVR service, which enables TVs throughout a house, for example, to display content from a single device in the living room.

Verizon continues to drive open home-networking standards through the DLNA and hopes that one day, those wishing to support media sharing and easy device connectivity in the home will not have to rely on hybrid or proprietary approaches.

Home-networking industry expert ABI Research says one of the untold stories of home networking has been the success of Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and DLNA, two software frameworks aimed at aiding consumers in creating connections between disparate devices on the home network. UPnP is pervasive in nearly all home-networking hardware shipped today (an estimated 130 million devices in 2007 will be UPnPenabled), while DLNA is becoming increasingly important in allowing new devices such as TVs, mobile phones and video game consoles to connect to the home network.

ABI expects the two frameworks together to account for more than 2.7 billion shipments by 2012.

�Universal Plug and Play enabled the first phase of the home network market by helping consumers connect their PCs to routers and gateways for Internet sharing,� says research director Michael Wolf of ABI Research. �DLNA, a software framework which uses UPnP as well as other higherlevel standards, is going to help the overall home network market move beyond basic connectivity to link a variety of devices to the network and enable new connected entertainment use-case scenarios.�

DLNA has gained increasing momentum in many areas, with more than 600 laptops and PC models having been announced publicly as DLNAcompliant in the last few years, as well as more than 40 TVs, numerous DVD players and other media entertainment devices, according to ABI. Even mobile phones will become part of the DLNA network, as Nokia has stated that all of its future WLAN-enabled N Series devices will feature DLNA.

�The new battleground in the delivery of entertainment services in the home spans the entire dwelling and crosses service domains,� says Wolf. �Cable, mobile, satellite and IP-based providers have all begun to back these important software frameworks as a way to extend their reach from single-point devices to multiple devices, to enable anytime and anywhere consumption of content.�

But for the interim, many like Bill DeMuth, CTO at SureWest Communications Inc., are finding themselves dealing with more than media sharing on the homenetworking front.

�We certainly see the value of the DLNA standard and continue to look for applications where we can leverage it to provide a richer media and entertainment to our customers,� DeMuth began. �But our challenge is bridging our managed video network with the unmanaged data network inside the home, which isn�t something DLNA necessarily addresses.�

Many industry experts believe greater availability of media-sharing software packages such as Microsoft�s MediaRoom offering � which enables customers to move photos and music from devices such as PCs to TV screens � is advancing the trend, claiming few consumers want valued media confined to any one device.

That, coupled with a greater variety of portable media devices and Internetconnected, content-capable gaming consoles, is blurring the lines between individual devices and products and systems that can be networked.

SureWest�s DeMuth, a video-service visionary, sees the requirements for the home network as threefold: bandwidth, control/visibility and flexibility. �We completely agree that we will continue to see a proliferation of IP devices within the home that will need to be managed, controlled and integrated with one another.�

DeMuth speaks from experience, with his company already having deployed a triple play of video, high-speed Internet access and VoIP to customers in parts of California. Like Verizon and many smaller providers, the telco employs an FTTH architecture to avoid bandwidth and associated technology limitations.

Regarding bandwidth, DeMuth says he sees 100mbps distribution within the home �a minimum requirement at this point,� with 200mbps to 300mbps, and eventually 1gbps, being required to ensure proper distribution of content (primarily video) within the home.

But bulk bandwidth minus management functionality is a non-starter for SureWest�s DeMuth. �In order to ensure a consistent and positive customer experience, visibility and remote management of the home network is critical to us. Right now, the best way to provide this type of control is through the residential gateway by integrating a home network standard such as HPNA or MoCA, as well as utilizing more traditional QoS mechanisms such as TR-069 and forward error correction.�

Looking a bit forward, dynamic bandwidth management within the home will be important to support products like a multiroom DVR offering, adds DeMuth.

The third of the three requirements, flexibility, has SureWest focusing on a strategy that covers multiple home-networking options in a hybrid approach, though some providers prefer a more narrowly focused strategy.

�We don�t believe that a single technical solution will prevail, at least in the middle-term,� says DeMuth. �We need a home network strategy that provides us with the right tools based on the situation � in some cases wireless will make sense, in other cases HPNA/MoCA, and CAT5/6 for the rest. Particularly, when we look at the future of home automation and home control, a hybrid home network seems to make the most sense.�