Cable Starts Getting Serious About Wireless Networks

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Though the idea of using anything other than coaxial or fiber lines may seem like heresy to old cable hands, U.S. operators are actively pursuing the possibilities for a networked home without wires.

"We are presently in the process of developing a technology and business strategy for home networking," confirmed Steve Craddock, vice president of new product development at Comcast Corp.'s cable unit. "We've begun evaluating all the wired and wireless technology out there to see what we could use, doing some work through the Cable Television Laboratories Inc. CableHome project and some on our own."

Comcast's view "is that most cable customers will need the 'no new wires' approach because of when and how their homes were constructed," said Craddock. "And that means a wireless solution. At first, we threw out wireless as an option, but we've mellowed a bit."

The idea of wired vs. wireless as a quasi-religious war is fading, added Andrew Kreig, president of the Wireless Communications Association International — once the "wireless cable" trade association founded by cable pioneer Robert Schmidt.

"No one's talking about wireless as an end in itself, but wireless will be an inevitable component, in many cases, for creating a seamless network of high-capacity devices in the home," said Kreig.

But only three of the world's five competing wireless standards may be compatible with cable. The leading options for a cable-wireless interface appear to be Bluetooth, HomeRF and 802.11, or "Wi-Fi." Of those, the Bluetooth name tends to conjure up the most excitement. It also generally attracts more attention than the rest.

Said Craddock: "We felt that Bluetooth, 802.11 and HomeRF would all be competing for the same spectrum [2.4 MHz], and only 802.11 could really deliver the bandwidth and range we needed. We still feel that way.

"But now we see that Bluetooth will be in a lot of devices regardless of anything we do. To ignore it means we ignore all those devices, which we can't do. So we will have a Bluetooth interface to talk with those devices."

Bluetooth as a home-networking platform is kind of a "misnomer," said Glenn Edens, president of AT&T Strategic Ventures and vice president of broadband technology at AT&T Labs, during a recent CableLabs briefing.

Bluetooth does a good job of wirelessly connecting devices from point to point, said Edens. But home networkers might be better off using 801.11 and HomeRF as their home-wide wireless backbone.

Also hindering Bluetooth's momentum was a widely reported public-relations debacle during the giant CeBit trade show in Germany last month.

Bluetooth's backers had intended to demonstrate how well enabled devices worked together when linked to a large network based on the wireless protocol. Unfortunately for Bluetooth, many of the demonstrations were buggy or didn't work at all.

That highly visible failure "proved what many long suspected: Bluetooth is far from ready for primetime," said a report on Forbes.com, which noted that Microsoft Corp.'s decision not to support Bluetooth for forthcoming versions of Windows has even further hindered the protocol's momentum.

Despite those stumbles, Bluetooth's price alone should be enough to grab consumers' attention.

"One of the features that makes Bluetooth attractive is that it is designed to be very low cost," said Navin Sabharwal, vice president for residential networking technologies at research firm Allied Business Intelligence.

Also in Bluetooth's favor is the fact that its developer, Ericsson Inc., requires all implementations of the protocol to be handled according to its exact specifications, leaving little to no wiggle room for spoiling Bluetooth's worldwide interoperability.

Already in the market are at least 128 "Bluetooth-qualified" consumer-electronics products, such as laptops, personal digital assistants, printers, cell phones, headsets and MP3 players.

Cahners In-Stat, a Multichannel News
sister company, estimates about 1.5 billion Bluetooth devices will be introduced by 2004.

Signaling Bluetooth's reach into cable, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. agreed to support a Bluetooth-based smart card in advanced Explorer digital set-top boxes. Still, Bluetooth faces obstacles in the cable sphere.

"When Bluetooth version 1.1 is finalized this year, its capabilities will become more robust," said Sabharwal. "But cable deployment is still uncertain because [there are] 13 Bluetooth application profiles, and not one is specifically [designed] for cable networks."

Regardless, Bluetooth's developers still believe the technology will have a role in the cable-based, networked home of the future.

"Bluetooth offers many benefits for digital-cable operators using a Bluetooth access point in the home," asserted David Ethridge, director of product marketing for Ericsson's home communications division.

For example, interactive-TV applications can tap Bluetooth to sync up a set-top's channel preferences after gleaning a consumer's identity from a personal digital assistant or cell phone. Additionally, the Bluetooth network could alert the viewer when a program on a favorite topic is scheduled, and then ask if a personal video recorder should record the show or wirelessly link to a printer for coupons offered through television-commerce applications.

"I can imagine cable operators proactively pushing Bluetooth services to their customers," Ethridge said. "They don't have to stop at selling cable modems and wired home networks."

In the end, digital handshaking could occur throughout the home.

"When all devices in the home can recognize each other, think of the possibilities," Ethridge said.

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