CableLabs Looks at In-Home Networks


A subtle but powerful potential killer application is under
close evaluation at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. - in-home networks linking cable's
voice, video, and data signals to electronic devices that reach well beyond set-tops and
cable modems.

The category is already heavily populated with suppliers.
Most have organized themselves to send signals either via wireless technology or over two
existing wires already lining the walls of most homes, both telephone and electric.

In-home networking (IHN) is a critical link in cable's
technological development as a bridge between the external broadband plant and
increasingly advanced home electronics devices. Most of those appliances exist as
stand-alone islands - the PC isn't connected to the TV, the television isn't connected to
the phone and the phone isn't connected to the stereo, in most cases. In linking them,
cable's core entertainment and communication services can move smoothly to as many devices
as are connected.

"It's a key enabling technology that will allow cable
operators to expand greatly their service packages," said Terry Shaw, senior adviser
on network systems for the CableLabs Strategic Assessment group. "In-home networking
is one of those areas where, once you start putting it out there, people will find uses
for it."

The early in-home networks were put to use sharing
peripherals, such as printers. But swiftly falling peripheral prices have shifted the
applicability of in-home networks to sharing the best peripherals - like the color laser
printer or scanner.

Another very near, new reality for in-home networks is in
shared Internet connections, both narrowband and broadband. That's likely to widen,
especially as Internet-protocol (IP) technologies advance useful data streams into homes.
Those streams, if properly handled, could shuttle cable-delivered data around to IP
phones, TVs, digital video-disc players, stereos, or PCs.

The trick is ensuring that the new round of high-speed IHN
devices know how to deal with DOCSIS 1.1 and related IP techniques, Shaw said.

"There are just so many participants," Shaw said,
which is why CableLabs tapped Kevin Luehrs, a member of its technical staff, to survey the
existing market in July 1999. Luehrs's report prompted the organization of three
collaborative vendor meetings since the IHN group formed in July.

In each case, more than 20 vendors participated, reflecting
the considerable IHN momentum.

The group's goals: To identify cable-specific issues, like
installation, and to articulate the inherent characteristics of home networks necessary to
deliver quality cable-based services to consumers. That's so data with low latency
requirements, like telephone calls, can move efficiently over an in-home network.

Doing so requires a clean handoff of 1.1-based data to the
home network components, which means CableLabs must work closely with manufacturers. In
turn, that means watching the various standards-setting efforts, like HomePNA (for
phone-networking alliance) and the HomeRF Working Group, among others.

Deployment and installation issues are equally important,
both to drive usage and to head off costly return visits by cable technicians.

"In-home networks need to be slick, so that they
represent a nice package and not a huge frustration," Shaw said.

The CableLabs IHN working group considers itself to be in
preliminary and investigative stages now, and wants to remain flexible on options before
outlining a large-scale specification effort.

At a minimum, CableLabs and the working group want to
determine the best way for home networking devices to link with DOCSIS 1.1 gear. Because
the 1.1 standard is also the base component of PacketCable, a single, well-planned
interface could extend to multiple cable IP components.