The cable industry is preparing to embark on a search for
common ground in the home-networking arena through a major new standards-setting
initiative to be spearheaded by Cable Television Laboratories Inc.
"We're addressing the [CableLabs] board's feeling that
this is something we ought to be looking into," CableLabs CEO Richard Green said.
"We've got to come up with some set of requirements pretty soon."
The sudden urgency behind cable's need for a standardized
approach to distribution of broadband signals in the home rests largely on the rising
number of households with multiple personal computers -- now about 15 million to 18
million households and climbing, according to Intel Corp. research.
"More than one-half of the people with multiple PCs in
the home find it appealing to be able to connect PCs together to share Internet
access," said Dan Sweeney, general manager for home networking at Intel, noting that
shared Internet access is the chief driver behind this interest.
"There will be roughly 25 million PCs in the home that
will be networked together in the next four years," he added.
More significant where cable is concerned, Sweeney said,
Intel's research showed a strong correlation between the desire to network home PCs and
demand for high-speed access. "People who are willing to pay $35 to $65 per month for
high-speed access are willing to pay for home networks," he added.
Right now, there are more questions than answers for cable,
Green noted. CableLabs has been looking at a variety of technologies -- including phone
line, wireless and power line -- over the past six months, but it will have to sort
through several issues before it can begin to determine specifications for a possible
request for proposals, he added.
"One of the issues is: Do you carry everything,
including video, right from the beginning, or do you do this in pieces, starting with
data?" Green asked.
While solutions available now can handle the data piece,
cable will ultimately need at least 20 megabits per second -- and possibly 50 mbps or even
100 mbps -- in data throughput over home networks to accommodate everything from voice to
high-definition television, he noted.
While home networking has been a matter of technology
discussion and standards efforts for close to 20 years, consumer interest was not strong
enough to drive down costs to the point where people would be willing to pay for wiring
and equipment to support a household local-area network.
But with digital communications and, especially, online
connectivity, there is growing incentive to network devices in the home, Green said.
This presents a problem for the cable industry, which is
already evident in the costly wiring requirements associated with connecting customers to
With people having the option to buy set-tops, cable modems
and myriad other online-capable devices at retail in the year ahead, cable must be in a
position to support easy connection of devices anywhere the customer wants to connect
them, Green noted.
Already, the demand for shared access to dial-up online
connections among PCs in the home has created powerful momentum behind the Home Phoneline
Networking Alliance (HomePNA) initiative, which was launched by 11 companies a year ago
and now numbers 85 companies, many with first-generation product on the market.
"Because of the ease of use, low cost and the number
of companies participating, most predictions show that the dominant technology in the home
for the next few years is going to be the phone line," said Thomas Funk, manager of
strategic marketing at Compaq Computer Corp. and vice president of HomePNA.
A total of 80 percent of multiple-PC households have
Internet access, Funk added. "This is really the target market."
HomePNA products currently operate at 1 mbps, using
software that automatically configures Windows 95 and 98 and does all of the network
addressing to accommodate multiple connections. Consumers can buy PNA cards to plug into
computers for about $50, and some PC manufacturers supply computers with the cards built
Intel will introduce microprocessors next year that will
trim the PNA cost to the PC manufacturer from about $20 today to less than $10, Sweeney
"We believe the phone line will be the dominant means
of networking in the home in the United States, followed by RF [radio-frequency-wireless]
technology later on," he added.
HomePNA is working on standards for a 10-mbps connection
over telephone wiring in the home, with the goal of completing specifications by the
second half of this year.
One of the first companies to have a 10-mbps solution will
be 3Com Corp., which intends to bring its product to market this fall, said Barry Hardek,
director for operator marketing in 3Com's cable-access group.
"The card goes into one of the PCs, which becomes the
master node for connecting everything to the high-speed access through the cable
modem," Hardek said. "Even at 1 mbps, this is a product cable operators can look
3Com believes operators have an opportunity to sell a
home-networking tier at a premium above "basic" service.
The premium tier, operating at a higher speed, would allow
multiple computers to connect in the home or small office so that when more than one user
is online, the data rate to each would be at least as high as the basic one-PC rate.
3Com supports such multiple-tiering capability over DOCSIS
1.0 (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) modems via its cable-access router,
which sits at the headend and works in conjunction with the DOCSIS CMTS
"My team is working in the field with cable operators
to better define how to implement this application," Hardek said.
But if cable wants to interconnect devices other than PCs,
it will have to look at higher-speed networks, which makes wireless an attractive
proposition, Green noted.
"There are some new RF-modulation techniques that are
promising," he added, noting that these include using the existing telephone wire or
power line as a distribution antenna. This would ensure delivery of low-power signals into
all corners of the home without having to set up a powerful centralized radio unit.
The range of competing options now entering the marketplace
makes for a challenging task ahead, Green acknowledged.
Moreover, with consumer-electronics manufacturers and
computer companies choosing sides and pushing different agendas, the cable industry must
come to terms with a system that serves its interests while winning support from these
"Clearly, HomePNA and other initiatives are moving to
standardization [in the computer arena]," said Paul Pishal, director of business
development for Philips Business Electronics. "But on the consumer-entertainment side
of the house, things aren't that simple."
Initiatives such as HAVi (Home Audio/Visual
interoperability) -- based on the IEEE 1394 standard and drawing strong
consumer-electronics backing -- support data rates that move to the levels needed by
cable. But there are issues regarding the application program interfaces and controlling
mechanisms that need to be resolved if cable is to be well-served, Pishal said.
"The digital initiative in cable is moving forward,
and the consumer-electronics-networking agenda is moving forward. They have to be tied
together," he added.
The next move will involve establishing a CableLabs
board-level committee with a leader to spearhead the home-networking initiative, which
does not yet have a name, Green said.
"I'm not sure whether we'll try to solve the whole
problem [of connecting every type of device] at once, or do it in steps, but we're
definitely going to move quickly on this issue," he added.