Cisco Backs Aggressive Internet Home Project

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If Cisco Systems Inc. has its druthers, broadband connectivity and home networking will become as ubiquitous as electricity, water and gas.

Cisco, along with a host of technology companies, has teamed with California-based housing developer Playa Vista to build a large-scale broadband community in West Los Angeles that could raise the bar for the ideal "Internet lifestyle."

A "broadband utopia" of sorts, the community will hold 13,000 smart homes of varying sizes and 6 million feet of commercial retail space-all pre-strung with Category-5 wiring, digital-subscriber-line-based voice, video and data connections and a networking platform that shares bandwidth among Internet-enabled appliances such as PCs, TVs and even refrigerators.

In fact, just about everything-from home heating to security to the public transit system-will be automated into a fast network.

Until construction is completed sometime in 2002, Playa Vista and its technology partners have built a 1,700-square-foot "Internet Home" to drum up buzz for the project and showcase the potential of this new progeny of brainy, power-conscious housing.

"We're trying to demonstrate technology and applications that are here today," said Kristine Stewart, director of market development for Cisco's consumer line of business. "This isn't Jetsons type of stuff. All of these products will be available in the next six to nine months."

While the technology itself appears to be at the ready, the digital cabling will cost about $1 per square foot. The networking components of each home will run from $15,000 to $100,000 per unit, depending on the level of automation and how many bells and whistles the customer desires, said Stewart.

The homes also will carry price tags that suit a variety of income levels.

"We'll offer low and very low rental-housing opportunities," said Ken Agid, Playa Vista's vice president of marketing. "Sale housing will run from less than $200,000 and up to $1.5 million and $2 million on the high end. We'll have a balanced socioeconomic mix of residents, rather than a polarized mix."

Each home's bandwidth and home networking will flow through Cisco's DSL-based, answering-machine-sized "Internet Home Gateway." Stewart said a Cisco-built gateway for the cable industry also is in the works.

On the home-networking front, the showcased Internet home will employ retrofits based on the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) wireline standard, though wireless standards will ultimately "play a tremendous part in the networked home," Stewart said.

"We'd like to get to wireless at some point," she added, noting that the "802.11" and "Bluetooth" wireless-networking platforms will eventually evolve to support video services.

Bandwidth-intensive, pre-wired communities are quickly becoming more than just a quirky trend among small contingents of technology zealots looking for a place to call home.

For example, BroadbandNOW, which just yanked a $115 million initial public offering, recently announced that it would team with En-Touch Systems Inc. to offer bundled voice, data and video services to master-planned communities and multiple-dwelling units in Houston.

Housing developers "are looking at the right point in time to jump on this bandwagon," said Agid, who added that his company has received numerous visits from other developers that are considering a similar path to reach broadband nirvana.

Incumbent cable operators in the Los Angeles area will be shut out of Playa Vista's connected neighborhood. Instead, a company called PaeTec will be the community's video, data and telephone provider.

But that doesn't mean cable operators don't have their eyes on the potentially profitable world of home networking.

Cable Television Laboratories Inc. is ramping up an effort to define home networking standards, and launched the next phase of its In-Home Networking project earlier this year.

CableLabs, along with a team of vendors and cablers, is exploring all options as the technology evolves, and as DOCSIS 1.1 and PacketCable enter the fray, explained Terry Shaw, CableLabs' senior adviser of network systems, during a recent briefing at the organization's headquarters in Louisville, Colo.

"We won't draw lines in the sand," he said. "There are advantages to all of these [home-networking] technologies."

Though cable's home-networking standards could eventually consist of a mix of platforms, Shaw insisted that home networking represented a huge market for the industry to mine.

"The more appliances that can touch consumers, the more chances cable operators have to generate revenue," he said. "We're convinced there's a business for home networking."

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