Home Gateways Ride The Evolutionary Road

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Technologies, like the creatures of the Galapagos, evolve as time moves forward while adding or subtracting those elements required for survival.

In the case of the residential gateway, the equipment is quickly morphing from a relatively simple device that can link PCs and printers into a multimedia portal capable of sharing bandwidth and applications among televisions, washing machines and even hand-held Web pads or personal digital assistants.

Like the animals of our earthly habitats, residential gateways are taking on different forms in hopes that their specific breed will adapt the best to a given broadband environment, be it cable, digital subscriber line, satellite or fixed-wireless transmission.

In the cable environment, set-top box manufacturers and other equipment providers hope their efforts will help them win this particular game of survival of the fittest.

But despite those trials and tribulations, what's available today doesn't necessarily meet all criteria that some cable operators are seeking.

Regardless, driving evolution in the residential gateway sphere is a primal motivator that all businesses appreciate: money, and lots of it.

For instance, research firm Allied Business Intelligence Inc. is projecting that the residential gateway equipment sector will grow from last year's $267 million to $7.1 billion in annual revenue by 2006. What's fueling such a rosy outlook? The future convergence of Internet protocol voice, video and control-oriented applications, according to ABI.

That's not to say that roses are blooming everywhere one looks.

CLEC FALLOUT

While most gateway products that are available today are equipped to handle DSL connections, the recent meltdown in the competitive local exchange carrier sector has caused some vendors to quickly switch gears, explained Navin Sabharwal, vice president of residential and networking technologies at ABI.

"Originally, the CLECs were pushing [residential gateways], and it was believed that the ILECs [incumbent local exchange carriers] would have to respond," he said.

That notion changed dramatically earlier this year with the struggles of two CLECs. NorthPoint Communications Inc. filed for bankruptcy, dumping assets at fire-sale prices and Rhythms NetConnections Inc. found itself on the verge of collapse due to intensifying financial pressures.

Those incidents made residential gateway vendors realize that their "primary customers were going out of business, so they had to start pursuing the incumbents," Sabharwal said.

Still, the CLEC implosion hasn't changed the short-term plans of ShareGate Inc., which plans to launch a digital-subscriber-line-based voice and data gateway product this September.

"The [ILECs] are stepping up," said ShareGate senior director of marketing Margaret Giambalvo. "Incumbent service providers have taken a bit longer, but [residential gateways] are definitely in their plans."

Despite unwavering confidence that the telco sector will continue to explore the virtues of residential gateways, cable-based products are also in ShareGate's crosshairs. "We are looking at a variety of ways to enter [the cable] marketplace," Giambalvo said.

Among ShareGate's options is the possibility of breaking into cable by partnering with manufacturers that already sell equipment to cable MSOs, she said, but she declined to name companies with which ShareGate is pursuing deals.

Though DSL providers got off the blocks much faster than the cable industry did when it came to support of residential gateways, the lead in that race could change hands fairly quickly, Sabharwal forecasted.

"DSL came off fast, but by 2003, cable will surpass DSL, and there will be more cable gateways than DSL gateways by 2006," he said, adding that Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s specification and interoperability work in that area would assist that trend.

Still, the residential gateway debate "isn't about DSL versus cable," Sabharwal said. Instead, "cable's architecture is just more synergistic," he added, noting that most MSOs are further along than the telcos are today when it comes to offering the trifecta of voice, video and data services.

POINTS OF DEMARCATION

These days, gateways come in several different flavors, with each taking a different approach to where the demarcation point between the network and the subscriber will be.

For example, Broadband Gateways Inc.'s Evolo line is tagged for installation somewhere inside the subscriber's home. That somewhere could be in the basement, under a staircase or inside the front room closet.

Another approach will take the equipment outside, in the form of a weather-hardened box that can be mounted on the side of a home. One vendor taking such steps is Arris Interactive LLC, which is working on indoor and outdoor versions of a "converged services portal." Those products eventually will adhere to the CableLabs set of CableHome specifications, which are now under development, Arris director of advanced technology Mark Bugajski said.

At the same time, others are exploring the use of souped-up digital set-tops capable of distributing applications via wired and wireless protocols. For example, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. has affixed the "gateway" label to its new flagship digital box, the Explorer 4100.

Though some vendors are touting set-tops that double as residential gateways, not everyone in the industry is sold on that approach.

"In my personal view, I don't think the set-top is going to be the epicenter of the world," said Steve Craddock, vice president of new product development at Comcast Corp.'s cable unit. "I see [the gateway] as more of a cable modem with some bridging devices. The set-top will have a cable modem inside it, but that might be used for out-of-band signaling and streaming media that complements what customers see on the TV."

On top of that, he said government regulation will play a large role in dissuading operators from using the set-top as the residential gateway: "When you start getting into open access, you don't want the set-top box to be your middle point of penetration."

Craddock, who has overseen residential gateway testing at Comcast's private laboratory, believes the residential gateway will provide cable operators with just one piece of a much larger, service-oriented revenue pie.

With gateways, "I'm not looking for home networking. Home networks don't mean recurring revenue," Craddock explained. "If you want to reach only 2 percent of the homes in the U.S., go with structured wiring as a business. That's a one-shot deal."

Instead, he said Comcast is seeking ways to create an ongoing home-services business model that will generate recurring revenue. As a home-networking integrator and service provider, Comcast hopes to offer customers a suite of services that will move video, audio and data around a subscriber's home through a variety of wired and wireless platforms.

THE 5-NETWORK HOME

Still, all of that will have to terminate somewhere, likely in a box that Craddock hesitantly calls a "gateway."

That's because the current generation of residential gateways, in Craddock's estimation, doesn't fit the bill for everything an operator will want it to do in the future. Craddock said he envisions a day in which cable operators like Comcast will subdivide subscriber homes into five networks: administration (for configuration and control), information, communication, entertainment and home automation.

"At the end of the day, the idea we have in mind for home service or a home network is a little bit more expansive than what you see out there with (residential gateway) vendors today," Craddock said.

Before that day comes, however, CableLabs' CableHome initiative will have to start bearing fruit.

CableHome, similar to other CableLabs projects, will eventually be built into a specification that will ensure that home-networking equipment interoperates with an operator's Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification and PacketCable-based infrastructure.

CableLabs is drafting a report that will identify interfaces of the initial CableHome architecture, security measures and Quality of Service requirements for packet-based video and voice and data applications.

When CableHome finally makes the transition from paper into tangible equipment, cable operators eventually will be able to extend their services and overall presence into all corners of a subscriber's home.

"My goal is to pollute every physical layer in the home with value so that (cable competitors) can't get to it," Craddock said.

RAISING THE BAR

Clearly, the residential gateway has yet to reach its final stages of evolution. Vendors today are working on their own technical "mutations" designed to meet the expectations and desires of companies like Comcast. Though, getting to that point will likely take quite a few more steps.

While the first gateway machinations were designed to simply share high-speed data connections, adding VoIP support is the next logical step, Broadband Gateways vice president of business development Bill Rogers said.

He said Broadband Gateways is talking with the top 10 domestic MSOs, but admitted his company's current line of products will require some tweaking before cable operators buy into the concept. "What [cable operators] wanted from me was 90 percent of where the Evolo is today," he said.

Broadband Gateways, in the meantime, will work on that last 10 percent in preparation for at least three MSO lab trials and possibly one field trial by November and December of this year.

MODULARITY IS KEY

Although where a gateway resides and what form it should take remains an item of great discussion, ensuring that the equipment is capable of doing what the operator wishes is certainly a key item on just about every vendor's agenda.

On the side of home networking, for example, residential gateways must be built to support whatever wired and wireless protocols eventually win out in the consumer and commercial marketplace.

Instead of integrating support for several protocols like 802.11, HomePNA, Bluetooth and HomePlug, the majority of gateway manufacturers are taking a modular, side-car approach. That will allow service providers and end-users to "plug-in" whatever they require.

Although integrating specific home-networking technology could lower the overall costs of residential gateways, the same approach runs the risk of stranding capital if a particular protocol fails to take off.

"We are pursuing a fully modular architecture," Bugajski said, referring to Arris' forthcoming line of gateways. "We're doing some extensive socializing with our customers on the project to nail down what's critical to them and to find out what features they want to add first."

S-A's Explorer 4100 doesn't house inherent support for home networking protocols, though those capabilities can be added easily via the box's affiliated Ethernet or universal serial bus ports, said Kenneth Klaer, vice president and general manager of marketing and business development for S-A's subscriber networks division.

Pace Micro Technology plc also is taking the modular approach with the "Gateway Expander" strategy it's employing in Europe.

Perhaps the most modular of all is Broadband Gateway's Evolo line. Under the company's model, service providers or consumers would simply buy the modules they want and snuggly slap them onto the base unit, Rogers said. Eventually, several modules could be made available, housing everything from a hard disk for on-board personal video recorders to every existing home networking protocol.

HERE'S LOOKING AHEAD

While the gateway itself will likely be a key component of the networked home, what hangs off of that central point will likely grow in importance when video, voice and data packets whiz through a home at high speeds.

"We think that one of the most powerful devices in this area will be the Web tablet," Craddock forecasted.

The Web tablet could remove some of the social angst that can occur when one member of the family pulls up an electronic program guide that fills a large portion of the TV screen. Instead of checking the EPG on the TV screen, a Bluetooth-enabled Web pad could do the same thing, albeit much less obtrusively.

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