HomePath: Friend That Looks Like a Foe?

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Like some Medusa-headed demon, the tentacles of broadband competition continue to creep into cable's path, often in the guise of a helpful tool. The "HomePath" package being unveiled this week fits into that category.

OnePath Networks characterizes its technology as solving "first-mile bandwidth bottlenecks." Its "iPath" broadband-access platform, introduced in April, can deliver data at 10 megabits per second, plus digital and analog cable or direct-broadcast satellite video signals, via a single fiber or wire. Its capacity is competitive, the company says, with cable modems or digital-subscriber-line service.

The new "HomePath" feature-which is debuting at this week's awkwardly concurrent Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers and SuperComm trade shows-is being positioned as a system to carry converged services through a single line into single-family homes. It moves the company beyond its initial focus on multiple-dwelling units.

"HomePath can deliver fiber-to-the-home services through a structure that is competitive with hybrid fiber-coax," according to OnePath CEO David Stehlin. The setup is based on a fiber optic transmission system that provides converged broadband services at dedicated data rates of up to 25 mbps per home. It has the capacity to deliver more than 500 video channels simultaneously, as well as voice-over-Internet protocol.

Although Stehlin insists that the company's transport technology can be used with cable systems, his first installations have focused on telephone - company networks, carrying DBS channels through telco DSL connections. It has apparently been easier for the Princeton, N.J.-based company to cut deals with competitive local-exchange carriers than with the cable operators it has approached.

Without identifying pilot customers, Stehlin acknowledges that the recent telco deals to distribute DirecTV Inc. service are at the core of OnePath's current launch.

Specifically, the OnePath platform is being introduced in apartments and condominiums, where a single satellite dish can serve dozens of living units via HomePath's "smart splitters," strategically located around the complex. The iPath technology integrates the video feed with DSL voice and data components, sending them through a local distribution network.

In the MDU environment, this architecture eliminates the need for modems to be installed in each apartment. It also cuts out the need to recable a property in order to deliver high-speed access.

Clearly, Stehlin would like to set up some cable deals. But it's understandable why cable operators are leery of any such alliances.

HomePath requires a "unique home-wiring" unit to be placed at the entry point in the house. That device would replace or augment the residential gateway box that cable operators want to control, At the very least, the device might just get in the way.

OnePath is beginning beta-site tests of its HomePath system at MDUs in Dallas and at an unidentified West Coast locale. The shared-use structure means services such as high-speed access can be remotely provisioned-a process that would be even more appealing in single-family homes.

But for now, remote provisioning works better in the MDU environment. Because of the shared-use setup in apartment buildings, the cost per unit is less than $300, compared with the $2,000-per-house price tag-another reason why the package may be relegated to the MDU market for quite a while.

Stehlin claims one-half of that cost in single-family homes involves the price of labor, and one-half is for equipment, including the prorated sum of headend or central-office equipment.

The architecture provides the ability to add or drop services without a truck roll or on-site upgrades. OnePath also stresses that its passive optical network assures "fewer possible points of failure."

Whether or not HomePath finds a place in the cable business or even the telco environment is less critical than the issue it raises. If cable rejects this approach, is it opening a door for telcos and overbuilders to pursue their efforts, giving competitors extra features bundled into one high-tech package? If cable embraces this kind of solution, is it sullying its own last-mile architecture?

As a small start-up, OnePath is choosing to focus its marketing efforts this week on SuperComm in Atlanta-a venue it sees as more promising for the short term. But Stehlin expects to make a bigger splash at December's Western Show. By then, he hopes to have field-usage data, validating One-Path's approach to convergence.

He'll also probably know by then whether the HomePath technology will actually work in the cloistered world of cable improvements.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen appreciates the challenge of finding the right path in today's competitive landscape.

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