Hybrid Approach to Last Dozen Meters

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At least FireMedia Communications founder Avi Katz is realistic enough to acknowledge that it will take a couple years for multi-room personal video recorder distribution to catch on. Or even get started.

That rare entrepreneurial restraint reflects Katz's quick immersion into the cable TV business, and particularly his new venture's plan to sell a home-networking solution into the multichannel world.

His company, FireMedia (www.fire-media.com), should be anticipating a slow introduction, especially since its core product — a chipset for set-top boxes — is itself undergoing a fast evolution. The company's initial processor and accompanying components, which will provide wireless networking to multiple receivers around the household, have already been updated into a "system-on-a-chip" that blends wireless capability with wired coaxial connections. Katz calls it "whole-house connectivity."

FireMedia says it has field-tested its HyperFire technology, sending a hybrid transmission that can stream 40 megabits per second of digital video out to 250 feet — in other words, across a rather big home, and maybe out to the pool house, maid's quarters, the garage and the in-laws apartment down in the basement.

More significantly, it can go through walls, floors and ceilings that have sometimes blocked strictly wireless signals.

"We don't think wireless will be enough to deliver full-house coverage," Katz says. "It might reach 90 percent, but the cable industry is looking for 100 percent solutions."

Deals needed first

Before it can actually roll out anything, FireMedia — like other home network hopefuls, ranging from Magis Networks Inc. and its collaborators at Digeo Inc. (maker of the Moxi home media gateway) to an array of WiFi dreamers — faces running the grueling gauntlet of deal-making with cable and satellite operators and set-top box manufacturers. But operators and set-top makers aren't completely convinced about building in PVR capability, let alone whole-house distribution.

Hence, even the distant 2004 timetable that Katz espouses may be a bit optimistic.

Each of the home-networking hopefuls must convince the industry that its solution is cost-effective and that viewers want it as part of the video-on-demand, high definition TV and PVR bundles that are in multichannel TV's near future.

FireMedia argues that its $30 chipset significantly lowers the price of set-top boxes in a multi-set household.

Its ability to transmit digital video means that operators would only need to put one PVR-fortified set-top per home.

The unit, with its large-capacity storage drive, allows much simpler and cheaper thin-client boxes (with the HyperFire chipset) at other locations around the home.

The result, explains Mark Brenner, a FireMedia director, is a cost savings of at least $200 to $400 per customer, depending on the number of boxes.

Brenner, who is also a principal at in Plexient LLC, a FireMedia investor, contends that the expanded reach of the new hybrid offering can also up-sell mobility to TV and PC customers and can generate incremental pay-per-view sales and more advertising.

It's compatible

FireMedia's technology is compatible with the 802.11a standard in both physical and software configurable situations. The new HyperFire chipset includes dual independent receivers for wireless and wired Ethernet connections. Katz goes into full sales mode as he extols his chipset's ability to transmit multiple simultaneous MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) streams without degradation of IP communications and other interference.

FireMedia's efforts come at a time when the WiFi world itself is quaking. The 802.11g protocol, endorsed by IEEE last month, is fast-tracked to be finalized by May. It enables data transfer rates of up to 54 mbps, far richer than the 11 mbps speed of the currently dominant 802.11b version.

Although it is being positioned largely as a remote Internet-access technology, its operational fate has not yet been nailed down.

Nor, indeed, is the entire 802.11 family of technologies. The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, changing its name to the WiFi Alliance, is trying to sort out the network usage options and set some ground rules — or should we say "air rules"? — as the panoply of WiFi formats enters the marketplace: 802.11i is due to arrive next year.

Standards shape up

The alliance wants to implement a new certification process for wireless local area networks (WLANs) based on the various 802.11 standards can work with each other. It is also collaborating with IEEE to explore data rates in the 100 mbps range.

Standards, as well as applications, are shaping up as the key hurdle in the process. And we know how the cable industry likes to set standards for technologies it embraces.

On the video-centric side, chipmaker Magis is focusing on alliances with cable operators — stemming from its backing, which comes in part from Paul Allen's empire. It is no coincidence that Magis's prime home-networking targets right now are Digeo (and its Moxi wireless platform) and Charter Communications Inc., both Allen-allied enterprises.

These factors, competitive and otherwise, contribute to the lengthy timetable facing FireMedia. In addition, founder Katz acknowledged the company will have to obtain FCC approval to use its proposed bandwidth.

At a time when wireless broadband solutions to handle the last few dozen yards are up in the air, it's realistic to expect a long wait for implementation — and a lot more changes. The once-vaunted "Bluetooth" technology is now dismissed as too small and too expensive for the kind of video distribution services that households will demand. So the Bluetooth teams are back to their drawing boards.

The evolving WiFi protocols are top of mind these days, albeit not optimized for video distribution — yet.

And the sputtering debuts of Digeo's Cable Media server and Scientific-Atlanta's various products are further reminders that FireMedia faces a wary audience as it seeks a home for its ground-breaking chipset.

Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen opines regularly in Broadband Week.