Modem/Routers Stage Home-Net Land Rush

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These days, a combination cable-modem/router is the new ante for suppliers who want to play in the cable access-device game.

As the buzz for home networking grows louder among operators eager to add services to their data networks, several major suppliers bowed combined modem/router units at last week's National Show in New Orleans.

Though each vendor was seeking to stake a claim to the networked broadband home, one would suspect the manufacturers had drawn from the same basic blueprint in crafting their devices.

With few variations, all marry a Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.1-compliant modem to a four-port Ethernet switch, a Universal Serial Bus port, a wireless 802.11b Ethernet antenna and a Home Phoneline Network Alliance (HPNA) 2.0 connector. Several will also add RJ-11 phone jacks for cable-telephony capabilities.

The trend actually began at December's Western Show, where Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. introduced the PCX5000 wireless router and cable modem, to be available later this year for an as-yet unspecified price. At the National Show, several other manufacturers jumped into that fray.

Motorola Inc.'s SURFboard SBG1000 comes in at the high end of the market, at a list price of $279. Motorola Broadband Communications Sector corporate vice president and general manager John Burke called the product a response to the need for services that can take advantage of the cable-modem systems at MSOs spent time and money to deploy.

"The market is demanding solutions like this," he said. "The industry is at a position where they want to move beyond the traditional residential gateway only."

The unit is aimed at residential and small-office/home-office (SOHO) users, and can connect as many as 255 PCs. Given the constraints on shared bandwidth, though, that maximum number isn't practical, noted Burke.

The SURFboard also includes a print server to govern shared printer functions between PCs. By the end of this year, Motorola will update the product to include voice ports.

The product also demonstrates a shift in MSO thinking: Operators now view shared cable-modem access among multiple PCs as an opportunity, and not a system-management issue.

"It's part of a natural progression, but it's also that the cable industry has evolved," Burke said. "This allows operators to manage the services this device will deliver."

'VERY SIGNIFICANT'

Motorola expects home networking to become a standard part of broadband cable access, as services mature beyond the early-adopter stage.

"Our view is, it has the potential for being very significant," Burke said. In the future, "a majority of devices offered in the home will have some element of home networking."

But for now, there still appears to be a separation between networking for computer devices and for home-entertainment devices.

On the other side of its booth, Motorola showed off its Broadband Media Center 8000 digital set-top box and multimedia hub, but it is likely the data modem-router and that device will remain separate, at least for the near future.

"The convergence everyone has been talking about, it is happening," Burke noted. "But it's not happening like two trains coming together. It is more incremental."

Scientific-Atlanta Inc. isn't just targeting the residential customer with its modem-router unit, the DPR362, which retails for $250, said director of strategic marketing for subscriber networks David Davies.

"We're pretty excited about that, because it is not only a great product for the home, but also for the SOHO," Davies said.

This new crop of modem-router units was likely prompted by natural product evolution, said Davies. Cable operators have invested significant capital in their cable-modem networks, so it is not reasonable to assume they will be content with just an access offering.

Managed home-networking service "is an option for them if they can get $5 to $10 from a subscriber for home networking," Davies said.

And a multiple-connection option is as important as the shared access the gateway offers, given the varied conditions inside a typical home, Davies noted. For instance, common cordless phones can sometimes interfere with the 802.11 wireless link.

"The reality is it is not perfect," Davies acknowledged. "But we offer HPNA and other connection options. Our whole strategy is about offering choice."

SOHOWARE PLANS

Not to be outdone, SOHOware Inc. is also working on a modem router, with plans to test it during the third and fourth quarter. It will become available in the late fourth quarter and early first-quarter 2003.

The basic unit will sport a router and a DOCSIS 1.1 modem, with snap-on modules to add features such as voice and video links, according to product marketing manager Charles Tucker.

In that way, SOHOware can give consumers the option of adding onto the basic unit without having to buy a new one.

"That's a big part of the solution — to try to make it as consumer-oriented as possible," Tucker said. "These are plug-and-play-type module devices."

Cable operators may still be deciding how to market home networking, and what features to offer, but Tucker still sees a big year ahead.

"No question about it, 2002 is showing increased activity from MSOs in home networking," he said.

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