Rogers Test Drives Ucentric

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Much as it did with initial forms of interactive television, Canadian MSO Rogers Cable Inc. said it will put home networking to the test later this year when it conducts its first field trial in that area with home-networking software start-up Ucentric Systems Inc.

Rogers — Canada's largest MSO with about 2.3 million subscribers — will install Ucentric's system in customer homes sometime during the second half of this year, MSO vice president and general manager of interactive-television services Michael Lee said.

Rogers plans to invite about 100 subscribers to participate in the trial, Lee said, noting that one of the MSO's goals is to help the company determine what a cable operator's role should be when it comes to home networking.

"When we look at [home networking], we think it's fairly compelling," he said. "But we don't understand exactly what people want. I want [trial participants] to tell us what they like and dislike, and what they want and don't want."

Exactly which home-networking protocols and applications the trial will support is still being considered.

Ucentric's system will handle a variety of wired and wireless platforms and also employ multiple local area networks, said the company's director of marketing strategy Paula Giancola.

The Maynard, Mass.-based Ucentric — backed financially by former Continental Cablevision Inc. chief Amos Hostetter's Pilot House Ventures — has created a bundle of residential gateway software designed to share bandwidth and applications with PCs, TVs and other Internet appliances.

When it comes to home-networking protocols, Ucentric claims that its software can support a myriad of wired and wireless platforms, including 802.11, HomeRF, Ethernet and HomePNA. The company also plans to support protocols such as Bluetooth and the emerging HomePlug power-line standard when adoption rates rise and prices drop.

Although Ucentric's forte is in operating system and applications software, the company will provide Rogers with prototype residential gateways/media servers that will ration bandwidth and applications that flow into trial participant homes, Giancola said.

She added that Ucentric would furnish a suite of applications for the Rogers trial. They include instant messaging, caller ID and Web access for any and all screens in the house, as well as a system that will enable users to listen to digital music from any home stereo. In the future, the company plans to offer software that centralizes personal video recording, video-on-demand and voice-over-Internet protocol applications.

Ucentric's goal is to license its software and hardware reference design to original equipment manufacturers.

Despite the fact that home networking is still in its early stages, Lee said he believes the technology will play a prominent role in cable's future.

"We have a robust video distribution system and a robust broadband PC business," he said. "We're in the beginning phases of interactive TV, and this concept of pervasive IP is basically the next step of where we need to go," Lee said.

The concept of pervasive IP eventually could usher in an era when consumers also share advanced, packet-based video applications with hand-held devices such as personal digital assistants and Web pads.

"I want customers to tell me how far they want to take" home networking, Lee said of the forthcoming trial. "I want to explore the edge."

Rogers already is considered an ITV pioneer in the cable sphere. The MSO's interactive service, Rogers ITV, basically ports some WebTV technology to Scientific-Atlanta Inc.-built Explorer digital set-tops. Today, Rogers ITV is available to about 70 percent of all homes the MSO serves, Lee said.

Lee said it was too early to say what Rogers' next home networking steps will be, though the MSO typically moves into limited marketing trials following successful technical pilots.

Giancola said the trial with Rogers could open up an opportunity to test consumer "pricing tolerances" for a variety of home networking service levels.

The arrangement with Rogers marks Ucentric's first announced trial with a cable operator. Earlier this month, Ucentric teamed up with digital-subscriber-line provider Speakeasy.net for a home networking trial that involves about 20 high-speed customers in Seattle and Boston. If that pilot proves successful, Speakeasy.net, which said earlier it believes it can differentiate itself from cable-modem services by offering home networking, expects to phase it in as a commercially marketed service.

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