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Home Networking HDTV

by Robin Berger, 02.04.2009

LAS VEGAS
Following a flurry of activity late last year, home networking is racking up a definite presence in 2009, starting with last month's Consumer Electronics Show.

Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers touted "connected consumer experiences," and Cisco's Web promotions noted the company's "big picture" view (getting access to entertainment from any device anywhere) as well as its "architectural play: keying off video and social networking."

"The network really enables it all," Chambers said.

Two proponent groups—HD-PLC (High Definition Power Line Communication alliance) and HomePlug Powerline Alliance—hosted CES TechZones.

HD-PLC, founded by Panasonic, favors a 128 bit AES encryption that, theoretically, enables data to be transmitted at up to 190 Mbps. HomePlug, founded by Orlando, Fla.-based chip provider Intellon claims its HomePlug AV standard theoretically moves data at 200 Mbps.

Individual companies also displayed a wide variety of networking products capable of delivering HD content, according to Brian Markwalter, vice president, technology and standards for the Consumer Electronics Association. Chip provider DS2 demonstrated products from Universal Powerline Association (UPA) members in its booth; San Diego-based Entropic Communications showed products using its MoCA (multimedia over coax alliance) technology, and CopperGate Communications of Tel Aviv Israel, exhibited products utilizing HomePNA Alliance technology.

Panasonic debuted its new line of VIERA X1 LCD televisions, which feature a fully-integrated iPod entertainment kit. The television's three HDMI inputs can be controlled by the VIERA Link button on the remote control.

"High definition displays and content are the expected video experience for consumers today, which creates a strong demand for the networking solutions to get the content from any source to any display in the home," said Markwalter.

MONTHLY MILESTONES

This demand, whether currently existing in the market or simply in the minds of promoters, was tested last fall when Panasonic announced the arrival of the first TV sets utilizing CableLab's tru2way technology, which the company described as "a common software platform enabling the extension of interactivity to the TV set and other devices." Its VIERA HDTVs debuted at Abt Electronics in Glenview, Ill., as Comcast hosted the first active tru2way platform in Chicago. Store personnel noted brisk sales during the holidays.

"I sold the first tru2way TV at Abt to a customer from California," said Abt salesman Kevin Robles. "Even through the technology would not work in his area, he still wanted to have the latest and greatest product."

Less than a month later, the FCC announced a plan to open up unused TV-band spectrum ("white spaces") to "new and innovative types of unlicensed devices." Promoters reasoned that the resulting boost to wireless transmission from today's Wi-Fi speed and reach would make home networking an easier sell.

In December, the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union sanctioned the first global standard offering an in-home, high-speed network capable of delivering room-to-room HDTV. The ITU-T G.9960 G.hn recommendation focuses on the physical ("PHY") layer, which connects a media access control device (MAC) to an optical fiber or copper cable. These particular specs give "the data bit rate and quality of service necessary for triple-play residential services as well as business-type services delivered over xDSL, PON, or other access technology," according to the ITU.

ITU was accepting comments on the recommendation until Feb. 12, during which time specifications for a MAC layer would begin to be developed. The complete standard was targeted for September.

Also that month, the baseline draft of the IEEE P1901 Medium Access Control and Physical Layer Specifications for power line networking was approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The next step is the development of the first version of the draft standard, IEEE noted.

GLOBAL STREET CRED

A respected technology standard would go a long way toward interoperability and, thus, more successful marketing of home networking products. As one insider noted, "nobody's going to want to integrate into a plasma TV if the $50 adapter stops your TV from working."

Right now, the industry is severely fragmented, with incompatible proprietary technologies, determined by individual silicon providers, transmitting signals over power lines, coaxial cable or telephone wires.

To date, the big three power line communications technologies are HD-PLC (Panasonic), HomePlug (Intellon) and UPA (DS2). Coaxial cable's two largest communications technology groups are MoCA (Entropic) and HomePNA (CopperGate). CopperGate chipsets also enable distribution of broadband digital content over phone and power lines, the company noted.

"G.hn has been developed from the beginning to run over three wires: power lines, coax[ial cable], and phone lines," said Matthew Theall, technology strategist for Intel's Digital Home Group, (Intel is an active participant in the ITU-T Study Group's Home Network Initiative). Theall, a former president and board member of the HomePlug Alliance, is now president of the HomeGrid Forum, a trade group specifically formed to promote ITU's G.hn standards.

HomeGrid Forum members include Intel, Infineon, Panasonic and Texas Instruments, as well as silicon/IP providers Aware, DS2, Gigle and Pulse-Link.

"It doesn't matter whether you run over power lines or over coax or over phone lines as long as the technology takes into account interference from various devices in the house, as G.hn will," said Theall.

OUTREACH

The HomeGrid Forum discussed progress with analysts at the 2009 International CEA last month; the ITU-T G.hn work group will host its next meetings in Atlanta and Nashville over the next two months.

"HomeGrid has already signed about a half dozen liaison agreements with different organizations in the industry," said Theall. He also said his group has spoken about the standard with officials at the Consumer Electronics Association, IEEE and "lots of other groups in the industry."

G.hn Recommendation ITU-T G.9960 has garnered support from CopperGate Communications and DS2, which said it was working to introduce a "G.hn compatible chipset" by the end of 2009. The HomePlug Alliance (of which AT&T, Motorola and the Scientific Atlanta division of Cisco Systems are members) and MoCA (which names Verizon among its customers) were less enthusiastic about the standard.

"I'm currently unaware of any work within ITU G.hn that would resolve the issues with G.hn products not being about to coexist with HomePlug 1.0 and HomePlug AV products," said HomePlug Powerline Alliance President Rob Ranck.

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