The network comes home
(IDG) -- The Jetsons' technically integrated home is no longer reserved for science fiction fantasies. As next-generation consumer devices such as PC/TVs and "smart" appliances promise more interactivity, an integrated home network is just around the corner -- connecting these devices with PCs, the Internet, phone services, home security systems, and even your refrigerator.
But divergent developments in the underlying technologies have delayed this union between analog and digital data, voice, and video technologies.
In the United States, infrastructure deregulation has split network service providers along technology lines. As the networking infrastructure and services continue to evolve, consumers can expect anything but easy sailing on this next wave of home communications.
"What's coming up in the future is very exciting but a little crazy for the consumer," says Mary Walker, director of the home networking business unit at IBM, in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "Today there are no standards for various home devices to communicate together. So you'll see a lot of really neat technology appear, but the challenge for consumers is how to get it all to work together."
Don't assume that consumers simply will wait out the storm before the home network becomes pervasive -- consumer demand already has set the stage.
Dataquest reports that more than 15 million U.S. homes already have multiple PCs. And Jupiter Communications projects that in addition to PCs, consumers will purchase more than 15 million non-PC information appliances for the home throughout the next five years. Bitten by the Internet bug, users are driving the convergence, leaving their doors wide open for enhanced network services.
Thus, infrastructure heavyweights used to owning their corner of the network -- phone lines, cable service, fiber-optic cable, wireless channels, satellites, and even power lines -- now are scrambling to guarantee their piece of the future pie. Alliances such as technology consortiums and standards groups are forming left and right, with many major players putting their eggs in more than one basket.
But what will this flurry of activity produce for consumers? And how soon will a universal home network emerge from the chaos?
Laying the Foundation
Today's infrastructure convergence is shaping the future for widespread residential networking. New standards, access devices, software, and services all are aimed at seamless integration with future applications and technologies, while providing the functionality needed for today's world. But which technologies will lead the way, and which will leave users in the dark?
Copper lines. Penetrating the home market is a challenge because users require lots of functionality at a low cost, with little or no disruption to their home setup. As a result, many vendors that want to capture the early residential implementers are backing products, services, and standards that use existing copper phone lines.
The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) is leading the charge to bring Ethernet technology to the home. Backed by industry giants, the HomePNA is banking on Ethernet buy-in within the home. But it is also leaving the WAN-access door open to consumer choice.
"The HomePNA is pretty agnostic about the wide area connection you have," says Tony Zuccarino, vice president of marketing and a founding member at Epigram, based in Santa Clara, Calif.
Simultaneously, both IBM and Lucent Technologies, also members of the HomePNA, are taking the home network concept beyond Ethernet. IBM's Home Director Professional and Lucent's HomeStar Residential Wiring System unlock proprietary home systems such as security, lighting, and heating and allow almost any intelligent device -- PC and non-PC -- to share data via a central serverlike system.
"We recognize that there are devices people already own that need to be connected, as well as connecting with future devices," IBM's Walker says.
However, the downside to both IBM's and Lucent's offerings is that they require high-quality network cable in the home, in addition to the use of the existing phone line. So they are better suited for new buildings than they are for established homes.
Many vendors seeking to leverage the existing copper network outside the home are placing their bets on Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology. Intel, Microsoft, Compaq, and several telephone carriers formed the Universal ADSL Working Group to put their weight behind the DSL Lite technology that gives home users 1.5Mbps of connectivity.
However, major telephone companies have been slow to commit to DSL. Despite the lull, some industry observers say it's just a matter of time before metropolitan areas demand the access from their local exchange carriers.
"If there's a buyer, somebody's going to be out there selling it," says Frank Dzubek, president of Communications Network Architects, a consultancy in Washington. "The only thing that can impede [DSL demand] is price and lack of technology."
Cable service. Cable companies also are trying to leverage their existing cable connections to the home. Major cable operators such as Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), Cox Communications, Time Warner, and MediaOne are in the midst of upgrading their networks to allow two-way communications. These costly upgrades will be based on hybrid fiber coax (HFC), a blending of fiber-optics with coaxial cable to provide greater capacity, extensity, and reliability. HFC cable also provides interactive capabilities, so cable providers can offer high-speed data access, voice services, and digital television.
AT&T's recent merger with TCI highlighted the telephony possibilities of cable networks beyond television services. Together AT&T and TCI can offer integrated packages of services, such as cable television, local and long-distance telephony, and Internet access. Cox Communications already offers enhanced services from its cable network.
"Our network has incredible bandwidth and goes to businesses and residences," says David Woodrow, senior vice president of new business development at Cox Communications, in Atlanta. "We've elected to use it for the delivery of digital video services, such as pay-per-view channels; high-speed data, so you can use it for work applications; and telephony services."
Meanwhile, Time Warner -- cable operator and co-developer of the RoadRunner Internet access service with MediaOne -- is also keeping its eye on converged services via cable, looking to offer digital interactive television plus telephony and videoconferencing services, says Mario Vecchi, senior vice president of advanced technologies at Time Warner RoadRunner, in Stamford, Conn.
According to observers in the industry, cable's biggest advantages as a residential communications medium are its ubiquity and its huge capacity. "The beauty of cable is that it passes 94 percent of homes in the U.S., and 65 percent in the U.S. subscribe to cable services," says Craig Driscoll, an analyst at the Yankee Group, in Boston. "And you're typically getting 1.5Mbps to 3Mbps [data transfer] downstream and 500Kbps back upstream."
However, critics and rivals of cable, such as DSL advocates, are quick to point out that cable is a shared medium, unlike copper and fiber-optic wire line. So, if too many users decide to use the cable network at the same time, access speed may degenerate. Plus, cable-modem systems inherently are insecure because the whole neighborhood has access to the same pipes. Consumers must know enough about their cable systems to take security measures.
Fiber optics. Although high-capacity fiber-optic cable has been at the backbone of the Internet for some time, efforts are in motion to bring fiber closer to the home, staking a claim for a more distant future when, many believe, fiber will be the end-to-end wire-line transport.
Indeed, price drops for fiber cable have enabled carriers such as Teleport Communications Group and 21st Century Telecommunications Group to lay fiber to the curb in some new residential developments. This "fiber to curb" is then picked up by a node that connects the homes themselves to the fiber access point via coaxial cable.
Even more ambitious is a Shrewsbury, Mass., fiber trial led by Fiber Optic Network Solutions and Coherent Communications Systems that brings fiber directly to 11,000 homes. If successful, both companies plan to keep moving forward in that region.
However, sustained expansion for fiber to the home will depend on continued price cuts for the cable and supporting devices, along with standards for efficiently converting light signals back to digital signals. For now, many of these new fiber lines are going unused.
"It's all dark fiber right now, but in time we will start lighting up that fiber because [consumers] will want more," says John Cowley, offer director for HomeStar at Lucent Technologies, in Murray Hill, N.J.
Deregulation also is taking its toll on the deployment of fiber to residential areas.
"The trouble getting to the consumer is that most are using their current connections sparsely and infrequently," says Ted Darcie, director of communications infrastructure research at AT&T Labs, in Redbank, N.J. "It's very difficult for any provider to justify the cost of that fiber when they're in a competitive view."
Power lines. Even the electricity infrastructure is being used for a variety of communications services. In October 1997, Northern Telecom and Norweb Communications announced the development of digital power-line technology, which allows power companies to send data and voice services over existing power lines to homes at speeds as fast as 1Mbps. However, digital power-line implementations, which have been well received in Europe, are only now being tested in the United States.
Though the continuous demand for bandwidth and processing power makes power lines an attractive alternative, the infrastructure is not reliable enough to deliver high-level services and is too unpredictable, says Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, Calif.
Beyond the Backyard
Wireless technology is giving wire-line a run for its money by offering cheaper infrastructures, decreasing costs, and increasing global coverage. And much like wire line, experts say wireless networks also will be integrated to encompass voice, data, and video communications.
Mobile wireless technology has moved beyond the realm of traveling professionals and into the mainstream. The breakthrough technology will be high-speed data over wireless channels.
"We're going to see, over the next five years, increased speeds on wireless data until we get to the point where you have capabilities from anywhere," says Chris Pearson, director of marketing at the Universal Wireless Communication Consortium, in Bellevue, Wash. "Downloading can be done from wherever you are."
Meanwhile, the Home Radio Frequency Working Group is developing specifications for wireless technology within the home. Backed by Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, the alliance supports the belief that many home users will not want to wire their homes to network home devices.
"Wireless networking is much more feasible and less costly," Dzubek says. "Because, after all, what is a home? It's a garage, basement, attic, yard, and every other room in the house. So getting copper to all those areas doesn't make sense."
Satellite services. Satellite services also have migrated to the commercial realm, enabling wireless communications around the globe. According to some observers, during the next four years to five years, broadband satellite systems will provide a range of services, including Internet access, video access to the home, and telephony services, at a relatively low cost.
Companies such as Teledesic, Loral Space and Communications' CyberStar and GlobalStar divisions, and Iridium World Communications use low-earth-orbit satellites with land-based wireless systems to allow worldwide two-way communications.
Greg Caressi, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, in Mountain View, Calif., sees a solid future ahead for satellite services to the home.
"[With satellite], some regions of the world will be able to leapfrog and get instant infrastructure, without the cost of building the wire line," Caressi says.
However, many say that satellite's environmental shortcomings will limit its use.
"It's not going to be a big hit in the cities, and it's not going to replace all Internet access -- you'd have to blacken the sky with satellites," says Boston-based Bob Metcalfe, InfoWorld columnist and industry pundit. "But out in the country, or in underdeveloped nations, it does have an interesting economic effect."
Although all these networking contenders plan to provide integrated voice, video, data, and Internet services, most observers think consumer choice will reinforce the need for interoperability between the various factions. Thus, most competing camps already are extending their reach to ensure that they can play on the same home turf in the future.
"Companies know that there are numerous solutions to benefit customers," says Dave Sandford, product manager for the Ethernet group at 3Com, in Santa Clara. Calif. "What all the companies that are getting together want is to promote standards-based technologies and get products to market quickly."
But the need for cooperation isn't stopping infrastructure heavyweights from spreading their wings so they won't miss any residential opportunities.
"As a provider of services, we realize that we'll have wireless, fiber, and coax to the home," Darcie says. "We'll be providing many different types of access devices, and we're highly motivated to come up with an integrated look and feel to shield the consumer from that complexity." "Keep politicians from voting on which technology we should use," Metcalfe adds. "We need alternatives to compete with each other."
Yet consumers should be wary of early-to-market solutions, such as Internet routers that rely on Category 5 cables and cable set-top boxes, which could shut them off from services that will come later.
"Ultimately, there will be some standardization within communities, and it's not clear to consumers who will win in their areas," IBM's Walker says.
"A huge swing factor is whether complacent telecommunications monopolies are left standing," Metcalfe says. "If so, progress will be very slow, as in the past."
Home Sweet Home?
The home network soon will be capable of adding video to voice communications, adding voice and video to data communications, providing on-demand entertainment, and expanding Internet connectivity to almost any household device. But will this increased connectivity open doors or just tether us to our technology?
"From a pure technology and sociological perspective, there are so many opportunities for technology to make our lives a little easier," says Hilary Mine, an analyst at Probe Research, in Cedar Knolls, N.J. "It's all how you manage technology. Do you let it rule you or do you rule it?"
Information overload and the digital delivery of more junk to the home concerns many observers.
"With more technologies, there are more choices," Saffo says. "Choose wisely and well. You don't have to read every e-mail you get; you need to develop your own rules of thumb and steps to sanity."
However, others think the convenience of the technology-enabled home won't necessarily outweigh the social impact of less time face to face.
"We'll have less and less human interaction, we'll see less conversation at the water cooler, which leads to less inventive thinking," Dzubek says.
Clifford Nass, professor of communications at Stanford University, in Stanford, Calif., explains that in the most extreme scenario, although some duties in life will become easier and smoother, "distinctions between things and people will blur."
"We'll treat things like people, and treat people like things," Nass says.
Ultimately, the effects of home networking rest in the hands of consumers and what they want to gain.
"Things are changing so fast that it sort of scares people at first," Lucent's Cowley says. "But people want smarter homes. We work so hard all day that we want to go home to a smart house. So as new technology comes down the pipes, we're going to want to take advantage of it."
Senior Editor Renee Gotcher (firstname.lastname@example.org) edits the Enterprise Networking Product Reviews section, covering networking hardware and software, and network management. Reporter Laura Kujubu (email@example.com) has covered the telecommunications industry and networking convergence for the past year.
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