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Home networking pieces in place

Chicago - Consumers with an advanced set-top box, PC, digital camera and an MP3 player have the building blocks for a multimedia home network.

Cable operators have a golden opportunity in helping them connect those devices and others by offering installation and network management service for a monthly fee. The key is internal storage in the set-top box and an administrative infrastructure within the MSO to help consumers make it happen.

To date, many people have networked two or more computers via simple Ethernet hubs, but the thought of sharing storage and connecting consumer devices together elicits panic. Yet, when they understand that a video program stored on a set-top with an internal hard drive can be viewed on any TV within that house or a new mother can watch her child from another room through the TV, light bulbs begin to go off.

That was the premise of a home-networking panel moderated by Steve Silva, senior vice president of corporate Development & Technology at Charter Communications. Silva served as the perfect host for the discussion, injecting real world experience into an often-confusing subject of competing networking standards (e.g., RF vs. IEEE 802.11).

"Cable operators want to expand the footprint of broadband service into subscribers' homes to other devices," he says. "The cable industry has had success deploying cable modems. We can do the same thing with home networking. People like the concept of networking, they just need to be shown how it can help their lives."

Jon Devaan, a vice president at Microsoft, adds that if the operator make it simple for consumers to network, and even manage that network, additional revenue and reduced digital churn becomes evident. "The technology exists to deploy a wide range of new services, it's a matter of how fast that happens."

This is a key point, in that cable's competitors are also looking to deploy set-top boxes that can network with a wide range of consumer devices. And due to the fact that the DBS industry has been able to integrate DVR functionality faster than cable, some feel that cable can't afford to wait too long to offer networking.

"It's still a bit early to deploy networking services," points out Don Apruzzese, Director of Corporate Development at ShareWare (a company that specializes in installing networking technologies for business and home use). "But cable operators should be looking into what their customers want in this space and they should start planning to do something [within two years]."

The issue of different, competing networking standards will stay with the industry for quite some time, adds David King, CEO of Proxim. He says that consumers will see different standards deployed in their homes (for data and audio/video) for the foreseeable future. For MSOs, the opportunity lies in helping their subscribers make sense of the technology as they desire to add devices to their network. This has to be seamless to the consumer or it won't be successful.

Another unsolved issue is whether enabling consumers to download movies from the Internet and onto their network would eat into cable's buisness. Charter's Silva said that his company's advantage is the signal quality of the video he provides, noting that Internet video can't equal the high data rates his high-speed modem service makes possible. - Michael Grotticelli