Intel Gets Back Into Cable

Following a history of up-and-down cable-industry involvement, Intel Corp. apparently is on the upswing again, via a home-networking trial agreement with Comcast Corp's cable unit.

This time around, Intel and Comcast will collaborate on a home-networking trial that will harness Intel residential broadband gateways, wireless- network adapters and host-based cable-modems, also known as computer-controlled-cable modems (CCCMs).

Cable Television Laboratories Inc. is currently exploring CCCM specs. The device itself is expected to run about $50 per unit, down from the typical $99 price tag on most of today's external cable modems.

Comcast and Intel also agreed to co-promote the MSO's high-speed service and Intel's home-networking products.

In March, Intel — which demonstrated CCCMs as recently as last year's Western Show — said it didn't have any product plans, but that could change if the market showed interest in such a device. Apparently, Intel has gotten the requisite interest to move forward.

Intel also bowed a residential gateway at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. That box was equipped with connections to handle both cable and digital-subscriber-line infrastructures. Some industry observers believe such an arrangement would make it easier for subscribers to churn, as they could get a bundle of voice, video and data services from incumbent telco and cable companies.

Intel's gateway for the Comcast trial will harness Ethernet links and wireless 802.11b connections to distribute bandwidth and applications to other devices in the home. Intel has already confirmed it will use 802.11 technology in its next generation of wireless Anypoint networking hubs; it used the HomeRF protocol in the first iteration of the product.

The home-networking trial won't be the first Intel-Comcast collaboration. Back in the mid-1990s, the MSO worked with Intel, Hybrid Networks and other vendors on a proprietary cable-modem design that Comcast deployed in Lower Merion, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. That vendor partnership eventually dissolved as MCNS (Multimedia Cable Network System) and later DOCSIS were brought into cable's interoperability fold.

For cable operators, the technology behind home networking is important, but it's not the only factor. Home networking is also about adding value without wrapping consumers up in a tangle of technology they don't understand.

That value will come from innovation and new technology that can deliver multiple services to multiple devices in the home — and can do it seamlessly, from the customer's point of view, noted Charter Communications Inc. senior vice president of corporate development and technology Steve Silva. He moderated a panel on that subject during last week's National Show in Chicago.

While technology will always reside at home networking's core, the real balancing act for cable operators will be to harness it — and to generate incremental revenue.

"Ultimately, consumers won't want or need to know what type of network is in the house," said Dan Moloney, senior vice president of Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's IP systems group.

According to Silva, the real question is, "How do we do it?"

One answer could be shifting home networking from a retail model to a commercial service offered by the cable operator that extends the broadband footprint into the house to stream video and MP3 audio, noted David King, the CEO of wireless-networking technology maker Proxim.

Until rich-media can travel across a home-based network, less bandwidth-intensive products like home security will likely be the first area cable operators could tap for recurring revenue.

One company that has that in mind is @Security Broadband Corp., whose financial backers include Adelphia Communications Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc., Rogers Communications and Shaw Communications. @Security has also completed an alpha trial in Las Vegas with Cox.

An operator could charge subscribers $30 or $40 per month for a home-control and security service, said, @Security president and CEO William Glasgow.

But aside from security systems, a rich media setup today is likely too costly to drive a critical mass of consumers to adopt it.

An 802.11 card typically goes for $199 to $149 at retail, and an access point can be priced anywhere between $200 and $300, said Sharewave Inc. director of business development Donald Apruzzese.

In another two years, he said, cards might cost between $50 and $35 each, with access points dropping to about $100.

But getting the price of the access point below $100 will be a "struggle," and the equipment — at least for now — is geared to early adopters, King added.

Though home-networking technology is rather pricey at present, the real opportunity for operators will be driven by the services it fosters, Moloney said.

Silva said some parallels exist between cable's involvement in high-speed data and the nascent reality of home networking.

Cable-modem marketing initially touted speed, then followed up with examples of what that speed can enable, Silva said.

"The same thing will have to happen for home networking," he said. "[We've] got to explain to our subscribers what the benefits are."

The cable industry will have to get to that point rapidly.

"Cable needs to take the lead, because our competitors [such as DBS and the telcos] can do it, too," Silva said.