Cable Television Laboratories Inc. formally unveiled its
initiative to study home networking, as major operators step closer to linking the product
to retail cable-modem plans.
The networking project -- to be headed by AT&T Corp.
vice president of broadband technology Glenn Edens -- has asked about two-dozen companies
so far for information to help determine the best technical paths for supporting local
networking by cable-data customers.
Home-networking solutions using several
"no-new-wires" platforms -- home-phone-line, wireless and power-line connections
-- have proliferated with the huge growth in multiple-computer households and a strong
correlation between broadband subscribership and multiple-PC ownership.
"There are a lot of people doing the technology, but
they really haven't been conversing with our industry to see what our interface needs and
concerns are for maintaining things like quality of service," CableLabs senior
advisor for network systems Terry Shaw said. "In large part, the marketplace will
sort a lot of that out, but we feel that we need to find out the most appropriate
The CableLabs project -- initially reported June 21 in Multichannel
News -- will look at areas such as physical-layer characteristics and actual operating
data to determine the compatibility of various solutions with the data, video and
telephony cable services the networks will carry.
Both in-home networks and media-access points -- which
could be set-top boxes integrating video, cable-modem and networking features -- will be
studied. But Shaw said it was not yet clear whether the process will lead to a set of
CableLabs specifications, the way its PacketCable and OpenCable initiatives worked.
"This is a way of trying to consolidate some of the
effort that's already going on in the industry so we can perhaps save time in getting to
where we all need to be," he said.
Operators are already taking home networking -- especially
wireless networking -- seriously to help jump-start retail sales of cable modems and
broadband Internet-access services.
NDC Communications Inc. -- which already features
home-networking products branded "SOHOWare" -- formally launched its
broadband-oriented "CableFree NetBlaster" wireless hub last week, and the
company said several major MSOs have been examining or testing it with an eye toward
possible retail launches.
Although initially available only through NDC's Web site,
the company is positioning the $299 product as a way for MSOs to add value as they try to
turn cable modems and broadband Internet connections into mainstream consumer retailing
Another vendor, Proxim Inc., also has pilot testing and
technical and sales training under way with three top-five MSOs for its
"Symphony" line of wireless gear, also aiming to leverage the value of an easily
installed home network to help foster cable-modem and Internet-access sales in retail
"Wireless is the only way they're going to be able to
sell cable modems easily in retail," said Mike Nydam, Proxim's channel-sales manager
for branded products in the Americas. "You can auto-configure a lot of things more
easily than you can with the wireline stuff."
Home networking enables multiple computers and other
peripherals to share Internet connections, data and, eventually, video for such
applications as file sharing or interactive gaming among several members of a small
business or household.
For now, vendors and analysts expect the market to be
dominated by products based on specifications by the vendor-backed Home Phoneline
Networking Alliance (HomePNA), which specifies data rates of 1 megabit per second under
its current standard and 10 mbps under its upcoming version 2.0.
The NDC and Proxim products are based on the Institute of
Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.11 standard, which specifies 2-mbps data rates,
going up to 11 mbps in an updated, pending version.
Allied Business Intelligence Inc. estimated that
phone-line-networking products will account for about 63 percent of the North American
market this year, compared with 22 percent for radio-frequency products. By 2004, the
share for RF products could rise to 38 percent, compared with 49 percent for phone line.
Although wireless products might cost two to three times as
much as wired platforms, wireless networking is seen as especially appealing, partly
because of its ability to connect computers anywhere within its signal range. Users would
not have to remain within reach of phone or cable outlets and run wire for new jacks in
desired work areas.
"Wireless at first I looked at as a cool 'toy of the
week' thing," said an executive at one major MSO, who asked not to be identified.
"But as we launched into various spots, we began realizing there are many homes that
don't have [enough] cable wiring and don't want to add to it."
The executive said the ease of wireless installation also
made it a powerful option once its price disadvantage shrinks. He added that one recent
test install at a large, older home with five PCs took about 2.5 hours using the SOHOWare
product versus the 10 hours it might have taken for rewiring to the customer's
NDC said those benefits make its product valuable to cable
operators as they try to sell cable modems and services in a mainstream retail
environment, where ease of installation and use will be paramount as broadband Internet
service continues moving beyond its early adopter customers.
NDC vice president of sales and marketing Andy Chang said
some MSOs are already seeing a reported 7 percent of their subscribers requesting
multiple-computer connections to their cable-modem services, without any marketing of that
NetBlaster links several computers or other peripherals at
data speeds of up to 2 mbps, over distances up to 250 feet, to a single cable-modem
The product transmits data over the unlicensed spectrum at
2.4 gigahertz, using the frequency-hopping spread-spectrum scheme to enhance the range and
to help encrypt the signal.
To allay eavesdropping concerns, NDC also modified the
device so that each unit has a unique identification code between the hub and the PC.
NDC said the product had been undergoing testing and trials
over the past seven months with Cox Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Cablevision
Systems Corp., MediaOne Group Inc. and Rogers Cablesystems Ltd.
None of the MSOs would comment on their plans, but industry
sources said at least one major operator -- rumored to be Cablevision -- would shortly
announce a retail initiative that included both cable-modem service and wireless home
That deal could include special prices on modems for
customers signing up for lengthy cable Internet-access service commitments, sources said.
NDC is also trying to reach revenue-sharing deals offering
10 percent of sales to MSOs that direct customers to its Web site for networking-gear
Product price remains a key issue, although analysts said
consumers would pay some convenience premium for a wireless hub, just as they do for
Even as part of a bundled package, wireless devices
typically cost $200 or more per node, compared with home-phone-line solutions in the
sub-$100 range, ABI analyst Navin Sabharwal said.
Wireless prices are already moving lower, though. NDC is
considering offering a $50 rebate to NetBlaster buyers, and modem-maker Zoom Telephonics
Inc. cut the prices of network-interface cards for its 802.11 wireless local-area-network
product by 33 percent last week, reducing its desktop NIC to $199.
Proxim cut the prices of its Symphony products by about 25
percent in August in conjunction with its retail launch in such store chains as OMX Inc.'s
OfficeMax and Fry's.
"If vendors can create a support mechanism that will
allow this product to be installed by Mom and Pop, then demand will rise and costs will
drop," said the MSO executive. "Price may keep it out of homes for now, but it
won't keep it out of the market."
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