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The June 19, 2006 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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In This Issue

Heard on the Net

News about People and Companies Influencing The Broadband Home

People News

Lewis Brewster, currently executive VP and COO of Conexant Systems, has assumed the additional role of general manager of the company's Broadband Media Processing business. Broadband Media Processing provides solutions for set-top boxes, digital televisions, and video processing applications in the PC and other consumer electronics devices. ( )

Rainer Hoffmann has been appointed to the position of CEO of Micronas USA. Hoffmann was previously President and General Manager of Micronas Semiconductors Inc. ( )

Wes Hoffman has been appointed VP and general manager of 2Wire's media business unit. Hoffman was previously with OpenTV. ( )

Yoshimasa Miyake has been appointed General Manager, Japan for Streaming21. Previously, Miyake was at DoCoMo i-mode Europe B.V. ( )

J. Michael Pocock has been appointed senior VP and general manager at Linksys, a division of Cisco; he most recently was President and CEO of the Polaroid Corporation. Linksys founders Victor Tsao and Janie Tsao, who previously shared this SVP/GM role, will now focus on new opportunities in China for Cisco. ( ) ( )

Michael K. Pratt, formerly president of ADC's Active Infrastructure business unit, has been appointed president and CEO of Aperto Networks; Behrooz Parsay has been appointed VP of engineering. ( )

Company News


ADC is acquiring Andrew Corporation in a stock swap transaction valued at $2 billion. The deal will result in ADC owning 56 percent of the combined company. ADC's president and CEO, Robert Switz, will lead the new combined wired/wireless firm, which will be called ADC Andrew. ( ) ( )

AOL has acquired Lightningcast, a broadband advertising company. Financial terms were not disclosed. ( ) ( )

AudioCodes is acquiring Nuera Communications for $85 million in cash plus an additional $5 million if Nuera meets certain milestones. Nuera supplies cable operators and broadband service providers with access and trunking media gateways. ( ) ( )

Boingo Wireless is buying Concourse Communications Group LLC, an owner and operator of airport Wi-Fi in major US markets. Boingo said the acquisition "gives the company a platform for testing emerging dual-mode handset implementations and VoIP traffic management". Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. ( ) ( )

KPN, a Dutch telco, is buying Enertel, a broadband and telecom service provider, for about $13 million. Separately, KPN has also agreed to acquire Demon Netherlands for about $89.5 million in cash from U.K. telecom operator Thus. ( ) ( ) ( )

Sweden-based TeliaSonera AB is acquiring NextGenTel AS, Norway's second largest broadband operator, for $310 million. Separately, TeliaSonera has bought a majority stake in the Spanish wireless startup Xfera Moviles SA and plans a UMTS rollout. ( ) ( )


AnchorFree, a large, free Wi-Fi network and community, has raised a $6 million Series A round to grow its free wireless internet access. The company is creating a unified marketing and advertising base and systems to address it. ( )

Clearwire has filed with the SEC a prospectus for an IPO expected to raise as much as $400 million. Clearwire says it will use the proceeds to operate, market and expand its broadband wireless network, and to acquire more spectrum. ( )

Ember Corp., a ZigBee home networking company, has raised $12 million in additional funding. ( )

SIPquest, which has changed its name to FirstHand Technologies, has received $7M in Series C funding. ( ) ( )

Other News

Alcatel and Microsoft, collaborators on an IPTV ecosystem, have established a global relationship with HP focused on the delivery of server solutions for IPTV. The three companies will establish joint sales and marketing activities. ( ) ( ) ( )

BSkyB has agreed to trial Qualcomm's Media-FLO, with a one-month trial planned this summer in Cambridge, UK. Verizon Wireless has signed up to roll out MediaFLO in the US, and Qualcomm has a joint venture with KDDI to deploy the technology in Japan. ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

Cablevision is delaying the launch of network PVR until the lawsuit brought by content providers such as CBS Broadcasting is resolved. ( )

HanseNet launched its IPTV over DSL service, Alice homeTV, in advance of a Deutsche Telekom offering. Subscribers pay the equivalent of $12.70 a month in addition to their broadband connection fee for basic service, which includes 100 channels. ( )

Microsoft unveiled a new photo format it claims will provide better quality at half the size of a JPEG image. Windows Media Photo (WM Photo) will be built into Vista, the next-generation of Windows. ( )

Motorola has announced a Wi-Fi mesh product, named the HotZone Duo. It enables a choice of either single radio (2.4GHz, 802.11b/g) or dual (2.4GHz, 802.11b/g and 5.8GHz, 802.11a) network configuration to best meet coverage needs, and is priced lower than many competing products. Motorola has signed on the system integrator in many city deployments, using Wi-Fi access points from Tropos Networks. ( ) ( )

Navio Systems introduced AV Commerce 2.0, its platform for content distribution and the signing of four major customers: Walt Disney Internet Group, Sony BMG, Shockwave, and Fox Sports. Navio’s “Rights over IP” (RoIP) technology enables consumers to buy the rights to consume content on a variety of devices, rather than the files themselves. The system enables entertainment companies to sell their content directly to consumers. ( )

Nielsen//NetRatings announced expansion of its Internet measurement capabilities to address the growth of online audio and video content as well as the convergence of Internet and television content. NetRatings' next generation meter will capture and report all PC-consumed content, both live streams and also downloaded, transferred and replayed streams. NetRatings also announced that in partnership with Nielsen Media Research it will work on a single source panel to track and report combined TV, Web and digital media consumption.( )

Nokia and Siemens are merging their communications service provider businesses to create a 50:50 joint venture, called Nokia Siemens Networks. The company will be based in Finland and is valued by analysts at up to €25 billion. The portfolio of the merged company will include such items as IMS, 2G GSM/EDGE access, 3G WCDMA/HSDPA access, extensive mobile core, fixed broadband, transport, IPTV, LTE and WiMAX. ( ) ( )

TiVo announced the launch of TiVoCast, a service which will deliver broadband video from the Web to the TV sets of TiVo subscribers. The service is based on TiVo's prior agreement with Brightcove. In conjunction with the launch, TiVo announced new content agreements with sources including the National Basketball Association, The New York Times, and CNET. ( )

Tzero Technologies announced their TZ 7000 UWB chipset, which they claim will carry three or more high-definition video streams across a 20-meter range while running at 100Mbps. Tzero is a member of the WiMedia Alliance. ( ) ( )

Wavion has launched their company and a new category of metro Wi-Fi Access Points. These APs are specifically designed for the metro Wi-Fi market and use spatially adaptive and MIMO-based technologies. The company claims that one spatially adaptive AP from Wavion does the work of three to four conventional APs. ( )

WildBlue Communications has signed five-year wholesale-distribution agreements with both DirecTV and EchoStar Communications. The agreements specify that WildBlue will be the only satellite-based Internet option offered to these satellite operators' subscribers. Details on pricing and availability are not yet released.( ) ( ) ( )

Standards, Alliances and Trade Associations

The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) released requirement-overview documents for IPTV architecture and Digital Rights Management (DRM). These documents are intended to help ensure IPTV interoperability across the industry. ( )

The DSL Forum has published TR-122, Base Requirements for Consumer Oriented ATA Functionality, a new standard defining the functionality and management of terminal adapters in DSL networks. The specification also addresses QoE (quality of experience) and the technology's ease of use. ( )

The Continua Health Alliance, a new consortium for technology-enabled health care, has been formed. The group, chaired by David Whitlinger of Intel and consisting of over 20 companies, will select standards, write interoperability guidelines and address issues like insurance reimbursement. The group's three major areas of focus will be chronic disease management, healthcare needs of aging people and proactive health and fitness. ( )

Remember IEEE's 802.20's working group on mobile broadband wireless technology? The IEEE-SA Standards Board has temporarily suspended deliberations by the 802.20 group, effective until October 1, 2006. The July 802.20 plenary meeting and an interim meeting in September have been cancelled. The press release attributes the suspension to three pending appeals and "a lack of transparency" and "other irregularities in the Working Group." ( ) ( )

Briefly Noted: Updates, Observations and Trends

Each month, we collect miscellaneous happenings, studies, trends or observations you might have missed. This month we feature the combination of 3G and broadband, used for two very different purposes, the quest for PVR differentiation and a quote from FCC Chair Kevin Martin on "net neutrality".

Different Technologies--Same Conflicts

Consumers think "free" is always the best price. Service providers don't see it that way. The conflict becomes visible when consumers share their DSL or cable broadband service with their neighbors. Service providers view these customers as "abusers" and threaten to cut off service.

As 3G gets deployed and users want to share those facilities, the situation starts looking like what we've experienced in the fixed-line world. Networking Pipeline, Broadband Reports and others have reported that 3G sharing now has mobile service providers reacting.

New products which facilitate 3G sharing have been developed by companies including D-Link, Kyocera, Motorola and Linksys. The products share the 3G connection over Wi-Fi thru a wireless router that which incorporates a slot for plugging in your EV-DO card. Verizon has reportedly issued warnings to 100 subscribers of its EV-DO BroadbandAccess service, whom they suspect are sharing their service. Sprint is said to be cracking down as well.

This should be no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, particularly in the US. When the marketing claim is "unlimited use", but the economic reality doesn't allow that, conflict between enthusiastic users and service providers is the inevitable outcome. It's probably hopeless to expect service providers to temper their claims with some economic reality.

Research In Motion (RIM) president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said it well at Globalcomm: he warned carriers to be cautious regarding plans for unlimited wireless data: "No matter how you slice it, bandwidth is not free,"

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Expanding Mobile Coverage Indoors

Devices like the D-Link 3G Mobile Router take a 3G connection and distribute it to other devices (likely to be PCs).

UbiquiSys Ltd has turned that on its head in their 3G HSDPA ZoneGate home access point system. The product is designed to expand mobile indoor coverage and capacity of 3G, to provide new service opportunities in the home/SOHO markets. The ZoneGate system uses a small plug-and-play device that relies on a user's broadband connection to pass both signalling and call traffic between the locally connected mobile phone and the operator’s network. Based on technology from picoChip, it connects to existing W-CMDA phones and "uses the customer’s existing broadband connection - DSL, cable or other - to carry traffic between the mobile phone and the cellular operator’s network." ( ) ( )

Kevin Martin Said It Well

Although we were not at Globalcomm, we read (in CBS Marketwatch) what Kevin Martin was quoted as saying about "net neutrality": "Consumers need to be able to access all the content that's available over the Internet without being impeded by the access provider. But at the same time, we recognized that the people that are deploying these networks may offer differentiated speeds and differentiated products to the consumer. ... And if you offer different tiers of speeds, a consumer chooses the lowest tier, and he wants to access content that would require higher speeds than he has purchased, he's not being blocked from access. He just hasn't purchased the speed that's necessary." That sounds right to us. ( )

All PVRs Not Created Equal

TiVo has been conducting a campaign to differentiate itself from plain vanilla PVRs. One of their new introductions is "Guru Guides", which provide program recommendations from magazines including Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Billboard, Car and Driver, and Entertainment Weekly. A selected title will be automatically recorded every 2 weeks.

TiVo had previously unveiled Product Watch, which allows subscribers to view commercials from approximately 70 different advertisers. ( )

Media Networking 1--Pieces Coming Together

Theory and reality often don't match. While we frequently write about new technologies for media networking and whole home audio/video, we believe the acid test comes when we incorporate the pieces into our lives and see what real user experiences are like. Although we're still some way from the "promised land," there has been significant progress in developing the technologies and products to enable "any content on any device, at any time" within the home. In several articles on different aspects of media networking, we'll describe where we think we are now and where it is leading--starting with our own recent experience.

We often watch television while we're eating dinner in our kitchen. A few weeks ago, late on a Tuesday evening, we watched the most recent Sopranos episode. Before the season started, we had set up our TiVo PVR to record all the Sopranos episodes. The DigitalDeck system we've been testing let us use the TV in the kitchen to watch the program recorded Sunday night on the TiVo in our bedroom.

While watching video from the TiVo on a screen in a different room is new for us, listening to music in a different room is something we've long taken for granted. All of our CDs and some of our vinyl records are stored on a PC in MP3 format. We can listen from any PC, or on loudspeakers throughout our house.

These simple-seeming acts--listening to music or watching "The Sopranos" when and where we want--make use of many not-so-simple technologies:

  • Home networking: We ran Category 5 cabling throughout our house ten years ago--during August 1996--and included the kitchen and all bedrooms in our wiring. We didn't have the foresight to run Cat 5 to the audio cabinet in our dining room, but used HomePlug powerline networking to solve that problem.
  • Digital Media Adapters: We use a Turtle Beach AudioTron in our audio cabinet to convert MP3 digital music to analog stereo audio.
  • PVRs: We have both ReplayTV and TiVo PVRs, one in the family room and one in the bedroom. But we mostly watch TV in the kitchen while we're preparing and eating dinner. Until now we could watch only live TV and the limited on-demand content our cable operator has made available.
  • DigitalDeck: This new system provides video transport and control between sources and sinks, and much more (for example it has its own PVR capability).
  • Windows XP PCs: We have several PCs running Windows XP; we host our music library and the DigitalDeck application on one of them.
  • Broadband connection: We use a cable modem for high-speed Internet access. These connections are now fast enough to carry high-quality video.
  • Video encoding and decoding: DVRs and DigitalDeck use real-time video encoding and decoding chips to convert analog video to digital and vice versa.

Over the past six years, we've often written of the future world in which you will be able to listen to and watch what you want, when you want to watch it, where you want it and on the device you prefer to watch on. That world is now almost here. All the pieces are coming together to make whole home audio and video real--and increasingly to blur the roles of the PC and the TV.

We're early adopters who have been involved with computer and communications technologies all our adult lives, and we made the investment in Category 5 cabling a decade ago. We've upgraded the electronics several times and now use Fast Ethernet--at 100 Mbps, it has plenty of speed to carry video with good quality.

Most people don't have Category 5 cabling throughout the house, and don't want to spend the money to install it. The industry believes that a mass consumer market for media networking is dependent on new high-speed networking technologies that don't require new wiring.

With new home networking technologies promising real throughput of 50 Mbps and up without new wiring, media networking is likely to take off in a big way over the next few years. Many families have become accustomed to using home networks to share a broadband connection around the home; now they will be able to share photos, audio, and video as well. Intel, Microsoft and many CE manufacturers are launching campaigns to educate consumers and create the ecosystems to encourage the purchase and use of these new digital media technologies.

PVR functionality is now included in many cable and satellite boxes. It's also in PC software like DigitalDeck and Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005, a popular consumer version of Windows XP. But many people do not want to watch video only on the screen that's connected to the cable or satellite box--much less on the PC screen. Cable and satellite companies have started to offer "multi-room PVRs" that distribute PVR content to TV sets in other rooms.

Media plays a major role in Microsoft's announced plans for Windows Vista, the successor to Windows XP now due in customer hands early in 2007. Vista has extensive support for storing and searching for digital photos, music and home movies. Media Center Edition has always included the ability to receive and encode analog cable channels. The Vista version will provide advanced features for recording from digital and high-definition cable TV, and for "multi-room access to your entertainment".

Until now, premium channels such as HBO have only been available by using cable set-top boxes and specially-equipped TVs. CableLabs has worked with Microsoft and others to develop the OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) which will enable PCs to receive these premium channels directly.

Microsoft recently unveiled what it calls "Windows Rally Technologies" to facilitate the extension of Media Center content to TVs in other rooms. Several companies have announced technologies and products designed to work with Rally.

Intel's Viiv initiative for next-generation home PCs is centered on media and especially on equipping the PC for high-definition video and surround sound. While earlier Intel publicity appeared to place the Viiv PC in the living room, Intel recently expanded the initiative to encompass media adapters that extend the Viiv experience to remote TVs, so all TVs can benefit from Viiv and the Viiv PC can be located remotely from the living room.

Later in this series of articles, we'll consider where this is all is going, what role remains for the traditional stack of audio/video equipment, and whether the PC will displace it. In the next article, we'll start by looking at the present state of "no new wires" networking.

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Media Networking 2--"No New Wires"

Media networking--using home networking to carry audio and video around the home--plays an important role in the strategies of the PC and consumer electronics industries.

High-definition video is the most challenging application for networking. HD needs data rates upwards of 20 Mbps per channel, sufficient range to cover the entire house, and "quality of service" (QoS) to assure that the video gets from one place to another without interference from other applications.

Until now, only Fast Ethernet over Category 5 or 5e cabling has been able to provide the speed and range necessary to support HD. But most people don't want to incur the expense of rewiring their homes for Ethernet. The PC industry has encouraged the development of networking technologies that could be used in existing home without running new wires.

That "no new wires" world is now unfolding. New networking technologies--operating over existing electrical wiring, coaxial cable and over the air--have all been designed with HD in mind. All promise sufficient speed, range and quality for several channels of HD video, plus SDTV, audio, voice and data. Some products are on the market now; others will arrive soon.

What is not yet clear is how well these technologies will work in real homes. It's easy to dazzle consumers with claims of physical networking speeds: "200 Mbps! ... 270 Mbps!! ... 300 Mbps!!!" What counts is real-world throughput at any place in the house you want to use it. Wi-Fi is notorious for having "null spots" where there are weak signals or none at all: microwave ovens and other devices can wreak havoc on wireless signals. First-generation powerline networking works well at some outlets, badly at others. Existing coaxial cables are full of splitters, poor connectors, and other potential impairments. The next year or two will resolve how well the latest technologies overcome these challenges.

Powerline Networking--HomePlug AV Finally Coming to Market

"Imagine: Entering your house, you unpack and plug in your newly purchased flat-panel TV. Simply and quickly - the TV automatically connects to the cable box, the DVD player, the Digital Video Recorder, the Home Theatre system, and also to the Internet." (HomePlug home page)

"No New Wires" (Intellon trademark)

HomePlug Certified --> Click for larger pictureThe members of The HomePlug Powerline Alliance, the industry group developing standards for powerline communications (PLC), have long believed that if they can get the technology right, their chips would be built into all devices--you just plug everything in and it's networked. HomePlug 1.0, the first generation, provides performance comparable to the original 802.11b Wi-Fi. It works quite well, but never got much attention in a US market dominated by Wi-Fi; it did much better in Europe.

HomePlug AV, the second generation, has been in development for more than three years. It is targeted to networking high-definition television over existing electrical wiring.

Andy Melder --> Click for larger pictureIntellon's technology is central to the HomePlug standard, and it has produced most of the HomePlug chips. A few months ago, Intellon announced that it had shipped more than five million chips based on the HomePlug standard, and that its HomePlug run rate was more than one million chips per quarter. Some of these are a "Turbo" version of HomePlug 1.0 that pushes throughput up to speeds comparable to 802.11g.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Charlie Harris, Chairman and CEO of Intellon; a few weeks ago, we interviewed Andy Melder, Senior Vice President - Strategic Business Development, to follow up on a series of recent announcements.

Andy pointed out that HomePlug is being deployed by service providers all over the world. Both telephone companies and cable operators have adopted HomePlug 1.0 to extend broadband Internet service throughout the home. Recently, several large phone companies including PCCW and France Telecom have announced deployment of Intellon solutions for IPTV distribution in the home.

He said Intellon's HomePlug AV chips are now available and Homeplug AV adapters are in the final stages of testing. He said real throughput "will be between 40 to 60 Mbps on average except for a few outlying outlets."

He promised to ship us a pair of HomePlug AV adapters as soon as he had production models with finished software, and said he thought that might be as early as July. We've looking forward to running a set of AV tests in our home similar to the tests we ran on HomePlug 1.0 devices four years ago.

Other companies have developed different proprietary PLC approaches, but Intellon has long believed in building an ecosystem with many other companies through the HomePlug Alliance. With HomePlug AV devices starting to come to market, we will soon learn whether their long-held dream of "plug it in and it works" will come true.

Wireless Networking--Is "Draft n" Too Early?

IEEE 802.11n--the next generation of Wi-Fi--has been in development for more than three years. It aims to provide throughput of 100 Mbps or more, a range sufficient to cover an entire house, and the QoS necessary for high-quality video. Although the IEEE standard is not expected to be published until late next year, "draft n" chips based on a proposed draft of the standard have recently become available from several semiconductor companies, and products based on these chips are now available at retail.

This situation has some similarities to what happened previously with 802.11g--the current generation of Wi-Fi--but also some differences. "Draft g" products first appeared on the market in early 2003. Early adopters bought these early products to gain a three- to four-time improvement in network throughput compared with 802.11b. As users encountered some performance and interoperability problems, the industry was able to reflect the learning in improvements to the device software.

These "draft g" products were based on a nearly-final draft of the IEEE 802.11g standard that had already passed through many successful ballots in the standards process and was less than six months away from publication. The chip vendors were confident that any problems discovered in early products could be remedied by downloaded software fixes; some device vendors promised to replace equipment if it could not be upgraded by a software download to comply with the final standard. And in fact, downloading the updated software fixed most of the problems and these devices were upgradable.

EWC logo --> Click for larger pictureBy contrast, 802.11n is much further away from a stable draft. Many of the chip companies worked together during 2005 under the banner of the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) to create a proposed draft for the 11n standard. At the same time, several of these companies developed chips conforming with the EWC draft; these are the chips that appear in products claiming "draft n" compliance.

The initial draft of 11n--Draft 1.0--is different from the EWC proposal, and is a long way away from a final draft. It has not passed any ballot in the standards process--in the first ballot held in late April, it received less than a 50% "yes" vote with 75% required for acceptance. This suggests that many changes will be made between now and publication of the 802.11n standard, currently projected for October 2007; if it follows a timeline similar to 11g, a "nearly-final" draft will probably not be completed this year.

Early adopters who buy these new "draft n" devices will probably gain a three- to four-time improvement in throughput and a substantial improvement in range compared with standard 802.11g. If they also expect that these devices will interoperate with each other, or be upgradeable to the final standard, they will probably be disappointed.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has made it clear that it will not certify interoperability until the standard is approved. Devices based on the same chips will most likely interoperate properly. Two of the "draft n" chip vendors--Broadcom and Atheros--have performed their own tests and claim their chips will interoperate with each other; while helpful, this does not guarantee that devices based on these chips will interoperate. We hear from several sources that devices based on Marvell chips will not interoperate with devices based on Broadcom or Atheros chips--they fall back to 802.11g. Responsible device vendors--such as Netgear, which makes two nearly-identical products using chips from Broadcom and Marvell--promise interoperability at full speed only with devices based on the same chips.

None of the device vendors are promising that devices will be upgradable to the final standard. Vendors we have talked with say that they do not expect them to be upgradable, and say their early customers are early adopters who are looking for high speed and don't expect upgradability.

Some of the draft changes currently in process relate to the behavior of 11n devices in networks that include 11b and 11g devices. Some early reviews report that some early "draft n" devices are not only not interoperable with others, but are not "good neighbors" when used in proximity to 11b and 11g networks.

In an exhaustive evaluation of these early "draft n" devices, Tim Higgins--one of the most respected reviewers--summarized his findings by saying "The industry had better stop hyping and start fixing this crap...and fast."

Our view is that if these devices are bought by early adopters with their eyes wide open, the lack of interoperability and upgradability will seem like a reasonable price to pay for huge improvements in speed and range. If industry hype leads many naive consumers to buy these products without reading the fine print, it may damage 11n in the eyes of consumers.

Metalink's View: EWC is a "Net Good"

Over the past year, we have been exchanging email and talking with Ron Cates, VP for North American Sales and Marketing at Metalink Broadband, an Israeli chip company that has been very active in 802.11n. About a month ago we again interviewed Ron by telephone to get his views on the prospects for 802.11n.

Metalink is a member of EWC and contributed to its draft. Ron said EWC's contribution would be viewed as "a net good" in accelerating the process of resolving the standards issues, and expected it would lead to an earlier draft as a basis for truly interoperable and upgradable products.

Ron said high-definition video is a very difficult wireless application. He said operation in the 5 GHz band is "critical for high-definition television", and HD also needs "MIMO, channel bonding, packet aggregation with block acknowledgement, and advanced forward error correction (FEC)--if you leave any out, you can't do multiple streams of HD."

Ron expects to see chips and devices specialized for different markets. Some companies might focus on HD--last week, Metalink announced a deal to supply chips to Philips for this application. Others might focus on Wi-Fi phones (which require long range but could sacrifice speed for low power consumption) or high-speed data (which needs speed and range, but could leave out other things needed for HD).

Ron predicted that interoperable and upgradable 802.11n products will reach the market by the first quarter of 2007, and will be shown at CES in January. He said consumers "will be very impressed with 11n performance."

Coaxial Networking--MoCA Gaining Speed

MoCA logo --> Click for larger pictureThe Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) develops and promotes specifications "for the transport of digital entertainment and information content over in-home coaxial cable." Members of MoCA include technology providers and many video and data service providers such as Comcast, Echostar and Verizon. MoCA recently announced that AT&T had also joined, represented by AT&T Labs.

We have long believed that coaxial cable could play an important role in media networking. Coax connects all television sets in the typical North American home and is inherently capable of carrying high bandwidth (a year ago we wrote "if cable or satellite broadcast television looks good on the TVs, the coax will probably carry high-speed data just fine").

Entropic Communications, the primary company developing chipsets and associated software for MoCA specifications, recently made some significant announcements, and we took the opportunity to interview John Graham, Entropic's VP of Marketing, over the phone.

John said that Entropic has shipped more than one million first generation c.LINK chips compliant with the MoCA specifications, and has now introduced the second-generation of c.LINK. John said the new EN2210 chip lowers power consumption, and provides additional "useful interfaces" to "simplify integration into set-top boxes and fiber nodes," especially important for telephone companies as they roll out IPTV over DSL and fiber.

The Entropic press release for the EN2210 said it provided "270 Mbps throughput" and we questioned John on that assertion. In fact, 270 Mbps is the PHY or physical data rate of the chip, not the throughput. But John said the performance is very good: "the effective throughput is around 100 Mbps - guaranteed over eight nodes with full MoCA network at 98% of all F connectors in the house." In addition, the E2210 has a burst mode: "it can burst to specific nodes at 150 to 200 Mbps." It includes QoS since "operators want to use it with PCs as well as video" and QoS will give priority to video.

John thinks coax will be used to provide a backbone for media networking throughout the home, with wireless used to reach mobile devices. "You'll have twenty to thirty million homes with coax backbones. Operators will deploy entertainment networks in the home. They will run at least 100 Mbps, work in all the sockets and go 2x to 3x over time." He pointed out that Entropic has shipped a million chips in the past eight months, and its technology has been incorporated in a lot of products for the cable and telephone companies. Other chip companies have joined MoCA, and Entropic is in licensing discussions with several of them.

MoCA is not the only video home networking technology using coax. The latest version of Home PNA, which started as a phone wire technology, also runs over coax, and there are also several proprietary technologies. Only MoCA has attracted such a wide group of service providers.

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Media Networking 3--How Did We Live Without DigitalDeck?

Ever since we installed our first DVR almost five years ago, we have been looking for a good way to distribute video around our house. We have TVs in five rooms; three of the TVs have cable boxes, two of these have DVRs and one has a DVD player. Several of our PCs have video content we've created ourselves or downloaded over the Internet.

More often than not, the screen we want to use is different from the one connected to the device where the video is stored. For example, we frequently turn on the TV while we're eating dinner in the kitchen, but the cable box is the only source connected to that TV. We'd love to watch a program recorded on one of our PVRs, but couldn't find a way to get it to the kitchen TV. We've explored many potential solutions and until recently hadn't found one we wanted to install in our house.

We have been looking for a system that has the following attributes:

  • Providing access from any TV screen to all our video sources: cable boxes, DVRs, DVD players, and PCs;
  • Providing the same control functionality in a distant room that a device provides when used locally;
  • Taking advantage of the Category 5 cables we long ago ran to all the rooms with video equipment;
  • Being "affordable" (less than $1000 for screens in three rooms with the potential for much lower cost), as opposed to some high-end solutions targeted to a niche market;
  • Having a user interface that doesn't require a PhD to use; and
  • Using the same remote control in any room to control any video source in the house.

We heard about DigitalDeck about two and a half years ago and visited their Silicon Valley headquarters to see a demo of the product, which was very impressive. DigitalDeck started shipping the system to customers a few weeks ago. We have been testing it in our house for the past two months, using it for all of our TV viewing.

While the current version has some flaws, the DigitalDeck system does what it promises and what we wanted -- interconnecting the video equipment in our house so we can watch any video source when and where we want. It also does many more things--we'll try out and report on its advanced features and services in a future issue.

Set Up and Viewing

The DigitalDeck system includes software, hardware, and services.

To install the system, you first install DigitalDeck's software system (the Media Connector Software or MCS) on a Windows XP PC. The PC should have an Ethernet network and a broadband connection. Once installed, MCS runs as a "service" in the background.

DigitalDeck in our kitchen --> Click for larger pictureYou then install a small box called a Media Connector (MC) at each TV; the system supports up to four boxes and we have installed three.

Back panel of Media Connector --> Click for larger picture

The MC provides audio/video inputs and outputs. You can connect up to four video source devices (cable and satellite boxes, DVRs, DVD players) to the analog A/V inputs (one can use S-video), and connect the A/V output to a TV (there are component video and digital audio outputs for home theater systems). The MC box has an Ethernet connection to communicate with the Media Connector Software on the remote PC, and infrared cables to control up to six A/V devices.

DigitalDeck remote control --> Click for larger pictureEach Media Connector box comes with a remote control, which contains most of the buttons used on DVRs, DVD players and cable boxes.

Setup screen --> Click for larger pictureWhen you first connect power to the MC, you go through a short set-up sequence to identify the A/V devices and select the proper IR codes to control them through the IR cables. Once they are set up, the A/V devices connected to each MC are visible to the other MCs through the DigitalDeck network.

Channel Guide --> Click for larger pictureThe DigitalDeck system has its own channel guide; it's displayed on the TV when you push the "Guide" button on the remote control. You can select a channel by navigating through the guide or by entering the channel number. To watch a program you highlight the desired program and push the "Select" button.

Personal Video Recorder (PVR) Function

The DigitalDeck system includes a complete PVR function for recording and viewing shows.

Selecting a program to record --> Click for larger pictureTo record a show for future viewing, you select it through the channel guide and push the "Record" button. The MC software records the program on the PC hard drive and a red circle on the program guide shows that you've scheduled the show for recording. The picture on the left shows that we have selected to record "Weekend Weather Center" on TWC (The Weather Channel).

Selecting the Video Guide --> Click for larger pictureTo watch the program, you push the "Menu" button on the DigitalDeck remote, and you see the main menu. You use the "Up" and "Down" buttons to highlight the Video Guide, and push the "Select" button.

Selecting a previously recorded program --> Click for larger pictureThe Video Guide shows all recorded programs stored on the PC hard drive, including videos you have saved, recently viewed programs, and programs you've selected to record. When you highlight one of the programs and push "Select", the DigitalDeck system starts playing the program back from the PC hard drive.

Fast Forward --> Click for larger pictureThe DigitalDeck system gives you a full set of playback controls when you are viewing a recorded program. The picture shows fast forwarding during a previously-recorded program; as with other PVRs, there are several forward and reverse speeds. The top of the screen shows the time of the recording.

In addition to recording programs you have selected, the DigitalDeck system automatically records the program you are watching, so you can pause it and come back later. It starts recording each new program on the channel you were watching, so if you turn on the TV in the middle of a program and want to watch the same channel, you can start at the beginning of the show.

Using Interactive Video Devices

The MC provides a "manual control mode" to control interactive video devices such as interactive cable and satellite boxes, DVRs and DVD players. To play back a program recorded on a TiVo, you use the Channel Guide to select the TiVo "pseudo channel" -- in our house it's called "Bedroom PVR on 1" since the TiVo is in our bedroom and connected to Input 1 on the DigitalDeck MC there.

Selecting the TiVo PVR --> Click for larger pictureThe pseudo channels are located between the last and first channels in the channel guide; you get to them by navigating to the first or last program channel. To select the TiVo, you click up or down until you highlight the current "program" in the "Bedroom PVR on 1" channel. The picture shows the screen on the DigitalDeck MC in our kitchen navigating to the TiVo in our bedroom.

Entering Manual Control Mode --> Click for larger pictureYou push "Select" to "tune" to that "channel" and push the "Mode" button on the remote to put the DigitalDeck box into "manual control mode for PVR".

"TiVo Central" screen --> Click for larger pictureOnce you have entered manual control mode, you can control the TiVo with the DigitalDeck remote control from any screen connected to a DigitalDeck MC. When you push the "Menu" button on the DD remote, you see the TiVo Central menu, as shown in the picture.

Navigating on the TiVo Central screen --> Click for larger pictureEach of the buttons on the TiVo remote is "mapped" to an equivalent button on the DigitalDeck remote. When you push the "Down" button, the MC in the kitchen controls the TiVo through the MC in the bedroom.

Leaving manual control mode --> Click for larger pictureWhen you're done using the TiVo, you push the "Mode" button once or twice to exit from manual control mode and go back into normal DigitalDeck mode.

A Few Quibbles

We like the DigitalDeck system, but we think it has several problems.

Video Quality

The video and audio quality of the DigitalDeck system seems reasonably good for devices connected with S-Video. But the MC box does not support the highest-quality video input. None of the inputs supports component video, and only input 1 includes S-Video. Inputs 2 to 4 are composite only, and video quality is not as good for video sources connected to these inputs.

This would not be a problem for some video sources, but early buyers are likely to be using DVRs, DVD players and cable and satellite boxes with interactive program guides. All of these devices put text on the screen in interactive modes, and the text is noticeably less readable from a composite input than from an S-video input.

IR Conflict

In our bedroom, an IR remote controls the DigitalDeck MC, which uses an IR cable to control the TiVo, which in turn uses an IR cable to control the cable box. The DigitalDeck, TiVo and cable box are stacked up together and all can "see" the DigitalDeck remote control. There appears to be a conflict between the codes used for the DigitalDeck MC and those used for the TiVo, since some of the buttons on the DigitalDeck remote don't work properly when trying to control the TiVo in manual control mode. We can't use the DigitalDeck remote to control the TiVo when we're in the bedroom; we have to use the TiVo remote instead. (There is no problem using the DigitalDeck remote to control the TiVo from a remote MC box, since the TiVo can't "see" the remotes outside the bedroom.)

This is not just a DigitalDeck problem, but a common problem when using several IR devices in the same room: they all "see" and respond to the IR from the same remote control at the same time. A quick Google search finds many posts related to TiVo IR conflicts. We're told that covering the IR window on the TiVo--so it "sees" only the IR from the DigitalDeck MC--would fix the conflict, and we're going to try it.

Playback Delay

When interacting with a controlled interactive device such as our TiVo, there is a noticeable delay--typically a second or more--between pushing a button on the DigitalDeck remote and seeing the response on the screen; the same delay is visible when using the TiVo remote. We believe this is caused by the automatic recording and playback of channels. Since interactive devices are treated as "pseudo channels," the DigitalDeck software records them on the PC disk drive the same way it records real channels; the apparent delay in responding to buttons is caused by the delay between recording and playback.

This delay becomes especially maddening if you have paused a program while viewing. Hitting the pause button and then hitting play is no problem--until the next time you try to interact. Now the delay between pushing a button and seeing a response on the screen can last several seconds--or several minutes if the pause lasted that long. Even a short delay makes it difficult to program the TiVo, and a long delay makes it impossible.

After some discussion with DigitalDeck, we found that we could eliminate the long delay by pushing "Live TV" whenever the interactive delay seems longer than usual; this removes the pause time and reverts to the normal record/playback delay.

Fighting For Control

The DigitalDeck system is very clever in its use of video sources. The PC can record from any connected cable or satellite box; any MC can use any connected cable or satellite box as a tuner to receive and display video content.

Since it is not obvious which video source is being used, this can sometimes result in conflicts. One morning last week, Dave started watching the Weather Channel while making coffee in the kitchen, and suddenly saw the screen go blank. He thought perhaps the DigitalDeck system had crashed and went to the PC to restart it. He found that Sandy was trying to watch a program at the same time while getting dressed in the bedroom, and the MC in the bedroom had "stolen" the cable box in the kitchen while Dave was watching.

When Dave went back to the kitchen, he still couldn't get a picture on the screen. It took a while for him to notice that the cable box was in "Standby" mode. Sandy had pushed the "Power" button on the remote, trying to turn off the TV in the bedroom--but she had apparently selected "manual mode for Cable". Since she now "owned" the kitchen cable box, she had turned it off by pushing the "Power" button!

Although we've both had lots of experience working with software-based systems, we keep find ourselves getting confused about the state of the system. We spent a while discussing the state machine diagram of manual mode--which differs according to whether you're watching regular channels or a "pseudo channel" like a PVR. We concluded that when using manual mode, it's best to keep the state machine in mind to understand what will happen when you push a button on the remote control, but suspect this is not something most people are used to thinking about.

It's Mostly Software

The DigitalDeck system is based on software running on the Windows XP PC, and most of the problems we have encountered could be fixed by software changes.

In particular, DigitalDeck should rethink the user interface for interactive video sources. The current "pseudo channel" mechanism may have been a simple way to support these sources, but it seems to be the root cause of many of the problems we encountered.

The support and control of existing interactive video sources is the key differentiating feature of DigitalDeck, and the DigitalDeck system should provide a separate selection screen for these sources. Once one of them has been selected, the remote control should automatically switch to the proper mode--and it shouldn't be called "manual control mode" but "Cable mode" or "PVR mode" or "DVD mode".

To eliminate the command/response delay when interacting with one of these sources, the recording/playback mechanism should be switched off--or at least be an option that defaults to being switched off.

Finally, the current mode should be obvious on the screen and on the remote control, so the user doesn't have to be conscious of the state machine.

Final Thoughts

The DigitalDeck system has a few problems, but it comes closer to meeting the requirements we set out years ago than anything else we've come across. We try not to generalize from our own experience, but we suspect that many families with DVRs would like to watch recorded programs on screens in another room. Having DigitalDeck in the house is similar to having a DVR for the first time--you don't understand how much you need it until you have one, then you don't know how you lived without it.

The DigitalDeck system is not only about connecting the existing video in the house, but about integrating all the new digital media as well. There's much more to the system than we've discussed in this article--there's a long list of additional features we're playing with and will report on later.

We recently interviewed the top executives at DigitalDeck, and they shared with us some of their ambitious plans for the future. Their objective is to integrate all the media you have--legacy and emerging, analog and digital, offline and online--into a single system. We'll discuss this more in a future issue.

In next month's issue, this series on media networking will continue with several articles on the role of the PC in media networking. We'll cover the evolving mechanisms for getting digital television content into and out of PCs, and the media networking features in Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system and Intel's Viiv initiative.

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The Value Of Home Networking--Recovering From A Disk Crash

While we were researching this report, Sandy's PC started behaving strangely. She first saw some unusual error warnings from Norton Anti-Virus. CHKDSK, a Windows utility that checks the health of the disk drive, found some bad sectors on the drive. After we let CHKDSK repair the problems, the computer ran okay for a another day. Then Windows XP crashed and did not want to start up because some of the key Windows files were now missing. CHKDSK confirmed that the disk had developed more problems--the drive was clearly failing.

While this was inconvenient, it wasn't a cause for panic. All the PCs in our house are connected through an Ethernet network. We store most of the critical files--such as the database with our subscriber records--on a server, and access them through the network. Every night at 3 am, our server backs up all of these files.

We both use Outlook and keep its data files on our individual PCs. Our server backs up these large files every night, so we knew that if Sandy's disk crashed completely, we could get back to the night before. Just to make sure, we copied the current contents of the file to the hard disk on Sandy's notebook PC.

For several years we have used Sandy's PC to host our digital music collection: it contains all of our CDs and some vinyl records we have converted to MP3 format. We transferred the entire music collection to the hard disk on another PC.

Finally, we transferred Sandy's digital photo collection to the server hard drive.

It took a little effort to install a new hard disk drive in Sandy's PC and rebuild Windows XP and Office from the recovery disks. Whenever we download the latest version of a program like Adobe Reader or AIM, we save a copy in a folder on our server, so it was fairly easy to recreate the rest of Sandy's software environment. Then we copied all the data files back to the new hard drive. We don't think we lost anything as a result of the disk crash.

Many of these files are very large. Each Outlook file is close to one gigabyte; our music collection is more than ten gigabytes. But the transfer times were all very reasonable using our 100 Mbps Ethernet network.

These applications--using the network to access common program and data files on a central disk drive, transferring files from one PC to another, and backing data up periodically--are rather mundane uses of home networking compared with the media applications we often discuss in this report. Their value really becomes clear when hard disks fail.

Upcoming Conferences

Healthcare Unbound -- Third Annual Conference & Exhibition

After this month's announcement of the Continua Health Alliance, (see Standards, Alliances and Trade Associations, above) there will be even greater interest in this year's Healthcare Unbound, to be held July 17-18, 2006 at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge Hotel, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Based on both the speakers and previous experience, the conference will focus energy on the three key opportunity areas identified by the Alliance: chronic disease management, healthcare needs of the aging and proactive health and fitness. This is a great chance to hear speakers from some of the Continua members, including Dr. Joe Kvedar of Partners Telemedicine, Mariah Scott of Intel, Tom Precht of Honeywell HomMed and Don Jones of Qualcomm. We are hopeful that real progress is being made on this important and issue-laden topic. ( ) ( )

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