Home networking is moving quickly into the consumer electronics space. At CES we saw lots of CE devices incorporating some form of networking: MoCA, G.hn, HomePNA, UPA, HomePlug, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth were all well represented. Broadcom showed new chips with integrated MoCA, G.hn continues to gain traction, and Wi-Fi keeps expanding.
MoCA From Broadcom
Existing coaxial cable is the best existing physical platform for "no new wires" home networking. We've been following the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA)--a trade group promoting one of these technologies--for nearly five years. For CES 2009, MoCA created a clever website called Connect My Stuff! featuring video interviews about home networking with people on the CES show floor.
Nearly all MoCA devices have been based on chips from Entropic Communications, MoCA's founding technology company. Broadcom, which had previously supported a competing coax networking technology, switched to the MoCA camp several years ago.
At CES, Broadcom unveiled its first MoCA chips. Broadcom is not making specific chips for MoCA; instead, MoCA is included in new highly-integrated System on Chips (SoCs). The two new chips Broadcom announced and demonstrated at CES form the basis for highly-capable set-top boxes. The BCM7420 is designed to form the core of the primary box with dual-channel video and DVR functionality; the BCM7410 is designed for a remote or lower-end box. In a multi-room DVR scenario, the boxes use MoCA to communicate with each other over the coaxial cables that already run between all the TVs in the typical North American house.
These chips are shipping now. When asked about their cost, Broadcom will say only that the incremental cost of SoCs with MoCA built-in "is less than an external solution."
In late 2008, Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) approved MoCA as an additional LAN technology for communications between DLNA devices, joining Ethernet and Wi-Fi. At CES, Broadcom stressed how MoCA could be used to provide connectivity between a variety of audio and video devices.
G.hn and HomeGrid Forum
There are now far too many incompatible networking technologies operating over the existing wiring in the home. ITU-T G.hn and HomeGrid Forum aim to change that. We began following both last year, and first wrote about them in The Everywire Standard: G.hn and HomeGrid Forum last May. At CES we were able to meet with many of the key players in G.hn and HomeGrid, and get a good sense for its progress.
G.hn has been under way at the ITU for about three years. The Study Group achieved its first major milestone at the end of 2008 when the ITU "consented" to the first part of an international standard for communications over all types of existing wiring. This new standard, called ITU-T G.9960, includes the overall architecture and the physical (PHY) layer.
At CES, we were told that the second part--the higher-level MAC layer--is "80% done". It is expected to be finalized in May and consented in September.
HomeGrid Forum was set up last year to act as the marketing and certification trade group to support G.hn (in the same way the Wi-Fi Alliance supports IEEE 802.11). At CES we met with Matt Theall, president of HomeGrid.
Matt told us that HomeGrid was pleased with the progress so far, and has started working on formal plans to test G.hn conformance and interoperability (C&I). We asked why they were starting so early, since the G.hn specs won't be finished until later this year. Matt said the members wanted the specs to be available so chip makers could test their first-generation chips against the specs before testing them against other chips.
We asked Matt how long it would take for G.hn to displace the many home networking technologies already competing in the market. He said he didn't think it would happen quickly: "This market is going to be fragmented for a long time."
CopperGate and HomePNA
Coppergate is the technology leader in HomePNA, and has been one of the leading proponents of G.hn. At CES, we met with Michael Weissman, VP Marketing North America, and Oren Mansour, Director Business Development. We asked how quickly G.hn chips would come to market. They said they expected at least three chip companies to have early chips. Coppergate expects to be one of the first, and we were told that their chips will be available in 2010.
We mentioned that several key players had complained to us about the way decisions were being made in G.hn. Michael said he thought the G.hn philosophy was good: "Everyone claims everyone else has an unfair advantage. There's sufficient mutual pain to all that there is legitimate work to be done on all sides."
DS2 and UPA
DS2 is the founder of the Universal Powerline Association (UPA) (one of the competing industry standards for powerline networking) and a strong proponent of G.hn. At CES, we met with Chano Gomez, VP Marketing, and John Egan, Strategic Marketing Manager.
Chano said DS2 is already working on its first G.hn chip: "We don't have to wait for the MAC to be finished -- we can handle the MAC in a microprocessor. When everything is complete, we can do everything in hardware." He expects samples will be available by yearend with volume shipments in the first half of 2010.
DS2 is a founding member of HomeGrid Forum. Chano said DS2 was glad HomeGrid had started its C&I program early: "You know what tests you have to pass. You can test major portions of the PHY before the MAC is done."
"Dual Mode" Chips Provide Backward Compatibility
In our discussion with Coppergate, we observed that some participants in G.hn were upset that there was no defined "backward compatibility" with the earlier home networking technologies. Service providers using earlier technologies say they need backward compatibility so that when they deploy G.hn the new devices won't interfere with the earlier technology--and ideally will interoperate with it.
Michael Weissman said "There's no way G.hn could have happened if we had to have backward compatibility". But he pointed out that there was nothing in G.hn that prevented a chip maker from including backward compatibility in a G.hn chip. He indicated that Coppergate would include backward compatibility with HomePNA in its G.hn chips--"dual-mode HomePNA/G.hn"--and said he expected the leaders of other earlier technologies would do the same because their customers would insist on it.
Similarly, Chano Gomez said DS2 is working on a dual-mode UPA/G.hn chip.
So it was no surprise that in late February, HomeGrid Forum announced an agreement with three industry organizations--HomePNA, UPA, and the Consumer Electronics Powerline Communication Alliance (CEPCA). The announcement said they would work together "to promote G.hn and ensure co-existence between G.hn-based products and those using other current generation powerline, phoneline, and coax networking technologies."
Expanding the Role of Wi-Fi
At the Atheros booth at CES, we had a very interesting discussion with Mahesh Venkatraman, Director of Marketing, Consumer and Retail Networking Products. Atheros is one of the leaders in Wi-Fi, and we discussed the future of Wi-Fi and the role of new radio technologies such as ultra wide band (UWB) in future mobile devices.
Mahesh observed that all mobile devices have a 3G or 4G radio to connect to cellular networks, most have a Bluetooth radio, and many now have a Wi-Fi radio. He pointed to two different approaches for expanding the role of the Wi-Fi radio in mobile devices: personal area networks based on the next generation of Bluetooth, and using a mobile device as a Wi-Fi access point.
Bluetooth Alternate MAC/PHY
The Bluetooth SIG has been working on a "high speed spec" for several years. While many refer to this as "Bluetooth 3.0," the SIG is careful to say that it has not yet given the new spec a formal name. The core of the new spec is providing a mechanism so that the higher-layer Bluetooth protocols can operate on top of an "alternate MAC/PHY"--Bluetooth can use whatever high-speed radio technology is already built into a device, instead of adding another high-speed radio just for Bluetooth. The SIG says the initial version of the high-speed spec, now planned for some time in 2009, will support UWB and 802.11.
This would allow the 802.11 radio in a mobile device to simultaneously support two different upper-level protocols: Wi-Fi for local area networking, and Bluetooth for personal area networking. Mahesh indicated that Atheros would initially implement high-speed Bluetooth on 802.11a/b/g radios operating at about 20 Mbps; later it would be implemented on 802.11n radios at much higher speeds.
Mobile Devices as Access Points
Until now, the primary use of the Wi-Fi radio in a mobile device has been to provide a high-speed connection to the Internet, through a broadband network at work or at home, and through a Wi-Fi hot spot when away. Now Atheros has announced that the Wi-Fi radio can also operate as an Wi-Fi access point, providing a way for other devices such as notebook PCs communicate with each other or connect to the Internet.
In what Atheros calls "direct connect technology," the wireless radio acts as "a soft access point" using a form of peer-to-peer networking. This functionality has already been implemented in Atheros 802.11n chips. It is now part of the AR6002 flagship a/b/g chip for mobile phones, which can use the Wi-Fi radio to share the 3G/4G WAN connection with several client devices.
Mahesh said "direct connect" could be used to create "a local PAN" to connect several devices together. As an example, he pointed to a teacher in a classroom communicating with her students through their mobile devices.
Another use of direct connect is to provide a simple connection between a digital camera and a PC. Mehesh took our picture with a digital camera equipped with a Wi-Fi radio and instantly transferred it to a Mac laptop.
We had reported on a similar demonstration using UWB a few years ago at CES, so we asked Mahesh his view of the prospects for UWB in mobile devices. He said he believed "UWB will be secondary. A third radio does not make a lot of sense. We should add more value to what is already there."
Intel, another Wi-Fi leader, has been promoting a similar concept called Intel My Wi-Fi Technology. Intel has conducted interoperability tests between Centrino 2 notebook PCs and a variety of Wi-Fi logoed consumer devices. A recent white paper by Intel "lists selected Wi-Fi enabled consumer devices that have been tested and passed interoperability testing with Intel® My WiFi Technology," including printers, digital cameras, projectors, and digital picture frames from nine companies.
( www.mocalliance.org ) ( www.entropic.com ) ( www.broadcom.com ) ( www.dlna.org ) ( www.itu.int ) ( www.homegridforum.org ) ( www.copper-gate.com ) ( www.homepna.org ) ( www.ds2.es ) ( www.upaplc.org ) ( www.cepca.org ) ( www.atheros.com ) ( www.bluetooth.com ) ( www.intel.com )