With the announcement a week ago that the ITU G.hn standard is nearly final, one might have thought that all members of the existing-wiring community would be cheering. But no -- the leading incumbents continue to battle G.hn with renewed ferocity. The most likely scenario is that the players will continue to battle each other, while Wi-Fi gets stronger and stronger.
The wild card is the impact of larger chip companies buying out the early startups. Will these companies continue fighting to be the biggest fish in a small pond - or will they see that growing the pond is best for everyone?
G.hn is on the table as the convergence standard, but its advocates need to deliver chips and prove their performance claims. Otherwise the larger chip companies may look elsewhere for convergence.
ITU G.hn Standards Progress
As we have reported earlier, ITU-T has been working for four years on a unified standard for networking over all forms of existing wiring. By selecting "the best of the best" from the many competing technologies, ITU-T hopes to grow the market for home networking over existing wiring by bringing in the big semiconductor vendors.
Opponents and supporters of G.hn painted this in dramatically different ways. The opponents (primarily the incumbents from HomePlug and MoCA) have been fighting for the inclusion of back-compatibility with their existing trade standards. They said that the lack of back-compatibility would significantly reduce the market for G.hn, and the failure to finalize the standard by yearend meant that G.hn chips would be delivered late, giving HomePlug and MoCA more time to complete their next-generation standards.
The G.hn supporters said that while the opponents had succeeded in delaying final approval by five months, all the decisions required to make interoperable chips were now in final form. They were confident that they would get G.hn chips to market in 2010. Moreover they said--as they have before--that there is no need to require back-compatibility in G.hn. If their customers require back-compatibility, the chip makers will provide it.
On October 9, the HomeGrid Forum--the trade association supporting G.hn--applauded progress on the standard. In an announcement headlined "all components of standard now complete!", HomeGrid said it "reaffirms the desire to unite a fragmented industry which currently uses a variety of incompatible technologies that typically address only single types of household wiring options – coax, phone line, or power line."
On October 14, Entropic Communications and Intellon Corporation--the long-time technology leaders in MoCA and HomePlug respectively--fired back. They announced that they "are collaborating to accelerate the availability of home networking solutions combining coaxial cable and powerline communications." They said that at "CES 2010, the two companies plan to host a joint demonstration that showcases video streaming seamlessly between MoCA and HomePlug networks."
Thus the battle has been joined between the supporters of G.hn and its strongest opponents. The chip makers and trade associations are all lined up on one side or the other. The fragmentation continues.
A few days ago, we talked on the phone with Rob Ranck, President of the HomePlug alliance. Rob mentioned that he had recently given a talk describing three scenarios:
Rob believes the most likely outcome is that the incumbents will win. Their market penetration is growing rapidly -- he said close to a hundred million HomePlug devices will be installed in customer homes by the time G.hn devices are on the market in any quantity. The lack of backward compatibility means that G.hn devices installed by operators will interfere with HomePlug devices installed by consumers. It would make far more sense for service providers to select AV2--the next generation of HomePlug--rather than moving to G.hn.
We discussed the Entropic-Intellon announcement. Rob hinted that could lead to an agreement between HomePlug and MoCA to coordinate the specs for their next generations, providing an alternative to G.hn for powerline and coax networking.
Meeting the Market Demand for Backward Compatibility
This past week we talked with Michael Weissman of CopperGate Communications, representing the HomeGrid Forum (CopperGate recently joined HomeGrid at the Board level). CopperGate has been the long-time leader in HomePNA; earlier this year CopperGate purchased Conexant's HomePlug business unit and recently announced that it would soon be shipping HomePlug AV chips.
Michael thinks the market will decide what back-compatibility is needed. CopperGate's primary market is service providers; if they want back-compatibility, CopperGate will provide it.
AT&T is a major CopperGate customer. AT&T currently uses HomePNA for video networking and HomePlug for data networking, and has been one of the most vocal supporters of G.hn. When AT&T switches to G.hn, they will likely require back-compatibility with both HomePNA and HomePlug. Coppergate intends to provide that in the G.hn chips used in devices for AT&T.
Moreover, AT&T, like most telephone companies, uses Broadband Forum TR-069 to manage the networks used to deliver video and data services in the home. Michael told us "CopperGate has robust management functionality. HomePNA has TR-069 – service providers can see all the way into the network and run diagnostics remotely. CopperGate has applied that to HomePlug technology; AT&T will have comprehensive visibility into HomePlug networks based on CopperGate."
Michael thinks the market will move to G.hn once chips come to market and service providers start shifting from older technologies to G.hn. He says "a large number of service providers want G.hn –- the European telcos want G.hn." While he thinks "G.hn is going to win" he doesn't think this will happen quickly: "we will sell Homeplug for the next 10 years."
DS2 -- the leader of the UPA group and another G.hn supporter -- announced it will have G.hn chips "in the coming months." In a press release, Jorge Blasco, DS2's President and CEO, said "We will offer seamless interoperability between our current...UPA-compliant products and the future G.hn-compliant...chipset."
Continued Fragmentation -- or Convergence?
The wired-networking business has been dominated by early-stage semiconductor companies. Intellon, Entropic, DS2 and CopperGate each succeeded in making their technologies the core of an industry standard (respectively HomePlug, MoCA, UPA, and HomePNA). It's easy to understand why all attempts to converge the standards have turned into pitched battles for survival--failure to embed their technologies into the next standard would be life threatening.
As a result, the market for existing-wiring networking has remained fragmented. Over the past decade, Wi-Fi has had all the running room and has taken full advantage of it.
With the battle-lines hardened by G.hn, continued fragmentation seems most likely. The flashing of sabers over the past few weeks indicates that the players all appear committed to investing more effort fighting with each other than in growing the market.
Acquisitions Are a Wild Card
But there's a wild card. To get a stake in wired home networking, some of the larger chip makers are acquiring the smaller ones. In mid-September, Atheros announced that it was acquiring Intellon. On October 13, Sigma Designs announced that it was acquiring CopperGate. Both transactions are expected to close this year.
Soon after Atheros announced the planned acquisition of Intellon, we interviewed Todd Antes, VP of Computing and Consumer Networking at Atheros. When we asked what the world would look like in five years, he said "G.hn is the intercept point." Talking about the prospects for standards convergence, he said "Although we have fierce competitors in Wi-Fi, it has always served us and the industry best to agree on standards and then run. For technology to serve the mass market, we need to move to standards." When asked about the prospects for standards convergence in wired networking, he said "this acquisition may be the watershed moment - to take this from the junior varsity to varsity. The others need to latch onto the future value proposition. This could signal a change in the discussion."
Other big chip players are already involved. Intel and Infineon are Board-level members of HomeGrid; Infineon is a leading player in the ITU-T G.hn standardization effort. On the other side, Broadcom is a Board-level member of MoCA and has added MoCA to its SoCs used in set top boxes.
These bigger semiconductor companies must believe that wired home networking can be a very big market. They are all likely to see the benefit of "growing the pond" by working together to converge the standards. Will they focus their efforts on G.hn?
G.hn is on the table as the basis for convergence. Big telephone companies like AT&T and BT have been vocal supporters of G.hn. At some point, they will probably declare their intention to buy only products conforming with G.hn, while requiring back-compatibility with earlier devices they have installed in customer homes. Even the big semiconductor companies who have been fighting G.hn seem likely to salute the flag and declare that providing interoperable G.hn products isn't so hard after all.
On the other hand, if the first G.hn chips are buggy and slow, the big telephone companies may decide that the existing technologies aren't so bad after all. That would provide running room for MoCA and HomePlug -- especially if they coordinate the specifications for their next generation.
The first G.hn chips are supposed to reach the market by the middle of 2010, with devices to follow. The next year should be interesting to watch.
For More Information
We have written about home networking since the first issue of this newsletter nearly ten years ago. Our Topical Index: Home Networking provides access to our articles on all aspects of home networking, organized by technology.
( www.itu.int ) ( www.homeplug.org ) ( www.mocalliance.org ) ( www.homegridforum.org ) ( www.entropic-communications.com ) ( www.intellon.com ) ( www.copper-gate.com ) ( www.ds2.es ) ( www.atheros.com ) ( www.sigmadesigns.com ) ( www.intel.com ) ( www.infineon.com ) ( www.broadcom.com )