Cable Tech

Chip Firms Prepare for Home Networking Faceoff

A "collaboration" between chipmakers Entropic Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ENTR) and Intellon Corp. (Nasdaq: ITLN) could herald a much tighter link between Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) and HomePlug Powerline Alliance and establish a unified front against G.hn, a budding International Telecommunication Union, Standardization Sector (ITU-T) home networking standard that's designed to run on coax, phone lines, and power lines.

There's not much to say yet about the collaboration between Entropic and Intellon, the latter of which is soon to become part of WiFi chipmaker Atheros Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ATHR): The two companies have pledged to "accelerate the availability of home networking solutions combining coaxial cable and powerline communications." (See Entropic, Intellon Combine MoCA & HomePlug and Atheros to Acquire Intellon.)

"The main goal here is to tell people we're collaborating on coexistence," says Entropic VP of technology Anton Monk, who's also a member of the MoCA board. In addition to showing off that coexistence from a spectrum usage standpoint, the partnership also intends to show that there will be a combined roadmap for MoCA 2.0 and HomePlug AV2, he says.

But there's no combined product forthcoming that will meld MoCA and HomePlug -- at least nothing that anyone's ready to reveal yet. The first tangible evidence of this collaboration is expected to be in the form of a demo at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show.

And much more may emerge if there's demand for a MoCA/HomePlug combo. "If volume is there, someone will go build an integrated chip solution," Monk predicts.

A MoCA-HomePlug connection?
Although questions remain on what results will come out of the Intellon-Entropic relationship, it could serve as an ice-breaker between MoCA and the HomePlug Alliance.

And there's already some overlap. Both organizations boast board members from Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and one individual -- Allen Huotari, a technical leader in the CTO office of Cisco -- serves on the board of both organizations. But, for now, there's no formal relationship between the two home networking alliances, though the two sides have talked about ways in which they might work together.

"You can imagine that opportunities for… marketing or certification activities might have some value," says HomePlug Alliance president Rob Ranck. "There could be some efficiencies," he adds, noting that a cooperative certification process would allow a set-top box maker with a model that has on-board MoCA and/or HomePlug capabilities to go to one place for testing.

"We always thought we should be more aligned. We always thought there was a natural synergy" between the groups, adds Rob Gelphman, the chair of the marketing workgroup at MoCA.

And what of steps beyond marketing and testing? How about a new joint organization that could direct its combined resources at G.hn, which is playing up its potential as a one-device/any-wire technology?

"It's not out of the realm of possibilities," Ranck says of the suggestion. "But, again, we don't have anything formal to announce."

G.hn claims progress
The Entropic-Intellon announcement comes hot on the heels of news from the HomeGrid Forum , the G.hn flag bearer, that the ITU-T had agreed to "key components" of the G.hn spec. (See ITU Touts G.hn Standard.)

The two are not unconnected. "That [HomeGrid announcement] prompted the timing of our press release," says Entropic's Monk, who's concerned that some service providers in Europe and some Tier 2 U.S. telcos may remain undecided on a home networking tech strategy "because they think it [G.hn] is imminent."

"It's not ready for prime time," Monk says of G.hn, holding that only a "fraction" of the technology's physical layer has been approved.

But Michael Weissman, the VP of marketing at CopperGate Communications Inc. -- soon to become part of Sigma Designs Inc. (Nasdaq: SIGM) -- and the company's board rep member at HomeGrid, contends that the ITU-T has deemed the G.hn PHY to be sufficiently stable, setting it up to be ratified in January. (See Sigma Snares CopperGate for $160M.)

"The standard's done. The rest is paperwork," Weissman says, claiming that everything that needs to be burned into the G.hn chips is settled, and any additional changes can be made in software. He expects the entire G.hn specification to be approved by June 2010. Design of Systems on Silicon (DS2) , meanwhile, recently announced plans to launch its "G.hn-compliant" DSS9960 chipset next year. (See DS2 to Launch G.hn Chips.)

Weissman's also confident adoption will extend beyond AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), which has also voiced support for G.hn. Several other telcos, and even some MSOs, have also shown interest.

"There are real RFPs [requests for proposal] out there," Weissman says, noting that Telus Corp. (NYSE: TU; Toronto: T) of Canada also has G.hn on its roadmap. He also claims that a "half dozen" cable MSOs want to field trial G.hn, not as a replacement for MoCA, but as a complementary powerline technology.

"Where the win is, is over powerline," he says, hopeful that G.hn will perform better than existing powerline technologies in the noisiest conditions.

But CopperGate is hedging its bets a bit, as it has developed a HomePlug AV chipset of its own. Still, Weissman labels both MoCA and HomePlug as "proprietary standards."

"We believe in the deepest of our hearts that G.hn is a better technology and will have wider global adoption," he asserts, holding that Intellon and Entropic are now coming together because they fear G.hn.

"But a relationship is not a chip. What is the integration? There's no spec to do this," Weissman says of the collaboration between the chipmakers.

As for performance, G.hn, is billing itself as a 1-Gbit/s home networking technology, though backers are expecting actual throughputs over coax in the range of 600 Mbit/s to 700 Mbit/s.

MoCA 2.0 is expected to offer net throughputs of 400 Mbit/s, and Monk claims that G.hn's estimates are "inflated" because they don't calculate PHY rates the same way MoCA does. "MoCA 2.0 will have net throughput higher than G.hn," Monk maintains. The 2.0 specs for MoCA should be released later this year.

As for HomePlugAV2, the next version of the powerline platform, it's expected to wrap up by the first part of 2010, and produce speeds up to three times higher than HomePlug AV, according to HomePlug Alliance's Ranck. That should get real-world application speeds into the neighborhood of 240 Mbit/s in optimal network conditions.

Battle brewing
Based on collaborations between Intellon and Entropic, the possibility of a closer relationship between MoCA and HomePlug, and the unwavering ambitions of G.hn's backers, all indications are that this is headed for a war, with the winning technology best positioned to govern the wired, high-speed home network of the future. But there still may be enough time for a cease fire.

"We've been trying to work with G.hn to get more unification and a better migration path," Ranck says. "We were trying to avoid a standards battle. A lot of people are trying to avoid a clash. G.hn isn't done, so maybe there's still some hope."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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