Until now, the emphasis around IPTV has been in the telecom network itself. The big iron needed to appropriately switch, route, and transport IP video – not to mention the complex service infrastructure software responsible for intelligent, distributed VOD services, and other differentiating video service variants – has gotten all the attention. Telecom service providers now have a good handle on the pipe requirements (access to core) and the middleware needed to fill those pipes with video services. It's solving the issues for the new multimedia home network that's now causing them pain. High-definition (HD) video is unforgiving, as are consumers when it comes to quality of experience.
Evidence is mounting that the home is one of the next battlegrounds for IPTV. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)'s acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA)'s significant investment in 2Wire Inc. , both within the last six months, foreshadow what's to come.
It's not about the last mile any longer; it's about the last few feet within the home – providing intelligent, ultra-reliable, high-throughput networking among the home gateway, multiple IP set-top boxes (STBs), the whole-home digital video recorder (DVR), the PC, the media server, the dual-mode handset, etc.
A network engineer at a U.S.-based incumbent phone company perhaps summed it up best: When asked about the IPTV distribution problem within the home, he said, "It's a huge problem." When asking another about the best technology on the market to solve the problem, he responded, "That's the $64,000 question."
Other service providers tend to agree, and are thus placing more emphasis on investigating the issues and solving the problems. Without oversimplifying the issue, much of it comes down to installation costs and customer acquisition rates, although the performance of the networking technology itself remains a critical issue. Rewiring a home with Cat5 Ethernet cable can take an installer four to six hours, limiting that installer to one or two installations per day. This is too costly an operation for service providers that need to minimize subscriber acquisition costs and maximize subscriber turnup rates.
Many competing technologies and vendors are entering the market to solve this very problem. The trend toward the service provider taking more of an ownership role of the consumer home network is real and being driven by IPTV. That said, remote configuration, management, and monitoring is another important component of the solution, independent of the underlying networking technology. The primary alternatives to Cat5 rewiring for next-generation multimedia home networking are as follows:
- Coax: The Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) and the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance version 3 (HPNAv3), along with other proprietary Ethernet-over-coax solutions, are vying for service provider mindshare to network video via existing coaxial cable.
- Phoneline: HPNAv3 also supports distribution over consumers' existing phone lines.
- Powerline: HomePlug AV intends to use a consumer's existing power outlets to connect Ethernet-enabled clients over the home electrical network.
- Wireless: 802.11x WLAN solutions, with the help from emerging 802.11n standards, QOS software, and MIMO technologies, are often considered the "holy grail" solution to the multimedia home networking problem. Progress is encouraging, and although a few players have jumped to an early lead, it will be multiple channels (HD included) that will put next-generation home WiFi to the test.
There are pros and cons with each particular technology, and intricate details associated with each technology's implementation. The solution required depends on the consumer's existing home wiring (or lack thereof). There are more applicable technologies given geographic location, in some cases. Different topologies may be better suited to different technologies. There are certain service providers that have already made their initial bets. In some instances, the technologies will coexist in hybrid home-networking scenarios. These technologies will manifest as standalone products and as integrated components within various multimedia home-networking appliances (STBs, home gateways, etc.). These and many other details are beyond the scope of this article.
Although today's home networks may be uninterestingly simple, perhaps that's the point, and thus the ultimate goal that new technologies are looking to achieve for multimedia networking. This will enable the market to evolve from a service provider-defined model to a consumer-defined model. That will not happen overnight, and until then this is an important area of technology and product development to keep an eye on.
Watch for Heavy Reading's forthcoming report on this topic, entitled Multimedia Whole-Home Networking: Distributing IPTV Within the Home. The report investigates the critical business and technology issues surrounding this market segment and provides in-depth analysis based on discussions with a large number of service providers and equipment vendors.
— Rick Thompson, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading