April 10, 2007
| by Toni Kistner
For the most part, you’ve had some choice over the networking technology you use to move data around the house. But as networks get smarter and more powerful, that’s fast changing. Broadband service providers are employing technologies called MoCA and HomePNA to move video programming over your existing coax cables and phone lines. And over the next year, a standard called WiMedia will let your PCs, peripherals and phones trade large data files and multimedia streams at close range wirelessly.
This new generation of home networking technologies is stable and very, very fast.
- MoCA, named for the Multimedia over Coax Alliance, gets more than 100 Mbps throughput and works reliably in 97 percent of the country’s existing coax outlets, says MoCA marketing chair Eric Buffkin.
- HomePNA 3.0, named for the Home Phoneline Network but now going by HPNA, yields about 200 Mbps and works over phone lines. The latest version, HomePNA 3.1, works over both phone lines and coax cables.
- WiMedia delivers about 480 Mbps within a 10-meter range and will work with Bluetooth and Wireless USB-enabled devices.
MoCA and HPNA are “entertainment networks,” primarily built to move video programming (traditional TV shows and Internet content) from your doorstep to multiple TVs and other display devices (in other words, IPTV and multi-room DVR). Of course, they handle other types of data, too, but this might be dictated by the type of service you sign up for (phone, Internet access, mobile features).
Both MoCA and HPNA 3.1 are driven by the telcos—AT&T/SBC, Verizon, others yet to announce—who are spending billions of dollars to upgrade their DSL networks to fiber to deliver the same caliber of services as the cable providers do today.
MoCA, a nascent technology launched in 2004, was founded by people who spent years developing HomePlug powerline networks. These folks contend that coax is a far superior network transport.
MoCA signed a deal with Verizon to provide the in-home connections of its fiber-to-the-home service, FiOS. Similarly, HPNA is used in AT&T’s fiber offering U-Verse. Both Buffkin and HPNA marketing VP Rich Nesin say other partnerships will be announced soon.
In the grand scheme of things, these first deployments are small. But if you live in an AT&T or Verizon market, “triple play” and “IPTV” marketing offers are inevitable. If you’re curious which providers are leaning one way or another, scan the list of MoCA and HomePNA members. You’ll see all the cable operators, too, indicating the way the whole industry is moving.
Shielding the Consumer
But don’t expect to find technology details of these services, because service providers don’t think you need to know. “A consumer could have HPNA and not even know it,” says Nesin.
They could be right. TR69 is a robust standard for remote monitoring written by the DSL Forum that allows service providers to see your connection speed, error rates and signal-to-noise ratio. Having such information handy improves customer service and keeps support costs low.
Concern over support costs is the main reason you won’t see MoCA or HomePNA 3.0 gear at retail. “They [service providers] want to control the rollouts,” says Nesin. “Just like with cable modems, you’ll be able to buy equipment in stores later on.” MoCA equipment will be in stores by year’s end, says Buffkin.
Older HomePNA 2.0 gear is still sold in retail, and offered by SBC/BellSouth for data networking. HPNA 3.0 gear is backwards compatible with HPNA 2.0 equipment over phone line only, says Nesin.
Motorola is shipping MoCA bridges and set-top boxes, and Actiontec is shipping a router with MoCA and Wi-Fi—all to service providers.
HPNA 3.1 equipment consists of (at minimum) a set-top box for your TV and a slick residential gateway from 2Wire. Signing up for FiOS or U-Verse requires a “truck roll” for technicians and packages vary in price. In the next year or two, more choice should drive costs down as telcos try to lure cable and satellite users.
MoCA and HPNA are strong competitors and many service providers are sampling both in trials. One advantage to MoCA is that it’s interoperable with the DOCSIS cable modem standard as well as with digital and analog cable, making it more attractive to cable companies. Yet, HPNA supports TR69. In time, MoCA will also work over phone lines, making the two technologies even tougher to distinguish.
Another Option: Ultrawideband
Ultrawideband (UWB) is a short-range radio technology that provides about 100 Mbps throughput (data rate is 480 Mbps) within 10 meters. Shepherded to market by the WiMedia Alliance, the first UWB products will reach retail later this year.
In order to build industry consensus, the WiMedia Alliance had to build in support for other much slower short-range wireless networking technologies, Bluetooth and Wireless USB. To do so, WiMedia uses a single radio across all three platforms (UWB, Bluetooth, Wireless USB), then incorporates a software stack for each on top. A vendor will incorporate one, two or all three stacks into a given product, depending on what the company wants to connect.
Logic dictates that Bluetooth headset vendors will use UWB Bluetooth, printer and camera makers will use UWB Wireless USB, and smart phone makers who want to connect to anything that comes along will likely use all three, says WiMedia Alliance president Stephen Wood.
WiMedia will first appear this spring in the form of a dongle, a hardware device that plugs into your USB port. Within a year, WiMedia network interface cards and chipsets will follow. However, the three stacks will roll out separately with UWB Wireless USB coming first, followed by UWB, and then UWB Bluetooth will come next year.
In terms of backwards compatibility, UWB Bluetooth will work with older Bluetooth devices. To achieve backwards compatibility between UWB Wireless USB and older Wireless USB, you need a hub. Devices that don’t share the same stacks won’t work together. Devices that do will sport matching logos.
Toni Kistner is a technology writer living in Cambridge, Mass. Her main focus is networking and wireless technology.