Five years ago, broadband was a wonder and home networks a black art. Today, we’re blithely weighing 802.11 pre-N against HomePlug AV, or holding out for municipal Wi-Fi or Verizon FIOS. And new home buyers are opting for gigabit Ethernet backbones and IP-based home control systems along with their cork flooring and granite countertops.
Given how far we’ve come so fast, what will the next five years bring in digital home technology –- real flying toasters?
For answers, we turned to three industry prognosticators: Jed Johnson, senior director of system engineering at Motorola/CTO of HomePlug; Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst at market research firm Parks Associates; and Chris Dobrec, director of worldwide strategy at Linksys.
Since we’re only going out five years, much of what’s coming is deep in the works now. Even so, what consumers want isn’t always what’s on the drawing board. What applications will take off and which will land with a thud remains anybody’s guess.
The home network of 2012 is delivered and controlled by the service providers, says Motorola’s Jed Johnson. The network backbone is a mix of multiple technologies -– Ethernet over wireless, coax, power line or phone line. The backbone connects multiple set-top boxes recording and playing multimedia content across the network, working alongside a traditional wireless network for data applications and Web browsing. In new homes, a gigabit Ethernet backbone using structured wiring is commonplace, and in upscale communities, standard fare.
The digital rights management (DRM) wars are over, so service providers have developed a special security domain for your home network. Your provider pipes the network content it has licensed to your network, which you in turn move around your house, while at the same time ensuring you don’t copy and distribute content downloaded illegally. Most college-age boys have finished their mandatory one-year sentences and are back at school.
Your service provider employs quality of service (QoS) technology that lets it reserve sufficient bandwidth for its services, then lets the public Internet traffic ride what’s left.
These provider networks also protect users from themselves, by including security to prevent them from being reconfigured or tampered with, as well as management tools and automated self-healing components that keep the network running smoothly. Providers have shut down their customer support departments, laying off thousands.
Bandwidth demand continues to double every two years, requiring a technology architecture that’s expandable. Engineers are working on various ways to reach 400-500 Mbps speeds, including a scheme to “bond” multiple network pipes (wireless and power line, for instance) so they can work simultaneously to grow the bandwidth.
“We can’t just replace the existing medium with the next faster one,” Johnson says. “We’ll never keep up with the bandwidth, and it’s too expensive to keep doing a forklift upgrade.”
The centerpiece of the network is a home server, says Parks’ Kurt Scherf, enabling home users to enjoy diverse content from the Internet while sharing personal content, their digital photos and home movies.
Because the home network is fully IP-based, it controls a wide variety of devices, including Wi-Fi/cell phones and home control systems, says Linksys’ Chris Dobrec. Affordable home control systems based on Zigbee and Z-Wave make it cheap and amusing to put all your devices –- lamps, garage doors, security cameras, etc.—on the network and manage them from anywhere. Pranks and practical jokes abound.
What’s more, the local utility company just swapped out the old thermostat for an IP-based one controlled from the central office. Not only is meter reading obsolete, but communities and individuals work with their utility companies to set the parameters for power consumption –- determining things like how long the pool filter pump runs in summer, or how low to set the thermostat during business hours in winter. Security controls have been put in place to prevent IP-based pranks and practical jokes.
Landline phone connections have been replaced nearly entirely by licensed spectrum base stations –- technically known as femtocells –- that let you use the same handset for your VoIP phone inside as your cell phone outside, connected to a broadband connection. The market remained sluggish until proprietary systems were recently replaced with an open platform, allowing for a new wave of affordable one-phone/one-number solutions.
Last, while much of the population is enjoying services piped over 100 Mbps-plus broadband connections, slower 512K-1 Mbps broadband is available to everyone under nationwide subsidized programs.
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Toni Kistner is a technology writer living in Cambridge, Mass. Her main focus is networking and wireless technology.