Residential fiber-optic networks rally for a foothold

May 1, 1999

Residential fiber-optic networks rally for a foothold

By Kathleen Richards

The arrival of digital consumer electronics and PCs that support FireWire may help open the door to fiber in the home. And plastic fiber gets some early support as the one to show us the way.

As the 20th century comes to a close, residential premises fiber remains a blip on most people`s radar. Despite heated competition among telecommunications companies and cable service providers to bring fiber closer to the home and dominate the broadband services market, residential premises fiber is dismissed as economically unfeasible, risky to install, and unnecessary. Many would agree with a CableLabs spokesman, who says, "It`s economically ludicrous."

Thus, outside of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and some other technically savvy futurists with lots of cash, the answer to the question, "Does anyone really have in-home applications that demand fiber?" is a resounding "no." But the followup question of when and if this situation will change sparks heated debate. The growing number of telecommuters; the convergence of data, telephone, and cable services; faster access to the Internet; and the digitization of consumer electronics, home automation systems, and this year`s emerging market--home networking--all point to demand for higher bandwidth at home. And these indicators have created hope in the hearts of several companies, including plastic optical fiber (POF) manufacturers, that fiber in the home is merely a matter of time.

Opportunity at the doorstep

"America is familiar with the idea of limited capacity, that the pipes are too small," says Mark Cerasuolo, program manager of residential systems at Leviton Telcom (Bothell, WA). "We`re talking about people who 40 years ago only used to get three [television] channels. But 40 or 45 cable channels don`t seem like a lot when you know that the person in the next town with digital cable is getting 87.

"The convergence revolution is already here," states Cerasuolo. "It`s at your doorstep. If you want to get it into your house, you`ve got to start looking at a structured cabling system for your home. And that`s really the core of this. What we are going to see is residences going over to structured cabling systems just like businesses had to."

Yet today, by all accounts, the residential premises fiber market is negligible. "We do sell fiber equipment for cable plants within the home; unfortunately, except for very high-end custom homes, we just don`t see it going in anywhere," observes Scott Miles, general manager of the Residential Cabling Program at Mod-Tap (Harvard, MA). "There are a few test communities around the country where they are actually doing it, but it is very few and far between. It is certainly not a mass market at this point."

Less than 1% of Mod-Tap`s sales involve fiber equipment for residential cabling. "For the most part, it is being installed dark," says Miles.

Research indicates that Mod-Tap`s experiences are hardly unique. There is roughly 7 million ft of fiber installed in 100,000 to 120,000 U.S. households, according to estimates from Insight Research Corp., a market researcher based in Parsippany, NJ (see Figure). Today`s residential fiber installations are used primarily for home automation systems and high-bandwidth applications (see Table). According to Insight Research, the first home automation systems to deploy any fiber cabling were installed in 1996. Yet, only between 1% and 7% of the total home automation systems installed use fiber.

Despite these numbers, some see light on the horizon. While admitting that "presently a residential market hardly exists," Ed Berman, president of Boston Optical Fiber Inc. (Westborough, MA), a company specializing in POF technology, predicts that advances in high tech for the home as well as standards work will boost the residential wiring market. "The market is in links that come from Japanese consumer-electronic products," he says. "So many of the high-end products--digital video disc (DVD) players, digital TVs--have plastic-fiber connections or outputs. It`s those products that require the bandwidth that fiber optics can deliver.

"Today, the solutions for home networks or home automation are based on systems such as X-10 that run over house wiring or telephone lines," he continues. "These systems control lighting, security, and some audio, but they don`t provide sufficient bandwidth for video. We see plastic fiber as the ideal medium to use in the structured wiring scenario where there is a network of plastic fiber in the home and an IEEE 1394 scenario where the various home computers and consumer-electronics devices all plug into this network."

The IEEE 1394 standard is getting a lot of attention. Based on Apple Computer`s trademarked FireWire technology design, IEEE 1394 supports interconnections and, thus, data transmission, between digital consumer-electronic devices, such as camcorders, DVDs, and personal computers. Adopted as a standard in 1995, IEEE 1394 now supports data-transfer rates of 400 Mbits/sec at distances of up to 4.5 m. The distance limitation and an inevitable need for higher bandwidth are leading manufacturers and standards groups to consider the potential of residential fiber.

"IEEE 1394 has become a hot topic," says Karuna Uppal, an analyst at the market research firm Yankee Group in Boston. "You are starting to see PCs that come with 1394 ports on them, as well as consumer electronics." Compaq offers a 1394-ready PC, and a handful of other top computer manufacturers offer one or two models that support the standard in their current lines.

IEEE 1394 standardizes "the physical medium over which the devices would communicate," says Uppal, "so you have what`s called a physical-layer device on each end that lets the two devices talk to each other. Thus far, it has been implemented with Cat 5, but there`s been a lot of talk about implementing that same technology using fiber as the medium rather than Cat 5 because the data rates have gone up. Specifically, rates have risen from 100 Mbits/sec when the IEEE 1394 standard was ratified in 1995 to 400 Mbits/sec today.

"Once they started getting into those higher data rates, major consumer electronics companies like Sony, Toshiba, Phillips, and others realized that some sort of low-cost fiber, like plastic fiber, would probably be better," explains Uppal. "Right now 1394 is 400 Mbits/sec; I think that is probably going to scale over time and become considerably faster."

Digital video camcorders that produce extremely wideband, high-speed digital video output have been available for a while, says Leviton`s Cerasuolo. "It really is up to the level where fiber can support it--it`s beyond most copper technology--so there are already consumer items selling that require this kind of capacity."

Unfortunately, while manufacturers target these computers and consumer electronics at the general home market, current customers are likely limited to enthusiasts who have a digital camera or a DVD player that they want to connect to their computer to download images.

What`s really going to drive the demand for fiber in the home is the multimedia computer and digital television. "All the manufacturers are saying they intend to have FireWire as the high-end connector for all the digital-TV units coming out," says Cerasuolo. "FireWire is used on the camcorders; it`s used on the computers now for multimedia. Now, you`ve got a revolution that is hitting consumers at the number one pastime in their homes, which is television. And now TV that is four times better than anything they`ve seen is coming along. The industry expects half of all TV sales by 2005 to be digital TVs and that`s a big deal. We`re looking at something as fundamental as color.

"This whole digital arrival in America`s homes--camcorders, televisions, computers--these are not niche items, these are mainstream and the next generation of them all will be digital. They`ll have speed, performance, and bandwidth requirements that were science fiction a few years ago," says Cerasuolo.

"The best way to hook all that up is FireWire or IEEE 1394. That will likely be a consumer standard. And the amazing thing is it doesn`t run over 4 m. It is like an Apple SCSI connector in that respect. You need fiber to get it anywhere," asserts Cerasuolo.

Leviton Telecom, in conjunction with NEC, is developing a system that converts FireWire to plastic optical fiber--and glass--and back again. The companies plan to launch the product, a "range-extending module" called RXM-1, to coincide with the first generation of mainstream digital TVs, most likely next year. NEC is developing the transceiver. Leviton is developing the wallplate and the power supply.

The company thinks POF will prove to be the optical medium of choice. "The reason we`re betting on plastic is that we think it is the one that will be closest to the comfort zone of the low-voltage industry," says Cerasuolo. "We think glass will always have a place in commercial networks, backbone systems, things like that. But when we`re talking about residential networks, first it will be the high-end custom systems integrators, the ones that are beginning to diversify into it right now, and the commercial integrators as well. Then it will ultimately be the low-voltage alarm and intercom specialists in production homes."

POF is being considered for inclusion in the IEEE 1394 standard, according to Boston Optical Fiber`s Berman. "What is really interesting is that the Japanese consumer electronics industry has adopted plastic fiber ahead of an officially sanctioned standard being issued," he says. "It`s almost a de facto situation, where the product is developed in the commercial marketplace ahead of the standard being issued, which is a much better situation than a technical standard rising out of a committee that never gets implemented."

Boston Optical Fiber is offering a miniaturized point-to-point link, which includes miniaturized electronics--connectors, cables, plugs, and "very fast transceivers that have been shrunk to the size of a fingernail," that can be integrated into products. All the electronics support the IEEE 1394 interface and run over plastic fiber. According to Berman, Boston Optical is the only company making a significant effort to develop POF technology in the United States.

Other residential media and standards

While the residential premises market has attracted the attention of certain optical communications vendors, the application also is a hot button for companies that support a variety of media options, including AC power lines, coaxial cable, and wireless. "There was a great deal of talk at a recent home networking conference about just what the medium of the future will be," says Berman. "And we have to be very careful as an industry not to confuse those companies and the individuals involved in the installation of these networks. When people talk about glass fiber and the different versions--singlemode, multimode, nonstandard 50-micron fiber, and plastic fiber--it is terribly confusing to the audience as to what the solution will be. These people don`t know what to put in the walls."

Several standards bodies, including the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) and the Home Audio Video Interoperability (HAVI) council, are working to establish IEEE 1394/FireWire agreements. IEEE 1394/FireWire is also likely to support Asynchronous Transfer Mode networks.

Thus, while residential premises fiber has yet to become a viable market, recent developments may establish fiber as the medium of choice for high-bandwidth requirements in the home. The momentum behind IEEE 1394 FireWire as the interconnect standard for digital consumer-electronics and computer devices is a major step in that direction--if the fiber community can make it easy and practical for the IEEE and other standards bodies to include the technology in their specifications. u

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