Homes for sale

This month’s story on plastic optical fiber (see “Proponents Hope Home Is Where the Plastic Is” on page 31) highlights a new area of carrier concern: home networks. The advent of fiber to the home has shifted the point of demarcation from outside of the single-family residence to inside. Thus, carriers now find it in their best interests to take responsibility for infrastructure they used to ignore.

Needless to say, new responsibilities for carriers mean new opportunities for network equipment vendors. Plastic optical fiber (POF) represents only one technology now put forward as the solution to the home networking problem. Many readers are already familiar with wireless routers, while powerline options also have begun to appear at tradeshows. It seems to me that the opportunity for each will depend on where you are in the world and what the demographics of the carrier’s coverage area happen to be.

For most carriers here in the United States, particularly the RBOCs, the easiest way to implement a triple-play-capable home network is to take advantage of wiring that’s already in place. Most residences in the areas where carriers will offer fiber to the home first already subscribe to some sort of cable TV service-and that means a coax link next to the TV set. While Verizon and AT&T may differ on the coax interface they want on their equipment, the fact remains that leveraging the existing home wiring, which their cable TV competitor has already ensured will handle video services to the set-top box, is the clear preference when delivering video.

The problem for these carriers-and the opportunity for those seeking to supply new technology-is bringing Internet access to the rest of the house and video service to rooms that don’t have a coax interface sticking out of the wall. For Internet access, Verizon generally uses a Cat5 connection terminating in an Ethernet jack-but will only do it once “for free” as part of the basic installation package. (User reports on the Internet say that Verizon will connect three rooms to video for no additional charge.) That Ethernet jack connects to a wireless router to deliver Internet access to the home. With many high-end users already using their own wireless networks to link their laptops or multiple desktops to the home’s sole printer, the technology won’t seem foreign. As long as the Verizon-supplied router plays nicely with the existing router, users should be happy.

Project Lightspeed has yet to roll out as I write this, but it seems reasonable to assume that AT&T’s plans won’t differ significantly from Verizon’s practices. Thus, for most customers in the United States during the initial roll outs of triple-play services, existing coax cables, paired with wireless routers and maybe a short run of Cat5, will probably remain the preferred approach, at least for the major carriers.

Where does that leave other options, such as POF and powerline? I think these technologies will be looking for traction initially with the independent telcos in the United States (powerline) while marketing hard to other regions of the world (powerline and POF). Longer term, I’m sure companies developing POF and powerline are hoping that the RBOCs and their brethren run into enough problems with the wireless routers that they’ll start looking for alternatives.

In both the short and long terms, the key factors in my mind for any home networking technology are performance/reliability and ease of installation. Both powerline and POF have stories to tell carriers who are willing to think unconventionally.

First, both must prove that they meet the performance/reliability benchmarks, which will probably take a few well-publicized pilot installations. Once that’s accomplished, ease of installation becomes a major factor. Based on the demonstrations I’ve seen, using a powerline approach can be as simple as plugging an adapter into the handiest electrical outlet, then stringing a line from the adapter to the back of whatever box needs to be networked. The interface on the computer, set-top box, or other piece of home equipment won’t need a special interface, which will lower costs and widen equipment options. POF, by comparison, is much more difficult: The carrier or someone else must fish cabling throughout the house, and (for now in most instances) adapters are needed either on the boxes or at the POF network interface.

Clearly POF’s best hope is that there are enough interference issues with wireless and powerline that going for a fully cabled, EMI-free approach is the only option. While the sources contacted for my story express optimism about the technologies’ chances, particularly in Europe, here in the States it seems to me that POF’s best opportunity will only arrive when other options have been tried and found wanting.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director & Associate Publisher

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