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craig mathias

The home network of the future

Dec 05, 20056 mins
Cellular NetworksIntellectual PropertySAN

Thinking like an IT guy will save you money and frustration down the road.

Computers without networks are hard to imagine these days, but they did once exist as islands of capability. Sneakernet was the norm – life was hard. With the LAN, and eventually the Internet, the power and convenience of networking became integral to the computing experience. A computer off the net – at work or at home – isn’t that useful anymore. Going back would be unthinkable.

Equally unthinkable is the current state of home entertainment systems, which still adheres firmly to the islands-of-capability model. Even with innovations such as high-definition TV (HDTV), Dolby digital, DTS, THX and 5.1-channel sound, consumers still buy individual components and place them where they are used – usually duplicating boxes and functions in multiple locations. Components include digital video recorders (DVR); receivers; DVD players and recorders; VCRs (still useful in some cases); set-top boxes (always cleverly designed to never fit on top of the TV set); and assorted switches, TVs, projectors and speakers. And lots of wire – shielded RCA cables, speaker cables, proprietary vendor device control interconnections, USB 2.0, IEEE 1394 (aka Firewire), as well as cables for VGA, digital video input and HDMI video.

Much content is still provided via Sneakernet (most notably DVDs), but programming via cable (with an increasing fiber presence), satellite TV and even the Internet is demanding greater indoor connectivity, usually provisioned via carrier wiring. With most homes more difficult to wire than most businesses, there is a major challenge (and expense) in going the wired route. With cable the historical solution of choice, we run lots of it to our islands of capability that almost never have shared capabilities with other islands – just like computing before networks.

It’s time to apply network-oriented thinking to home entertainment. The key is to place the user-interface components (displays, speakers, remote controls and related user-interface hardware) where the users are, and put everything else where it belongs – in the server room (aka the basement). Displays (TVs or monitors) and projectors, given their size and installation requirements, need to stay in one place, as do speakers, but almost everything else can be centralized and shared.

Technical challenges to network-based entertainment systems appear formidable at first glance. We generally budget throughput on the order of 20M bit/sec sustained, for a video stream with reasonable compression. This is easy with wire, but most homes will never be sufficiently wired – it’s just too expensive to put a plug everywhere.

Fortunately, wireless technologies have progressed to the point of viability for home entertainment applications. MIMO-enhanced wireless LANs (WLAN) and other multi-antenna systems, now available from several vendors (including Belkin, Linksys and Netgear), provide sufficient range and throughput for video applications. The key is to provide a more robust link that minimizes latency (most often the result of retries), as well as jitter and bit error rate, both notoriously difficult problems for wireless. Experiments done at Farpoint Group show that WLAN video distribution is feasible, if not exactly in a form compatible with most home entertainment systems.

Home network equipment, wired or wireless, is designed to move traditional data between computers. For video, WLAN components will need component- and digital-video connectors. These are rare and very pricey today; Belkin’s AV55000 is an example.

Networked entertainment products are  available from D-Link, Linksys, Netgear and others, which allow media stored on a PC to be wirelessly played elsewhere in the home. The clever Slingbox from Sling Media, or software from Orb Networks allow media to be “place-shifted” even outside the home. But the really exciting direction is the networking of set-top boxes that allow content stored on a DVR on one box to be played on a different set-top box. Motorola announced this capability with its Whole Home Media System (WHMS), but this was not yet available from any cable operator. Another feature of the WHMS lets certain cell phones act as remote controls from almost anywhere, displaying content stored in the WHMS for true location-independent entertainment and information.

The virtualization of media and entertainment resources will follow concepts pioneered in data networking applications. Services could ultimately include such necessities as automatic video format conversion and variable compression based on the quality of the link at any moment. A vexing concern, though, is the remote-control situation. Today’s universal remotes are often difficult to program and use. With a network-based home entertainment approach, PCs could now serve this function with greater ease and convenience than ever. Of course, ease of use becomes the limiting factor for all non-techies who just want to watch TV, but the power of a PC in control and other home-automation applications should be easy to take advantage of. Of course, PCs introduce their own complexity, so appliances or even thin clients will also likely play roles in future home-entertainment systems.We can also extend ease of use to component setup and interconnect, using high-performance, limited-range wireless technologies (such as ultra-wideband) to eliminate the need for all those specialized cables and add flexibility (with dynamic, software-based reconfiguration) to our entertainment networks.

The biggest problem with realizing a networked home-entertainment system, however, is unrelated to the technology challenges. While we have no problem (in most cases) with centralizing network and IT resources (as well as data), the home entertainment world is quite the opposite. Content providers have a legitimate interest in protecting their property, but the “content wants to be free” ethos seems to be pervasive in too many cultures. The U.S. Fair Use Doctrine for some time protected the rights of users to make copies of otherwise protected materials for their own use, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has thrown fair use into doubt. Can you rip a DVD and put it on a home server for distribution around the house? We’re not lawyers, but we doubt it.

Many in the industry are working to find acceptable content-protection schemes that don’t cramp the customer’s style beyond the point of pain. Sun, for example, recently announced its open source Open Media Commons effort. It seems likely that we can establish an open framework for digital rights management (DRM). Glenn Edens, senior vice president at Sun’s Communications, Media and Entertainment group, says, “If we can solve the DRM problem, networked home entertainment will become a reality. If not, we’ll all still be buying DVDs.”

In that case, the islands-of-capability model will remain the norm for the foreseeable future. As is often the case, the technology for the networked home is progressing nicely – it’s the legal details that stand in the way. If the lawyers and legislators can get together, networked home entertainment may finally become a reality.

Mathias is principal at Farpoint Group. He can be reached at

craig mathias

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference speaker, author, columnist, and blogger. He regularly writes for Network World,, and TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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