The missing link in fiber to the home

How to get high-speed fiber routed around your house

"It was a piece of cake; it took me longer to strip the speaker wires than to set up the adapter," recalled Joyce Putscher, technology industry analyst at In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz.

She was describing her use of an alternate home networking technology to connect an entertainment center to a speaker on the opposite side of the room without rigging unsightly wires.

The answer was to use the wires already in the room, built into the walls.

Likewise, with telecommunications carriers like Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. racing to deliver fiber to the home (FTTH) so they can offer lucrative triple-play (voice, data and video) services, the question arises: What happens after the signal enters the house? Few homes are wired with Ethernet cables, and the expense of wiring the house of each new triple-play subscriber would derail the entire FTTH business model.

Their answer is the same as Putscher's: use what's already there. Four different solutions are being embraced:

  • Coax cable, since it is already present in most homes to support cable or satellite TV. The standard-bearer is the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA).

  • Phone and coax wiring, promoted by the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA). (Despite the name, HomePNA's main focus is coax.)

  • The AC power grid within the house, using a signal overlaying the power current, as promoted by the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. (Putscher was using powerline adapters.)

  • When all else fails, Wi-Fi.

MoCA appears to be leading the market, as Verizon, the most active carrier in FTTH, has chosen MoCA as its home networking technology. Verizon expects it to have about 100,000 FTTH subscribers using video by the end of 2006, explained Brian Whitton, executive director of access technology at Verizon.

"MoCA was the most superior of the available technologies," he said. "Ninety percent of the homes in the U.S. have some cable, and I don't know of a video installation yet where we did not find cabling in the house."

As for its speed, MoCA's Web site said that field trials showed MoCA can sustain 100Mbit/sec. more than 95% of the time. For comparison, an HDTV MPEG2 video stream peaks at a little less than 20Mbit/sec., and pundits insist that home networks must be able to carry multiple HDTV streams to meet future demand.

But MoCA's chief advantage is that it is two years ahead of its competition, in terms of a mature technical specification, completed field trials, an ongoing product certification process and mature licensing arrangements, said Ladd Wardani, head of MoCA and also vice president at Entropic Communications Inc.

"Operators do not have a lot of options; MoCA is the only technology that meets their requirements," he said.

Nevertheless, AT&T, which is the carrier most active with FTTH after Verizon, has adopted an alternative: HomePNA.

"Our primary medium is coax, but HomePNA will also work over phone lines," said Richard Nesin, president at HomePNA, and vice president at CopperGate Communications Inc. "HomePNA works at the same speed now over both media, but coax will allow higher speeds in the future. Since HomePNA runs at a lower frequency than MoCA, cheaper components are needed."

HomePNA 3.0 offers bandwidth up to 240Mbit/sec. and achieved throughput of about 130Mbit/sec., he said. The newly released Version 3.1 defines operations up to 320Mbit/sec. with multiple networks on the same system. Signal range is about 1,500 feet on a phone line and 5,000 feet on coax, Nesin added.

AT&T has announced that it is using HomePNA for its triple-play U-verse service, citing its suitability for Internet Protocol TV services, plus its speed, robust performance, low cost and dual-ability to use phone lines and coax.

The AT&T U-verse only began rolling out this summer and so far there are probably only a few thousand users, Nesin said. "But they plan to pass 19 million homes with their service by the end of 2008, so we expect a heavy ramp-up next year," he noted.

Then there's powerline networking, using the dozens of interconnected power outlets found in the average home. No major carrier has adopted powerline networking, but that may change as the technology's backers learn how to market it, explained Pete Griffin, chairman of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance and also director of corporate technology at RadioShack Corp.

A home power circuit is a dirty environment, with halogen lamps, hair dryers and vacuum cleaners generating electrical noise that will cut throughput. But beyond that, all reliability problems were fixed about three years ago, Griffin said.

HomePlug 1.0 officially runs at 14Mbit/sec., with an achieved throughput of about 5Mbit/sec., and it has a turbo version that typically achieves between 20Mbit/sec. and 40Mbit/sec.

Newly released is the HomePlug AV specification, intended to carry video, with an official bandwidth of 200Mbit/sec. and an achieved throughput of 60Mbit/sec. to 100Mbit/sec., he said, adding that products using it should reach the mass market by Christmas 2007.

There is also a HomePlug Broadband-over-Powerline specification, which Griffin expects that power utilities will use to provide Internet and voice-over-IP services through their power lines. There is also a much slower HomePlug Home Automation specification for controlling appliances.

Whitton said that Verizon rejected powerline networking because of what he called "wildly fluctuating performance." The signal is best when both devices are on the same wire in the same room, but the signal decays with each connection that it traverses, he said.

And finally, there's the wireless option. "The idea of doing it wirelessly is wonderful, but there are a lot of holes in that story," said Greg Fawson, president at S2 Data Corp., a technology research firm in Phoenix. "Walls, 2.4-GHz cordless phones and microwave ovens all create interference. And while the theoretical bandwidth of 802.11g is 54Mbit/sec., for throughput you'll really get something like 20Mbit/sec. or 22Mbit/sec., which is not enough for multiple video streams. The carriers are not looking seriously at wireless."

Whitton said that Verizon had decided not to rely on wireless either, but throughput was not the main reason. The problem is that a person walking across a room can disrupt reception, he explained. And with video, that can lead to lost packets and picture degradation. The Verizon home router does include a Wi-Fi port, but it's intended for use only with computers, he added.

But whatever technology wins out, the imperative against installing new wires will not go away. "Installing Ethernet cable for a new subscriber takes four hours by two installers," noted Nesin. "Using existing wiring means that installation takes one hour by one installer. The costs are much lower, and you have to drill fewer holes."

Lamont Wood writes about technology from San Antonio.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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