It was an honor to be the “emcee” for one of the conference tracks at Telecompetitor’s Digital Home Summit in Dallas a week ago. As multiscreen TV gains both market share and mindshare as a basic pay TV feature from several of the top cable TV operators as well as from DISH and DirecTV – and because multiscreen TV is a quintessential Digital Home application – multiscreen was deservedly one of the recurring themes of the conference.
Multiscreen TV technology
Like anything else that involves an ecosystem, multiscreen TV has a nearly overwhelming range of enabling technologies, and each of those technologies has its advocates and standards organizations. Some of today’s technology brands and standards have real consumer awareness. Think of Intel Inside™ or Apple’s Retina displays. Both of those brands point directly to a set of technologies, and anyone shopping for a computer or a tablet these days will quickly stumble upon them. Surely, Intel and Apple have spent prodigiously to create this consumer awareness, as they can afford to do. Or even more ubiquitous: WiFi. There are a lot more hot spots than there are pay phones these days, and we ask for them as WiFi. (Well, when’s the last time you asked your barista whether her shop had IEEE 802.11-g, or -n?).
But other technology standards are far more obscure. And the further down they are buried within the ecosystem, the more obscure they seem to be. How many consumers know about the DLNA, UPnP, or tru2way standards? Some consumer electronics makers put the logos of those standards initiatives on their boxes, but for most, that’s the only time a consumer will ever have contact with them. That’s the beauty of standards that function well and have been widely adopted: they become invisible. Unless something breaks through no fault of the standard.
Home gateways and more
So when I was asked to introduce the Digital Home Summit session entitled “TV Everywhere in the Home,” I thought it sounded interesting and innocuous enough. Until I met the presenters and asked them about their topic. One of them was Steve Palm, Senior Technical Director from the chip maker Broadcom. The other was Richard Wagner, a Director of Applied Network Technologies at Corning.
When I asked them what they could possibly have had in common, one of them instantly exclaimed “Sand!” Great! A common theme. But now for the challenge: what does sand have to do with the Digital Home? As it turns out, everything. Think about it. If the answer isn’t apparent to you yet, keep reading.
First, Mr Palm gave the audience a recap of what’s going on with existing digital home technologies. Until recently, the standard pay TV model was to have one STB per TV, plus other devices connected to the home router. Now, the DLNA standard is enabling service providers to sell digital content on any device in the home network, using a common distribution framework. Service providers can now place one gateway in your home, and present a content experience to set-top boxes, thin IP clients such as smart TVs, and to tablets, PCs, etc.
With this explosion of content comes demand for ever-increasing speed. With the advent of tablets and other mobile devices, the delivery has to be wireless. To answer that call, WiFi has evolved from 1997’s 802.11a data rate of 2Mbps – great for small, low frame-rate Web videos – to today’s 802.11n 600 Mbps and medium resolution video streaming. The next version, 802.11ac, at 3.6Gbps, is poised to provide whole-home video coverage; and around the corner is 802.11ad, which will take advantage of unlicensed bandwidth at 60 gigabits per second.
There’s a data standard for every kind of wire in your home. For coaxial cable, MoCA 2.0 supports 500Mbps data rates point to point, and 400Mbps multi-node. HomePlug, which has become the primary commercial in-home video networking method in Europe, turns your home electrical wiring into a local broadband network.
Put these all together into a single box, and you have the next trend in gateways, the IEEE P.1905 Hybrid Networking standard. Features include network topology discovery, built-in local and remote (TR-069) diagnostics, path selection, and simplified security setup. It also has automatic configuration for secondary WiFi Access Points (try doing this manually some time – it’s the main reason I bought all Apple routers for my home: their set-up utility is visual and super-simple). P.1905 promises to make this setup even simpler. And Broadcom is working on the chips for that.
The sand link
Then Mr Wagner from Corning gave a presentation about the infrastructure to distribute TV everywhere in the home. He opened by asking (show of hands) how many devices did the audience members have in their homes? Helpfully, he soon said that the average number of ‘TV display surfaces in the home’ is six. (I’ve heard – and believe – estimates that are as high as 14). But the point is that consumers face a diverse and complex home electronics landscape today. There are PCs, connected digital cameras, set-tops and streaming video boxes, TV sets, Blu-ray players, tablets, game consoles, and other consumer electronics with multiple types of connectivity. Homes need infrastructure to handle all of this: multiple applications, in multiple rooms, over multiple home networks.
And this situation is far from standing still. There are ongoing demands for better quality, which has resulted in advances in the areas of size, resolution and fidelity. Little more than a decade ago, US TV stations began digital broadcast. By about 2007, the transition to all digital HDTV was virtually complete, followed in 2011 by 3DTV; with 2K and 4K resolutions on the (still somewhat distant) horizon. Bandwidth for hi-res displays drives the need for higher-capacity wiring: while it takes 3.5-6 Mbps for compressed 1080p, it will take more than 10 Gbps to deliver uncompressed 4310p UHDTV at 120Hz, at 10bits per pixel, in 4-colors, with an aspect ratio of 16×9. As people look for more resolution and quality, the bandwidth requirements will keep going up.
Yet most homes are wired with copper, and the performance of today’s home networking technologies fall far short of today’s device interfaces. While WiFi 802.11g (54Mbps) and WiFi 802.11n (300Mbps) sound fast, the interfaces for most common consumer devices top out in the 5-10 Gbps data rate range. So if you want to network one of these devices, a copper or wireless home network will present an impediment to performance.
One solution is to use active optical cable with embedded electronics that make existing connectivity technologies compatible with new connectivity. For example, USB 3.0 at 4.8 Gbps using fiber is electrically compatible with USB 2.0. The bottom line is that in the near term, there will be a combination of wireless, copper and fiber connectivity in the home, and optical networking technologies have the potential to relieve bottlenecks.
But back to our quiz: why was the common theme of this session sand? Easy: microprocessor chips (such as Broadcom’s) are made of silicon dioxide, while fiber optics (such as Corning’s) are made of… silicon dioxide. What else is made of silicon dioxide? (wait for it!) … sand!
Will the end consumer buy in?
Now, on to question two: how does the industry communicate the value of all of this in short phrases, single syllables or acronyms; to consumer audiences? In reality, it’s a multi-step process that begins with the Broadcoms and the Cornings of the world, which are in a position to enable home networking frameworks; and the technical standards organizations that create a common definition of them.
Then, someone needs to intersect the ever-increasing bandwidth budget requirements (created by ever-increasing video quality to an increasing number of devices), with the capabilities of these networking and device technologies, and then educate others. Intermediary steps in the message filtering process include CE device makers, systems and software integrators, professional network installers, and high-end A/V dealers; whose customers are generally sophisticated enough to understand the enabling technologies.
This gets us just one step away from the mainstream consumer, where smart marketers get to reduce all of this to “good, better and best,” and explain the differences in terms that everyone can understand, such as “no more ‘buffering’,” or “you’ll get a clear picture anywhere in the house, no matter which screen you’re watching.” Only then will we see the demand.