ITU Aims to Defragment Home Networks With G.hn

A standards effort by the ITU is leading the wired home networking market on an abrupt turn toward a future technology that may shape home networks for consumers around the world but leave some existing technologies by the wayside.

The developing International Telecommunication Union standard, called G.hn, would cover high-speed delivery of video and other kinds of content over home power lines, phone lines and coaxial cable. It would allow makers of products such as televisions, set-top boxes and PCs to use one chip and build connectors for each type of wired network in the back of their products. Speeds would average about 400M bps (bits per second) over coaxial cable, 200M bps over electrical wires and a speed somewhere in between on phone lines, according to the HomeGrid Forum, an industry group formed in April to back the standard.

The G.hn Study Group of the ITU last week gave consent to proposals for physical-layer and architectural specifications in the standard. That step typically leads to approval of those parts and allows chip makers to start designing silicon, according to Matt Theall, president of the HomeGrid Forum. Work continues on the MAC (media access control) piece of the standard, he said. The HomeGrid Forum expects the standard to be ratified in September 2009 and products to hit the market in 2010. There are some impressive names backing G.hn through HomeGrid, including Intel, Texas Instruments, Infineon Technologies and Panasonic.

Products with G.hn capability could come in many forms, but the standard would open the door to devices having three possible data connections: a phone jack, a cable socket and a power cord. Telecommunications carriers are expected to drive adoption of G.hn through residential gateways for broadband services. Televisions and other devices with G.hn might connect to the gateway via any of the three types of wires, for high-definition video and other services to stream to other rooms in a home.

The standard isn't intended to replace Wi-Fi for Web surfing but could act as a high-speed backbone between hotspots in different areas of a home. Meanwhile, some vendors promote wireless as suited for all forms of content. Ruckus Wireless, for example, has supplied Wi-Fi gear with specialized software to several service providers.

Part of the ITU's mission is to help unify an industry built around an alphabet soup of specifications. By allowing chip makers to manufacture one type of chip for all three forms of networks, a single standard will help to increase volume and cut costs, industry analysts said. The key backers of it are telecommunications carriers, which are starting to deliver IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) and other high-speed services and want give their subscribers a way to enjoy the services around their homes.

"I think ITU is one of the better options to remove what I see as a significant roadblock to deploying a greater number of home networks," said Parks Associates analyst Kurt Scherf. The fragmented industry has caused confusion among consumers and kept costs relatively high, he said. "This is years of cumulative frustration on the part of the service providers."

However, the G.hn group is not building in interoperability with the current standards, which has disappointed some backers of existing technologies. If consumers hold on to products built for today's standards, or if the standards continue along separate tracks from G.hn, some consumers may find they have devices that can't talk to each other.

"Why do we need another technology standard that, in fact, is not going to be backward compatible? What is the value there?" said Rob Gelphman, chair of the marketing working group at Multimedia Over Coax Alliance (MOCA), the industry group for a coaxial-cable specification. There are 10 million devices using MOCA today, and Verizon Communications deploys it in the homes of subscribers to its FIOS fiber-to-the-home service, according to Gelphman. MOCA offers 175M bps now and will have significantly higher speed in its next version, he said.

A group backing one of the current powerline networking standards, The HomePlug Powerline Alliance, said it was unfortunate the G.hn Study Group had moved away from earlier proposals that would have provided more interoperability with its specification. Consumers want continuity, not surprises, said Rob Ranck, HomePlug's president. More than 23 million HomePlug chips have been sold so far, according to the group.

The powerline networking industry has been the most fragmented, with three different standards that not only can't work together but can't coexist: They shut each down when plugged into the same network. Ranck voiced concern about coexistence between HomePlug and G.hn products, but HomeGrid's Theall said the ITU study group would make sure its standard coexists with all earlier systems.

But the members of HomePNA (formerly the Home Phone Networking Alliance), which promotes a standard for both phone-line and coaxial networks, strongly support G.hn, according to Rich Nesin, general manager and vice president of marketing at the 10-year-old organization. HomePNA 4.0, expected in 2010, will include support for the standard, he said. Nesin believes the ITU was wise to be pragmatic about home networks.

"You can imagine, if we tried to make everything compatible with everything existing in the world, it would take a lot longer," Nesin said.

HomePNA's membership includes big names such as AT&T, Motorola and the Scientific Atlanta division of Cisco Systems, which is making a major push into home networks and video. In a statement, Cisco said, "Upon its finalization, we will work with our customers and partners to evaluate the potential advantages of adopting G.hn where appropriate."

Despite some of today's rhetoric, vendors of existing technologies will build products that can work with G.hn after the standard is complete -- particularly if their service-provider customers demand them, said In-Stat analyst Joyce Putscher. But the current platforms may live on if large carriers see no need for the flexibility of G.hn, she said. Similarly, wireless vendor Ruckus said it might build G.hn into future products if carrier customers asked for it.

Scherf thinks it is still an open question whether the backers of today's technologies will make them interoperate with G.hn. It's also unclear whether cable operators will adopt the new standard. But if they don't, they may be left behind in terms of capabilities and economies of scale, he said.

"I would put my money on G.hn at this point," Scherf said.

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