Electronic Design

Reconnecting The Connected Home

It's going to take a combination of wired technologies for the networked home of tomorrow to deliver the seemingly endless amount of content craved by end users today.

When researchers at the U.S. Department of Defense commissioned the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) to share data among agencies 50 years ago, they never could have imagined the importance such a network would one day have in the home. Hundreds of millions ofusers around the world now use their home network not only to share information but also to enjoy music, watch TV, talk on the phone, and play video games as realistic as life itself.

Today, consumers look to the Internet more than ever for entertainment and communication. This month, Apple reported that iTunes downloads topped 2 billion. And in November, Disney told AppleInsider that users downloaded more than 500,000 copies of its titles in the first two months after the company started offering movies through the iTunes store.

But it's not just about music and movies. By the end of 2006, more than 8 million Americans traded in their traditional phone plan for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Also, almost 5 million people around the world subscribed to an Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) service.

See Figure 1

BRING BACK THE WIRES?
It didn't take long for consumers to realize that broadband is a must if they want to download a CD, chat on instant messenger, and check their bank statement simultaneously. Today, more than 230 million subscribers around the world use broadband. Research firm iSuppli predicts almost a billion subscribers by 2010.

The continued growth is significant. But what consumers access through their broadband connections will affect how the home is networked. Michael Stich, Texas Instruments' director of service provider marketing, says that while a home network can be based on a fixedline or wireless connection today, the two connections will coexist in the connected home of tomorrow.

"Over time, consumers will enjoy the benefits of a fully functioning hybrid home network," says Stich, "and there will be many potential combinations of wired and wireless technologies throughout rooms and around the home."

According to Stich, several factors will play a role in the success of home-networking technologies, including ease of installation, network coverage and reliability, cost, and security (see "When Wired Meets Wireless: A Detailed Comparison Of Today's Home Networking Technologies"). He notes that wired technologies outperform their wireless counterparts today and will do so into the foreseeable future. But, wireless will one day be able to drive a robust and reliable home network that's affordable for the average consumer.

The challenge is to create a chip set that works with many, if not all, networking technologies. DSL is the most widely used broadband access technology, with more than 65% of subscribers worldwide connecting to the Internet that way. But DSL lags behind cable in the U.S., which has well over half of all broadband connections.

On the DSL front, Texas Instruments has developed a flexible residential gateway platform that enables connectivity over all ADSL and VDSL2 standards and distribution over multiple home-networking technologies. Based on a dedicated, high-performance DSP, the UR8 architecture comprises an advanced multimedia processor, a programmable DSL physical layer, a high-performance DSPbased voice subsystem, and a comprehensive set of standard interfaces.

Another DSP that is a good fit with multimedia networked home products is Analog Devices' Blackfin 16/32-bit processor. Its features include a hierarchical memory architecture and variety of peripheral interfaces such as 10/100 Ethernet, UART, SPI, timers with pulse width modulation (PWM), real-time clock, and a glueless synchronous and asynchronous memory controller (Fig. 2). The instruction set is designed to facilitate video and audio decoding, the key to multimedia connections.

THE KNOWLEDGE DISCONNECT
Once a steady stream of broadband is routed to a fully networked home, the possibilities are endless. But all that bandwidth is worthless if the consumer knows little about networking. Just think about how many times you've been asked to help hook up a laptop to a wireless network in the past month.

"A lot of people are just starting to get used to the idea of digital tech," says Norman Liang, senior business development executive at IBM. "Wireless networking has only been around for about five years now. In order to innovate, we have to humanize the problem."

Scot Robertson, director of networked media products at Analog Devices, says that there are already networking technologies that can handle the seemingly limitless amount of data once it enters the home.

"Both the MoCA and HomePlug and Powerline scenarios work well and can work well for video, but we are still in consumer education mode," he says. "Education is especially important when you have one point-to-point connection, because you have to set things up so that you really know how to get things from one point to another."

While it's a safe bet that the PC will have some hand in controlling the networked home, it has to be a much simpler device, says Oleg Logvinov, president and CEO of Arkados. A fabless semiconductor company, Arkados designs, develops, markets, and sells technology and solutions enabling broadband communication over standard electricity lines.

"When you look at iPod usage, you see that the only time the user accesses the PC is to download content," says Logvinov. "And the interface is very simple. You can play, fast forward, or change the volume with just one click."

The opportunity, Logninov says, is in the consumer's experience. TiVo had more than 4.5 million subscribers last year in large part because people enjoyed having something that remembers to record their favorite TV shows (or to keep around for a weekend marathon).

"The delivery of the platform not only has to be adaptable, but pervasive throughout the whole house," says Logvinov. "We need something that not only allows delivery between point A and point B, but measures what the consumption of the content is and who the users are."

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