Home networks can be found in the air and riding atop home electrical wiring, in copper telephone wires and coaxial cables. Like any environment that develops incrementally, home networking is jerry-rigged to serve today’s purposes. But they are haphazard, wasteful, inefficient and unlikely to adequately support future growth.
The days when home networks needed to only support a small number of devices doing rudimentary things are over, of course, and anachronistic ad hoc home networks are an increasingly weak link. The remote workers and the types of devices being served today – data-voracious IP-connected smartphones, tablets, televisions and others – do more things and have an increasingly broad set of requirements. In addition, service providers must improve home networking to adequately support the coming wave of home automation and security services that will add their own unique demands.
IEEE 1905.1 to the Rescue?
In short, what is being done on the network in the home is increasingly complex, and a way to upgrade the network supporting those activities is needed. The telecommunications and CE industry – or at least a good chunk of both – think that the answer is a standard called IEEE 1905.1.
The standard was “published” – which is standards-talk for made official – last week. “This is the first effort to consolidate wireline and wireless and create an interoperable system,” said Purva Rajkotia, the chairman of the Convergent Digital Home Network Working Group. “That is what I view as the biggest advantage that 1905.1 creates for the industry.”
In parallel, an initiative called nVoy will certify equipment on the standard. The goal is to enable gear from different vendors to plug seamlessly into 1905.1-managed networks and to create an extremely easy mechanism – such as pressing one button – for consumers to integrate new devices. The bottom line is that consumers won’t have to think about their home network when shopping for equipment.
The desire was to create this welcoming and flexible environment without fundamentally changing or adding to the very different standards that exist. IEEE 1905.1/nVoy is built on four technologies – Wi-Fi (through the Wi-Fi Alliance), Ethernet (through IEEE’s 802.3 standards), coaxial cable (through the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance, or MoCA) and electrical wiring (via the HomePlug Alliance, which uses the IEEE 1901 standard).
The idea is to create an “abstraction layer” that creates a blanket over the four networking techniques. Software intelligence at that layer decides on the best way to traffic the data arriving to the targeted downstream devices. “In general what you are trying to do is creating an uber-spec that recognizes all the technologies…that exist in the home,” said Rob Gelphman, the Vice President for Marketing and Member Relations for MoCA. “It’s a discovery-like mechanism” that recognizes what it finds and reacts accordingly.
The software at this abstraction layer assesses packets as they flow by and determines important elements, such as their destinations and nature of the content that is being transported. In most cases, the end device will have access to the network in more than one way. The software will consider which of the available networks is optimal based on rules established by the vendors and services providers. Factors that are considered include the overall availability of networks, the quality of service (QoS) level required, the throughput of a link at a particular point in time and others.
The 1905.1 approach doesn’t require a change to the underlying silicon, a big advantage. Moreover, it is a future-oriented standard that can serve as the foundation for advanced services. It will enable redundancy between the four media – if, for instance, the Wi-Fi network in the home goes down, traffic can be instantaneously rerouted. Diagnostic metrics can be analyzed and used to diagnose problems. “It’s about managing the network and being able to optimize the data, depending on network and house conditions,” said Michael Inouye, a senior analyst for ABI Research. “nVoy will offer better details on what is causing problems.”
Who’s In and Who Wants to Be
Though 1905.1 is set, it is accompanied by a bit of controversy. A similar abstraction approach is used by G.hn, an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standards family marketed by the HomeGrid Forum. John Egan, the group’s president and an executive with semiconductor provider Marvell Semiconductor Group, said that the biggest difference between 1905.1 and G.hn is that the latter incorporates Wi-Fi.
Egan claims that G.hn initially was a part of the 1905.1 standard, but was voted out at the end of the first meeting of the working group in Paris in December 2010 due to competitive pressure from Broadcom Corp. and Qualcomm Inc. He said that he so far has been rebuffed in efforts to get HomeGrid/G.hn written into 1905.1 and is working to line up support within IEEE at higher levels than the working group.
Rajkotia and Noelle Humenick, the senior manager of Professional Services for the IEEE Standards Association, said that inclusion of G.hn was considered at the December 2010 meeting, but ultimately not included because its technology was considered immature and lacking in interoperability. It never was officially in the standard, Humenick said.
She and Rajkotia said that G.hn’s proponents are free to try to get it edited into the standard. They said it is a two-fold process: The spec’s proponents first must apply for the right to make a verbal and written presentation to the working group. A majority vote is held. If the vote goes in favor of the group and the presentation made, a second vote is held. If 75 percent of the working group members vote in favor of the presenting group, the standard is edited as suggested. There now are 27 companies in the working group – including the HomeGrid Forum, Humenick said.
An approach to using electrical wiring to distribute signals was developed by the Home Phone Networking Alliance (HomePNA). G.hn and HomePNA announced a merger on May 28. Thus, Egan said, efforts to be included in IEEE 1905.1 extend to approaches brought to the group from HomePNA, as well.
Consumers may begin enjoying the benefits of nVoy next year. Ron Ranck, the president of HomePlug Alliance, said that nVoy is in the process of setting up the interoperability tests in advance of actual certifications. “The expectations…are that they will be certifying products by the end of 2013,” he said.
These competitive issues are not surprising considering the amount of money on the table. IDC Research Manager Michael Palma sees the standard as a key step forward. “I think it’s a critical element of the vision of home automation or even more broadly than home automation, the truly connected intelligent home,” he said. “That needs a solid infrastructure…and no one technology does everything the best.”