When we were at TelcoTV, we were struck by the many different approaches to distributing video throughout the home. While Category 5 cabling is viewed as providing the best video quality, telcos are understandably reluctant to bear the expense of running new cables.
Many telcos have chosen to use existing cables. Recent deployments have leaned toward existing coaxial cables, which typically run between the TV sets in North American homes. While Verizon has chosen MoCA--which runs only over coax, AT&T has chosen HPNA 3--which runs over both coax and phone lines, providing more flexibility.
At TelcoTV, many vendors were showing how various wireless technologies could be used for video distribution. These included two flavors of Wi-Fi--the current 802.11g and the future 802.11n--and ultra wideband (UWB).
Ruckus Wireless was at the show with their MediaFlex technology based on 802.11g. We've written before about Ruckus, whose technology has been adopted by several telcos in Europe and Asia. MediaFlex appears well suited for standard definition TV, but really doesn't have enough bandwidth for high definition.
Video Over UWB
At the show, we met with two chip companies--Tzero Technologies and Sigma Designs--that are promoting their versions of UWB technologies for HD video distribution. We've also talked many times with Pulse~LINK about this application.
Matt Keowen, Tzero's senior director of corporate marketing, told us that while most UWB companies are focused on USB cable replacement, Tzero is focused on video distribution. He said their "ultraMIMO" UWB technology could reliably carry three HD streams over 10 meters. Their TZ7000 chip is based on the WiMedia radio, and recently completed testing and registration in the WiMedia certification program.
Tzero claims that its approach performs much better than other UWB implementations, providing increased range, increased reliability, and better interference cancellation. It further claims to provide a packet error rate several orders of magnitude better that either 802.11n or other versions of UWB.
Tzero has created a Wireless HDMI reference design, which uses UWB to provide a wireless HDMI link for high definition television. UWB doesn't have nearly enough bandwidth for uncompressed HD video, so the reference design uses a JPEG2000 video codec chip from Analog Devices, which compresses the video stream so that it can be carried over UWB.
Several companies have announced products incorporating Tzero chips. Amedia recently announced that it would include Tzero UWB in its advanced residential gateways for IPTV. Gefen, a leading provider of audio/video connectivity systems, is building a Wireless HDMI extender.
We visited with Sigma Designs to see the Secure Media Processor SoCs used in many of the advanced IPTV set top boxes, and were surprised when they also showed us their new Windeo UWB chipset for video distribution. In early 2006, Sigma acquired Blue7, a Silicon Valley startup developing UWB chips for wireless video/audio streaming within the home.
Like the Tzero chipset, Windeo is based on the WiMedia Alliance specifications. Windeo uses multiple antenna technologies and claims to double the usable range of UWB. At the show, Sigma showed us a demo transferring HD video across a room with a Windeo prototype with three antennas at each end.
We have written several times about Pulse~LINK, one of the UWB pioneers. While most of the industry has rallied behind the WiMedia radio standard, Pulse~LINK has continued to pursue its own approaches to UWB.
Pulse~LINK has long promoted the use of UWB radios over coaxial cable and powerline as well as over the air. We have seen several demonstrations of its CWave technology combining UWB over coax and over the air to provide a very high speed "whole home" network.
Pulse~LINK recently announced that it would be demonstrating CWave at CES next month. It said the demo would show "room-to-room distribution of multiple HDTV streams and multimedia content over both coax and wireless connections simultaneously from the same chipset" to "allow HD/Multimedia content located anywhere in the home to be shared across the existing coax backbone with wireless networking connections in each room."
802.11n for Home Video
While UWB is the new player on the block, the Wi-Fi players are regrouping to bring their next generation products forward more quickly. 802.11n has always been positioned as the wireless technology most suitable for "whole home" networking including multiple channels of high definition video.
But 802.11n has been a long time coming. The IEEE standards process tends to run at its own deliberate speed, and conflicts between major players have slowed down the standardization process even more than usual; final approval of the 802.11n standard is now not expected until the middle of 2008, slipping another year over the past year.
When we wrote 802.11n--Next-Generation Wi-Fi Back On Track almost a year ago, the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) was adamant that it would not start certifying 802.11n products until the final standard was approved. But the further slippage, the appearance of many mutually incompatible "draft 11n" products on the consumer market, and new entrants such as UWB, have caused WFA to reexamine its plans.
While WFA has not formally announced the change, several key players have told us that WFA now plans to start certifying "draft n" products based on a draft 802.11n specification. This will probably be based on the "Draft 2.0" spec which will likely be voted on by the IEEE members in the first half of 2007. WFA seems determined to move forward and will set its own timetable for certification, with initial certified products expected by the summer of 2007. Many chip makers are now more focused on the WFA certification process than the IEEE, and are determined to be part of the first wave of certified chips.
Metalink, a fabless chipmaker based in Israel, has long been focused on HD video networking. Early this week, they announced the availability of their second-generation WLANPlus chipset designed specifically for video networking.
We talked last week with Ron Cates, Metalink's Vice President, North American Sales & Marketing. Ron told us that the new chipset is based on the latest draft of 802.11n and is targeted to WFA certication. It chipset includes many advanced features Metalink says are required to preserve video quality.
Ron said that the first-generation chipset had been proven to work well for IPTV set top boxes and other consumer electronics applications, and the second-generation chipset was designed for size and cost reduction and volume production as well as full compliance with the expected WFA certification procedures.
We expect to see specific product announcements and demonstrations at CES next month.
Not to be outdone, Airgo made a pair of announcements last week. The expected one was the availability of its first 802.11n chip. The unexpected one was its acquisition by Qualcomm.
We interviewed Greg Raleigh, Airgo's CEO, on the date of the announcement last week. Greg pointed out that Airgo has long said that it would not release a chipset based on the early 802.11n drafts, since those would fail to win approval in IEEE balloting and products based on them would not be compatible with later drafts. With draft 2.0 moving forward, and WFA moving toward certifying products, Airgo now felt ready to release its draft 2.0 chipset.
The AGN400 chipset is a two chip solution which supports 802.11n draft 2.0 in both the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, and is fully back compatible to the earlier 802.11a/b/g standards.
The press release for the AGN400 was coupled with the announcement that Qualcomm had acquired Airgo as well as the Bluetooth assets of RF Micro Devices, and said both technologies would be integrated into Qualcomm chipsets for mobile telephony. We asked Greg whether the acquisition would diffuse Airgo's drive on consumer networking applications, and he said that Airgo would benefit from Qualcomm's scale and financial stength in the coming competition as 802.11n chips pass upcoming WFA certification tests.
The Qualcomm/Airgo announcement said nothing about the financial terms of the acquisition. We asked Greg, who said only "my investors are delighted."
What to Watch
Both UWB and 802.11n video networking solutions are coming to market at the same time. We expect to see many products at CES next month, and will see many in retail stores by the summer.
As shown by AT&T's difficulties with IPTV, video quality is very critical for television delivery. Data networking is very tolerant compared with video, where pictures pixelate and audio and video get out of synch with each other. Many people are skeptical that any wireless technology can succeed in the real world of the home.
We have been writing about "whole home"networking for many years. The coming year will be important in sorting out winners and losers.
( www.ruckuswireless.com ) ( www.tzerotech.com ) ( www.analog.com ) ( www.sigmadesigns.com ) ( www.pulse-link.com ) ( www.wi-fi.org ) ( www.metalinkbb.com ) ( www.airgonetworks.com ) ( www.qualcomm.com )