Why the Home Network Needs More Than Just Wi-Fi

Let’s be honest: When it comes to the networked home, most analysts, press and consumers mainly think Wi-Fi. This is for good reason, of course, as Wi-Fi has been phenomenally successful as a consumer technology. It’s ubiquitous in laptops and portable gaming devices, is fast becoming so in portable media players and mobile phones, and new devices like TVs and set-top boxes are seen as the next big growth markets for this technology.

However, while many view Wi-Fi as a jack-of-all-trades technology that can be shoehorned into virtually any use case, at ABI we see things a little differently. While we continue to forecast a bright future for Wi-Fi, we view the home network as a multilayered one made up of individual sub-networks that are defined by their own specific use cases and applications, some of which may not involve Wi-Fi at all.

We ultimately see five types of networks in the home:

    1. The consumer network for data and entertainment. Mainly Wi-Fi, with a mix of Ethernet and HomePlug as well. Where Linksys, Netgear and gateway vendors such as 2Wire dominate.

    2. Whole-home backbone. This is the network being driven by IPTV deployments and, in the near future, cable. MoCA, HomePlug AV and HomePNA 3.1 have seen strong traction here.

    3. High-speed, in-room video networks. Technology such as the new WirelessHD 60 GHz standard is specifically designed for this use case as it sends uncompressed video over high-speed wireless links to a TV.

    4. Home automation and control. Low-cost, lower-speed networks for command and control of home systems and as part of the home entertainment stack through integration into universal remotes.

    5. Personal area networks. Has been, and still largely is, defined by Bluetooth.

Of course, many of these networks use either the same underlying technologies or an offshoot of similar ones. UWB, for example, is being positioned as a solution for high-speed Bluetooth, as well as being used for whole-home backbone networks. Pulse~Link, in particular, has been pushing its UWB technology for a number of applications (and networks), seeing it as a candidate for UWB over coax as well as for high-speed, in-room video networks.

One of the most exciting and active areas for development today is the whole-home backbone. MoCA is being integrated into FiOS set-top boxes, while HomePlug AV (and to a lesser extent, UPA) powerline technology has been used for IPTV deployments in Europe and Asia.

But it is the in-room, high-speed video network that is both the newest and likely the one that will get much of the attention in coming years. And while some vendors may see Wi-Fi as a potential option here, the bandwidth needed for uncompressed HD video ranges from 3 to 5 Gbps. This is out of reach for Wi-Fi and where other technologies, such as the 60 GHz, UWB or proprietary implementations in 5GHz, are better suited.

We certainly expect that vendors such a Broadcom will continue to push Wi-Fi for applications such as whole-home video distribution. However, ABI Research believes that most pay-TV operators in the U.S. and Europe are more comfortable with the security and propagation capabilities of wires. To that end, many within the International Telecommunications Union have been working to develop a new standard that would succeed today’s coax, powerline and phoneline home backbone technologies: G.hn, a new triple-wire specification that ABI Research believes holds significant potential.

Michael Wolf is a research director focused on the digital home for ABI Research.