Most of the tablets, TVs, ultrabooks and smartphones on display at International CES this week ultimately are bound for someone's home, where they'll have to talk to each other. Six major home networking technologies to make that happen will be on display at the show, some of them making significant strides to keep up with the demand for instant information and fun.
Consumers who can't get by with just a Wi-Fi access point most often use technologies that send signals through TV cables or electrical wiring. Both types will be on hand in Las Vegas, with their proponents sharing a demonstration area called the TechZone to show off what they can do for a hypothetical home. The HomeGrid Forum, a relative newcomer, will demonstrate the power of products based on the G.hn standard, which spans both types of wires as well as phone lines.
If home networks have a sexy side, it's wireless, and that segment will be crowded, too. Wi-Fi is how most consumers connect to their networks no matter what else they may be using. It's getting faster, while two other wireless systems -- WiGig and WirelessHD -- also are jockeying for position to carry high-definition video.
Video viewing on phones and tablets is a big driver of home networking demand, said Parks Associates analyst Brett Sappington. While consumers prefer wireless, the data-heavy content that carriers and cable and satellite operators are delivering boosts the need for bandwidth within homes.
"You're typically going to have a blended wired and wireless connection in the home, simply because through the wired connection, you can get higher throughput," Sappington said. The effects of walls and other objects on wireless signals can also make wireless systems less predictable.
Though consumers can go out and buy many home networking products themselves, anything beyond a Wi-Fi router is typically prescribed and installed by a service provider, he said.
"Doing wired home networking is still technically challenging," Sappington said.
Here's are some of the main technologies out there to tie all your stuff together:
Some form of Wi-Fi is a given in just about any mobile or even stationary device, and every other kind of home network can tie into it. This year, its latest and fastest version, based on the emerging IEEE 802.11ac specification, is expected to come into phones and tablets in a big way. Broadcom, a major supplier of networking chips, said in a CES preview last month that its new 802.11ac chips for the smaller devices would come out in phones early this year. Those chips can run at about 300M bps (bits per second), several times as fast as current Wi-Fi in phones, and use less power because they can finish transmitting and get off the airwaves sooner, Broadcom says. Laptops and routers are already on the market with bigger 802.11ac radios that have the potential to deliver about 1G bps of throughput
For even higher speeds, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance is pushing WiGig, a system that taps into gobs of unlicensed, barely used spectrum up in the 60GHz range. Those frequencies don't travel too far, but WiGig is aimed at connecting to things nearby, point to point. For example, it can be used to dock a thin and light computer to a monitor and peripherals without the need for Ethernet ports and other connections. WiGig may also be used to send high-definition video streams to a TV for viewing or gaming, its backers say. Its top speed now is about 7G bps, and it may go much higher. Right before this year's show, the Wi-Fi Alliance said it would take over development and promotion of WiGig. That should help ensure the two systems work well together, though WiGig still won't be called Wi-Fi.
WiGig isn't alone at 60GHz. WirelessHD is already built in to adapters for equipment such as projectors and home theaters. It has a theoretical top speed of 28G bps, according to its biggest proponent, chip vendor Silicon Image. At CES, Silicon Image will demonstrate a WirelessHD chip for smartphones and tablets. The UltraGig 6400 mobile 60GHz WirelessHD transmitter was announced last month and is already shipping to manufacturers in sample quantities. It can send and receive video at resolutions up to 1080p with multi-channel sound, for linking a portable device with a big-screen TV, according to Silicon Image. The company also included MHL, (Mobile High-Definition Link), a system for wired high-speed connections between mobile devices and home electronics.
4. HomePlug AV2
HomePlug is a set of technologies for transmitting data over the electrical wiring in a home. It serves as the backbone of a network that reaches TVs, tablets, gaming consoles and other devices via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Adapters that plug into conventional wall sockets make that connection. HomePlug's latest iteration, HomePlug AV2, offers "gigabit-class" speeds and can transmit high-definition video streams from a central set-top box to TVs around the home. according to the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. HomePlug AV2 was introduced about a year ago. Qualcomm Atheros announced a HomePlug AV2 chipset in October and said it was shipping to manufacturers in sample quantities. That chipset offers throughput of more than 500M bps, Qualcomm Atheros said. HomePlug technologies will be demonstrated in the TechZone at CES.
5. MOCA 2.0
The Mutimedia over Coax Alliance's technology for home networking runs over the coaxial cables that sprout from the walls of most homes in North America and are also used in parts of Europe and Asia. Coax is the backbone of cable TV, and MOCA positions its MOCA 2.0 technology as ideal for distributing video around homes. It claims 400M bps of actual throughput in MOCA 2.0's standard mode and 800M bps in Enhanced Performance Mode. MOCA 2.0 should be able to distribute UltraHD video from a one set-top box to others, said Rob Gelphman, vice president of marketing and member relations at MOCA. Despite the long rivalry between MOCA and HomePlug, Gelphman said each is best in different situations. HomePlug can go into more rooms because it uses electrical sockets, while MOCA's hallmark is reliability, he said. "Nobody is the singular silver bullet," Gelphman said.
There's also a fresh, new standard that spans all wired media in homes, called G.hn (Gigabit Home Networking). Having one standard for powerline, coax, copper wire and plastic optical fiber allows vendors to make just one product for use with all those media, its backers say. G.hn is based on standards from the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) but doesn't interoperate with the technologies out there now. Last month, G.hn backers HomeGrid Forum announced they had issued their first certification of silicon. On Monday, Sigma Designs announced a G.hn chipset for distributing video, data and voice over coax, powerlines and copper wire. The company expects the CG5200 to be in volume production by the second quarter.
Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org