Into the Ether

Ethernet is becoming the transport mechanism of choice for all types of residential products.
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There was a time, not long ago, when computer networks were reserved for corporate facilities and educational institutions. These days, a significant portion of residences are equipped with their own Local Area Networks (LAN), largely thanks to the ethernet protocol.

People want to network their equipment; they want to link things together. That is true in both the commercial and residential markets, observed Jason Frenchman, corporate communications director at Crestron (www.crestron.com) in Rockleigh, New Jersey. People want the ability to link different rooms in the house together, and they want to link their systems together. In the case of Crestron users, they may want to link different residences. You see people monitoring things from wherever they arefrom their computer or their PDAso ethernet plays a huge role, he said.

Ethernet is really becoming the transport mechanism of choice for all types of products, whether they be control systems or data networking. Even TVs and other devices have ethernet connectivity, said Rashid Skaf, executive vice president of marketing at the AMX Corp. (www.amx.com) in Richardson, Texas. I think that in the next several years, every single product will have an ethernet connection on it. I dont care how simplistic the device may be. Three to five years from now, I dont think there will be such a thing as a proprietary interface anymore.

For manufacturers of A/V and control products, the ethernet standard has provided a means of offering distribution over a reliable network. Ethernet is a strong and proven medium, noted Herman Cardenas, president NetStreams (www.netstreams.com) in Austin, Texas. Although, over time, wireless technologies will play an increasing role in the home, today dealers installing networking products prefer to do it over ethernet for reliability and simplicity reasons.

Cardenas added, however, that ethernet is strictly a standard for a medium that uses CAT 5, and it does not guarantee communication compatibility between products, except at the hardware level.

At LiteTouch (www.litetouch.com) in Salt Lake City, Utah, the ethernet protocol has enabled the manufacturer to have its products easily sit on the home network. We want to be able to provide custom installers with more capabilities in terms of connecting their customers lighting systems along with the rest of their distributed audio and security systems, said Greg Giauque, LiteTouchs technical trainer.

We gave our central processor ethernet capability, and being able to put an IP address on it so that it could become known to a LAN is very important.

In doing this, LiteTouch has increased efficiency, noted Doug Campbell, the companys director of sales and marketing. Ethernet represents an opportunity to exist and coexist with other home automation systems where all the systems speak the same language, he said. If we are all speaking the same language, things become very efficient and very cost effective.

Like other manufacturers of IP-based products, NetStreams adopted ethernet because of its promise. Ethernet and TCP-IP together is the winning ticket for networked entertainment and home control, Cardenas said. More and more manufacturers are interfacing their systems and products using ethernet and TCP-IP. NetStreams chose this medium and protocol years ago when it began the development of its IP-based products because it believed that the combination would surface as the winning standard for control and A/V distribution. By using proven industry standards, not only do NetStreams products benefit from almost instant interoperability with many other products, but it also allows NetStreams to focus on developing advanced yet simple-to-use applications that benefit its users.

As consumer awareness increases, so too, will expectations. What it will do is start to make people aware that higher quality transport mediums are going to be necessary in order to do high quality streaming of audio and video, said Jeff Kussard, vice president of strategic development at Russound (www.russound.com) in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Ethernet was not designed to do what we are doing with it right now in consumer electronics. In general, we are pushing the boundaries of the protocol by streaming audio and video over it. In the long term, I think the best thing that ethernet is going to do for us is to simply start us on the road toward quality streaming of audio and video.

Kussard added that currently, things like MP3-quality audio and audio streaming over ethernet have taken the quality of the content down several notches. Its a step backwards now. There are those of us who have been looking toward the day when true implementation of high-quality transport mediums are in place, and the more complacent we become, the more mandates that we stick on ethernet platforms, he said. I am hopeful that platforms like ethernet will simply point the way for the manufacturing community and consumers toward something better.

Those manufacturers that opt to continue employing ethernet must ensure that users have positive experiences. Ethernet is going to be pervasive; every house where there is a reasonable income will have multiple PCs on a network with broadband ports sharing resources, said Bob Farinelli, president and CTO at ELAN Home Systems (www.elanhomesystems.com) in Lexington, Kentucky. With respect to integration and tying it all together, I think there is going to be some shake up, because in some cases its going to be good, and in some cases its not going to be good. I think user experience is really important for manufacturers to consider, and some will do that well and some will not as they introduce products, he added.

One of the big concerns that we have as we train people to do these projects is whether we are handling the network properly, admitted Michael Pyle, CEO and co-founder of Aurant (www.aurant.com), a custom installation company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. As things get bigger and bigger, more things are going on, and its going to get very congested. We are looking at fiber switches and other ways to deal with the network. For every door ethernet opens, it makes it more congested, and I think fiber will be the next step.

Still, as consumers continue to take advantage of what ethernet has to offer, the home network will evolve. Over the next three to five years, not only will you see an increase in networkable consumer electronics and custom home systems in the market; you can also expect to see a significant number of services made available to consumers that will enhance their lifestyles and increase the benefit of the products they buy for their homes, Cardenas predicted. Audio and video pushed from sources on a rack with centralized control at the rack will be a thing of the past. Big and centralized amplifiers and fat cables to allow the best quality of audio distribution will also be a thing of the past. Sources, including cable boxes, will all migrate to digital storage and streaming on an ethernet home network, including FM, AM, satellite radio and television.

For custom installation companies like Aurant, the ethernet protocol has enabled the specification of systems that are non-proprietary. Now that there is a standard with over-IP protocol, a lot of other industries are going to be able to help us out and make it easier for us to integrate systems into homes, Pyle said. Before we were such a small, tight, fragmented industry that no one knew what to do to help us. Now with ethernet, everyone knows how to do that. The options and possibilities will grow exponentially because everyone can add to it. We dont have to go to that expensive proprietary path anymore; we can go the inexpensive standardized approach.

Carolyn Heinze (carolyn@carolynheinze.com) works from her office in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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