Now that fiber optics is finally being used for a broadband connection to the home, it's time to consider if it has a use in the home. Its ability to provide virtually infinite bandwidth to the home can allow the delivery of all sorts of new services, especially high-definition TV (HDTV) and video on demand, a potential “killer application.”
Not only does fiber to the home (FTTH) open the doors to new services, it offers a chance for entertainment suppliers like cable TV companies to stay competitive. Just as data traffic exceeded voice traffic about three years ago, adults with broadband connections now spend more time on the Internet than watching TV. This may say more about the poor quality of TV programming than the high quality of Internet sites, but I suspect the real reason is the average user prefers absolute control over content to channel surfing and passive watching. Having video on demand, the ability to watch what you want, when you want, could make a big difference in viewing habits of users and revenue streams for service providers.
But once the pipeline to the home is opened, what happens in the home? Most homes today are woefully unprepared for distributing next-generation services. The typical home has a few phone connections and a few cable or satellite TV outlets, one of which may have a DSL or cable modem attached for broadband connection to a computer nearby. Few homes have structured cabling for network access to the Internet or coax for switched video.
Recent FCC rules require installing at least Category 3 UTP for phones in every home, but obviously that is inadequate for extensive multimedia applications. Likewise, Wi-Fi can allow multiple computers to connect to the Internet, or even distribute music throughout the home using Apple's low-cost hubs, but is incapable of distributing several channels of video. TV manufacturers are offering a wireless TV connection, but it's only for one channel and short distances.
What is missing here are standards for consumer electronics. The television industry can't decide on digital HDTV standards. Audio manufacturers use Toslink or IEEE 1394, both on copper wire or plastic optical fiber (POF). Home automation equipment companies have more standards than you can imagine. These devices operate over phone lines, power lines, network cabling and POF. Chaos reigns.
We claim fiber revolutionized the communications industry by offering virtually infinite bandwidth. We claim it dominates the backbone of commercial computer networks and security networks. Why then don't we install fiber in the home to futureproof it for the coming revolution in consumer multimedia?
Well, we don't have a clue what is going to happen with standards. Certainly fiber can offer the bandwidth, but does one need the lower performance of POF, compatible with today's consumer audio links, good bandwidth of multimode fiber as used in LANs, or the virtually infinite bandwidth of singlemode fiber like the connection to the home? Installing any of these is hard to justify, as long as no widely accepted standard exists.
My home has 13 Category 5e network drops and an equal number of phone and CATV jacks, but we're not quite average. We have a home office with five computers typically on the network. We have CATV with a cable modem and two digital cable boxes. I think we have phones in every room. We stream radio over the Internet and distribute sound over Cat 5. Yet, even though I'm president of the Fiber Optic Association, there's no fiber. Right now it's unnecessary in the home. We do, however, have conduit in place to run a fiber optic cable to our new workshop to provide a network drop, and we have media converters to allow connection over Cat 5 there.
If I had to guess, I'd say the next generation of consumer electronics will be a multimedia server, a high-powered PC with inputs for Internet access from a cable modem, DSL modem or FTTH connection. It will have inputs for CATV and maybe even satellite radio. Remote boxes connected to home-network cabling or maybe even wireless access points will be able to select various audio, video and data inputs, all in digital formats. Phone connections will be VoIP. Even video can be handled if digitized and switched one channel at a time. But none of this will happen on a large scale until standards are established.
If I had to make a prediction for the home network connection, I'd bet on hard-wired copper, Category 5e. POF is easy to install and has adequate bandwidth, but the cost is still higher than copper for most applications. Wireless is good for unwired homes and for those who want to roam around, using their laptop at the pool, for example, but still has problems with security, interference and bandwidth.
Surely any home being built today should have network cabling. The cost is no more than telephone wire and using bundled cable that includes data and video cables makes installation costs only marginally higher, just the cost of the additional jacks. While there is no way to really futureproof anything in today's fast-moving technology markets, the risk is small and the potential rewards great. EC
HAYES is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.