IEEE-1394 and other home- networking approaches

I was asked to sit on a panel of experts for the technical seminar entitled "Residential Cabling Infrastructure-Are You Ready?" at the Fall 2000 BICSI (Tampa, FL) Conference in Nashville, TN

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I was asked to sit on a panel of experts for the technical seminar entitled "Residential Cabling Infrastructure-Are You Ready?" at the Fall 2000 BICSI (Tampa, FL) Conference in Nashville, TN. When I realized that the standard commonly known simply as "1394" was going to be part of the discussion, I knew that I was not ready. All I knew about 1394 was from a cabling perspective. In case you are ever in a similar situation, I will share what I learned while cramming for the "quiz."

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1394 is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE-New York City) IEEE-1394-1995 standard for the High Performance Serial Bus and its two revisions. The revisions are 1394a and the proposed 1394b, which defines a serial data-transfer protocol and interconnection system that "provides the same services as modern IEEE-standard parallel buses, but at a much lower cost," according to the IEEE. While 1394 incorporates rather advanced technology, it's the "much-lower-cost" feature that assured adoption for the digital video and audio consumer markets.

The convergence of personal computers and consumer electronics has created the need for a common digital interface. "Convergence" is a word that is being used a lot these days. Basically, it refers to the fact that everything is now going digital. Telephone lines, cable TV, and satellite transmission all are moving toward strictly digital media. IEEE-1394 is an industry standard for a digital interface that integrates consumer electronics and PCs.

Once an electronic device is 1394- enabled, it can share data with other 1394-enabled devices and be controlled by a computer. If that computer is connected to the Internet, control can be extended worldwide. Ever wonder what's going on at your home when you are not there? With a 1394-enabled home-security system that includes some remote eyes (miniature video cameras) and ears (audio-surveillance equipment), you could see and hear exactly what's going on in and around your house from your office computer, or your wireless handheld computer, from just about anywhere.

In case your computer does not have a 1394 connector, several manufacturers offer 1394 adapter cards. But you do not need a computer to take advantage of 1394's capabilities. For example, we all want to capture those special, cherished moments in our lives so we can enjoy them again later. But how many "Kodak moments" are you getting out of 32 exposures? Now you can capture and keep the special moments, and trash the rest. Then you can print only the pictures you like, from any 1394-enabled still camera or video camera directly to a 1394-enabled printer. Or, you can connect a 1394-enabled VCR directly to a 1394-enabled camcorder, TV set, stereo receiver, amplifier, or other home-theater component.

IEEE-1394 has been accepted as the standard digital interface by the Digital VCR Conference (DVC), and the European Digital Video Broadcasters (DVB) have endorsed IEEE-1394 as their digital television interface as well. And many new non-video products, including PCs, digital still cameras, printers, network hubs, and storage devices are also 1394-enabled. The Video Experts Standards Association is evaluating IEEE-1394 for use in digital home networks.

Digital only

Analog equipment, like your old VHS VCR, Hi8 camcorder, or TV, cannot communicate via 1394. Only digital electronic devices can talk to each other over 1394. Today, these devices include DV camcorders and VCRs, digital still cameras, digital set-top boxes, digital TV sets, and many computer peripheral devices.

If you have ever dreamed of turning on your home's central air-conditioning system or adjusting the temperature in your spa from your laptop, palmtop, or vehicle's dashboard computer before you arrive home, then there just may be a 1394 home network in your future.

As far as I can tell, the future of 1394 is wide open; the only thing slowing it down is standardization. The proposed IEEE-1394b standard has an extensive list of media choices, including Category 5 unshielded twisted-pair (UTP), fiber-less optical transmission (meaning optical transmission through the air), and both plastic- and glass-fiber media. The proposal actually specifies link speeds of 800, 1600, and 3200 Mbits/sec. IEEE-1394b has been forwarded to the IEEE for balloting, and prototype 800-Mbit/sec devices are already appearing at trade shows. Kind of sounds like an application for Category 6, doesn't it?

Following the seminar in Nashville, one attendee asked, "Does your home have a network?" My reply was brief: "Yes, but today most home networks, like mine, only connect PCs." I would like to add the following to that comment:

Until very recently, the home network was more of an armchair hobby than an infrastructure. But now all that is changing. Applications are being developed to incorporate other devices, like stereos, TVs, set-top boxes, security systems, and even major appliances. So what is the driving force behind this home-networking initiative? What else? The Internet. Today, consumers have broadband access via cable modems, digital subscriber line (DSL), or direct-broadcast satellite. They want broadband access not for just one PC, but for many PCs and non-PC devices located throughout the home.

To date, there are two groups with different visions of how home-networking technologies will develop. The PC- centric group sees a home network centered on a PC that functions somewhat like a home server. A second group believes that home networks do not necessarily need a PC, but could rely on a home gateway to act as an interface between the Internet and home network. This device will most likely be some type of set-top box or digital modem.

New wire, no-new-wire options

Those who will implement a home- networking solution have several options. One of the most basic is whether to install new cabling. Some networks use existing cabling or wireless technologies to network devices; these network types are commonly called "no-new-wires" solutions. Other set ups require cabling installation.

Most homeowners do not want to drill holes in their walls or staple cable along their baseboards from room to room, no matter how cool it would be to have the microwave contact "recipe central" for cooking instructions. The majority of existing residences are not cabled with UTP, coaxial cable, or fiber-a point many, but not all, manufacturers seem to overlook. HomePNA sees use of the existing telephone cable as its no-new-wires solution. HomeRF and Bluetooth see unlicensed radio-frequency (RF) digital communications as the best way to implement a no-new-wires solution. Other no-new-wires solutions, like X-10, use electric power for networking. X-10 is a powerline carrier protocol that allows compatible devices to communicate via existing 110-V house wiring.

The other choice is to use more traditional telecommunications cabling. Installing new cabling is much less painful during new construction or remodeling. And some networking technologies that require new cabling are very interesting; but now which should you install? The choices include Category 5 UTP Ethernet networking, high-speed IEEE-1394, and coaxial cable. It is likely that the new-wire solutions will be popular in the new-home-construction market.

Today, the new-wire solution with the most promise is IEEE-1394/HAVi. The HAVi specification, which functions as an operating system for connecting consumer electronic devices, uses IEEE-1394 as the underlying transport mechanism. All HAVi devices have a 1394 plug, but are not limited to just the 1394 interface-in case a manufacturer wants to have multiple interfaces on a single device.

So, what is in the crystal ball for the home network over the next few years? Analysts predict the no-new-wires networks will account for the majority of home-network backbones by the year 2003. But the home network of the future will be a combination of media types. Mobile devices, like PDAs and laptops, will be primarily RF-based. Gateways such as cable modems, DSL modems, and V.90 modems will use phone lines and RF transmission. Set-top boxes will likely use 1394, phone lines, and RF transmission for networking connectivity.

One key ingredient in the recipe for success is the availability of high-speed Internet access. That is simply crucial. More consumers with broadband Internet connections mean more consumers with home networks. Also, the interoperability of low-cost, user-friendly home-networking devices is essential. Standardization will bring about this interoperability, and bring down costs to the consumer.

Donna Ballast is a communications analyst at the University of Texas at Austin and a BICSI registered communications distribution designer (rcdd). Questions can be sent to her at Cabling Installation & Maintenance or at PO Drawer 7580, the University of Texas, Austin, TX 78713; tel: (512) 471-0112, e-mail:

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