Low-cost alternative for home networking

08 Jun 2006

Wi-Fi is widely seen as an obvious and easy solution for home networking, but when it comes to sending video around the house, a handful of vendors - Infineon Technologies the most high-profile among them - are recommending plastic optical fiber (POF) for the job.

POF, which carries lightwaves across a plastic fiber rather than glass, has been around for years, but despite early hype as a cheap alternative to glass fiber that was also easier to install, the plastic fiber's attenuation properties limited its range to 100 meters. Also, wavelengths required for carrier-class optical transmission were more than POF could reasonably handle.

Consequently, POF has found use mainly in the automotive sector. However, companies like Infineon and Firecomms have recently released transceivers designed to promote POF as a home networking solution.

Designed for video

Last month, for example, Infineon announced a POF-to-Ethernet transceiver, which is being pitched as a low-cost way to wire up a home for video distribution.

'To do video on a home network, you need cabling that is capable of handling it, especially once high-definition video arrives, and the wiring in many homes aren't up to the job,' says Erwin Ysewijn, vice president of marketing at Infineon's CPE business unit.

Ethernet is viable for video in terms of speed and performance, although POF can reach throughput speeds more than double that of Fast Ethernet. But leaving aside the speed issue, a more practical consideration, says Ysewijn, is the fact that most homes do not come with Category 5 cabling.

'If you install Ethernet cabling, it's expensive. POF is much less expensive, around 35 or 36 cents per meter. The cost will go down further when it is in mass deployment.'

Ysewijn adds that Ethernet cabling is also difficult to mount and it doesn't look very nice, while POF is easier to install and hide. 'It bends around corners better without losing performance. You can also cut it to length easily.'

The POF transceiver allows users to connect existing broadband modems to a set-top box or TV. In the longer term, Infineon expects that designers of broadband gateways and IP set-top boxes will integrate the transceiver into their products.

'It's essentially a dongle solution now,' says Ysewijn, 'but a lot of our customers are showing interest in this.'

Of course, wireless solutions like Wi-Fi and UWB have long been touted as an easy way to hook up home networking devices, but Ysewijn argues that wireless won't cut it for stable video transmission.

'Wi-Fi spectrum will be shared with too many other devices, so you can't guarantee that the bandwidth will be available,' he says. 'If you have two HDTV screens in your home, you need at least 15 to 20 Mbps per screen to send video to them, and APs right now can't handle that level of capacity if you've got other devices running broadband Internet and streaming audio.'

That said, Ysewijn readily admits that POF is more likely to co-exist with Wi-Fi in the home than replace it.

'There will always be Wi-Fi connectivity in home networks, and it's fine for data transmission and audio. Even the set-top box makers say you shouldn't use Wi-Fi for video. You need high speed and reliability for video, and for that POF is the best.'

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