It is an appealing concept: a single distribution point or gateway that takes in, stores and manages content of all kinds from a broadband link and transmits it around your home so you are able to view or hear whatever you want, wherever you are – living room, kitchen, bedroom or study.
But the home hub is no new vision. Alex Holt, head of media for the international telecommunications operator Cable and Wireless points out that in the US, for example, consumers have been able, at a price, to create a digital home for years: “What we have been waiting for is a mass market product capable of functioning as a home hub. Microsoft has been trying to do that with its games console, the Xbox,” he says.
The home hub is, in essence, a powerful processor capable of handling a high capacity data stream, lots of memory and a way of connecting to devices such as televisions, games consoles, hi-fi systems and telephone handsets via either wires or radio.
Wireless is the preferred option. Stringing bulky ethernet cabling round a traditional home is a logistical nightmare. Powerline – where the signals travel over conventional electrical power wiring – is another possibility.
The first hubs suitable for the consumer market are already on the market. Orange, the French-owned mobile operator formerly known as Wanadoo, has installed 2.5m of the devices, manufactured by Thomson of France and called the “Lifebox”, across Europe.
The box is capable of delivering television and voice telephony over internet technology (IPTV and VoIP) and delivers services wirelessly through the home. Fierce competition between new competitors including Iliad and Neuf-Cegetel have resulted in France leading the western world in high-capacity broadband.
Others countries are entering the fray. Late last month BT, the UK telecoms operator, announced its version of the service using the same Thomson-built device and with a similar range of options. These include internet television and free voice calls as well as wireless networking for PCs and security monitoring and control.
A well-designed and reliable home hub can be “very sticky” according to Frederick Huet of Greenwich Consulting, who points out that once consumers are benefiting from free or cheap voice calls and have stored their own images and music on the hub there is little incentive to move to another supplier.
But underperformance can exact a high price. Eric Abensur from Orange explains: “We put a box in our customer’s home. Devices like gaming stations, telephone handsets, mobile phones, set top boxes, digital cameras and hi-fi equipment will all be connected to this box. It is the heart of the home networking service. It relies on this box. If the customer is not happy with the box either during the set-up process or in use, it will be a big challenge for us.”
The emergence of wireless hubs such as the Thomson device should not be regarded as the end of the debate over the future of broadband in the home: the personal computer, the games console and the television set-top box all have valid claims to be considered the digital gateway.
Paul Jackson of the consultancy Forrester Research argues that there has been no real breakthrough yet in demand for the gateway: “The PC is flexible and powerful enough for video and audio processing and about 70 per cent of homes in the developed world have one. The main stumbling block has been: what would you do with one? There are not enough compelling applications. Consumers aren’t rioting in the streets to get their hands on a home gateway.”
Alan Coad from of the systems integrator LogicaCMG says one question is whether the home network will turn out to be server-centric – that is, the power will reside in the hub – or network-centric: “Our belief is that the network-centric model will win,” he says, arguing that consumers in future will log on, through any network connected device, to their “personal service portal” via an easy-to-use security system – probably fingerprint recognition or another biometric trait.
As with so many of today’s technological developments, ease of use and reliability is seen as key. “Our view is that the biggest risk to the great vision of the digital home is complexity,” says Kenny Van Zant of Motive, a Texas-based software group run by Alfred Mockett, the former BT senior executive. “There is a point where consumers are overwhelmed by the complexity of all the things coming at them.”
Motive provides software that automatically and transparently manages the elements of the digital home so that the complexity is hidden from the consumer.
Its customers include AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom and Telewest.
Are, however, today’s high capacity wireless (Wi-Fi) systems up to the job of delivering high definition television seamlessly through the home.
Ruckus Wireless, a Silicon Valley-based company thinks not, and has developed hardware and software to solve the problem.
Conventional omnidirectional antennae distribute the signal in all directions at once wasting much of the energy.
Ruckus has designed a six-element antenna that can be aimed through walls and doors at receivers such as TVs and PCs. Software hunts for interference and ensures that dropped packets of data are re-sent. Rob Mustarde of Ruckus claims it is the way to guarantee smooth and uninterrupted moving pictures over Wi-Fi.
But the advent of the digital home will depend on more than hardware and software. There is an enormous amount of material that could be delivered to the home and filtering it represents a significant challenge for the service providers.
“It is the willingness and ability of an organisation to make an individual feel that all of that content can be theirs,” says Mr Holt of Cable and Wireless.
“The question that defines this issue is: ‘How do I get to what I want to watch?’” he says, pointing out that consumers are making choices all the time.
“There is a pattern to it but nobody is capturing it.”