The home gateway has been talked about for long enough, but how many have actually been installed so far? Not a lot, and meanwhile its future appears to have been imperilled by the spectre of cloud services offering a safe and cheap place of unlimited capacity to store all that music and all those home videos, as well as providing the source of on demand pay TV content. But this negative equation between the gateway and the cloud is a false one, for actually the two are going to march forward together. The cloud may well be the place where personal and recorded content is stored, but the gateway will be the point of control, mediating between the external network based services and the increasingly diverse functions executed within the digital home.
This point has not been lost on the more astute vendors of both hardware and software for home gateways, as can be seen from a clutch of recent product announcements. One that stands out for me came from Arris with the introduction of its Touchstone family of wireless voice and data gateways. Arris deals in CPE and infrastructure for the cable TV industry, although now prefers to set out its stall as a broadband services company. Touchstone therefore is for cable operators only, but for the first time Arris is making as much play about the features on the home network side as on the HFC (Hybrid Fibre Coax) front. Arris describes it as a game changer, presumably both for itself and its cable TV customers. Such rhetoric can often be dismissed as marketing puff, but on this occasion it is about right. Whether the Touchstone family itself proves to be the game changer remains to be seen, but the shift in emphasis that it represents on the CPE front most certainly is. It is no coincidence that some of Arris’ largest customers such as Comcast of the US, the world’s number one cable TV operator with over 20 million subscribers, have been clamouring for this product and plan to start deploying it before the year is out.
On the HFC side, Arris is touting its channel bonding, which increases available bandwidth by aggregating up to 24 channels together. It was notable the strong emphasis Arris is placing on upstream bandwidth to meet increasing demand, generated partly by cloud services, for uploading content rather than just consuming it within the home. On the home networking side, Arris was trumpeting its inclusion of Celeno’s CLR260 3x3:3 chipset, which is pretty much state of the science for home Wi-Fi technology with various enhancements to the standard MIMO technology, including transmit beam forming, which involves coordination of multiple transmission antennae such that radio waves from each interfere constructively at the receiving end to boost the overall signal and hence increase both range and bit rate. Other important add ons aimed more at dealing with interference both from physical objects and radio signals are Tunneled Direct Link Setup, designed to focus available bandwidth on the actual point to point links in operation at the time, and real time channel hopping, aiming to find the best part of the spectrum at a given moment for transmission.
The underlying message behind developments such as the Arris gateway is the continuing proliferation of broadband services, as confirmed by the latest data from the Broadband Forum indicating that global broadband subscriptions have soared to over 624 million by the end of Q2 2012 compare with about 565 million a year earlier. The Forum itself argues that this presents a huge opportunity for broadband operators to exploit the connected home, as they control the means of service delivery. This must all be music to the ears of the few software companies that have specialized in the home gateway, notably French based SoftAtHome, which was ahead of its time with its SOP (Software Operating Platform), but it now looks as if the rest of the industry is catching up. SoftAtHome has a modular platform that is hardware independent, and supports not just existing broadband delivered services such as TV, but also what the company believes will be big emerging applications in the digital home, such as home security, environmental control, and eventually remote healthcare. This is a good place to be if, as Arris claims, the game has indeed changed to one favoring the fat home gateway as an equal partner with the cloud.