The battle for broadband digital services is focused on the last few yards — which utility line is used to feed the bits into the home. But these days you can buy TV service from the phone company, phone service from the cable TV company, and possibly feed Internet service via one of many pipes, including the power line. You can also buy Homeplug Powerline products to network through your home’s electrical wires (www.homeplug.org), or transmit triple-play services though existing coax cable and phone lines (HomePNA, Home Phoneline Networking Association, www.homepna.org).
And that’s not all.
At the extreme, there’s Google’s April Fool’s offering called TiSP (Toilet Internet Service Provider), a broadband service that would make use of a standard toilet and sewage lines to provide free Internet connectivity: “free, fast and sanitary online access” (www.google.com/tisp).
One step up from the sewer, and toward liberating the TV, the CableLabs CableCARD standard promises to free TVs from the need for a separate and proprietary set-top box (www.opencable.com/primer/cablecard_primer.html). Instead, TVs, PCs, and general-purpose digital video recorders will support a slot for a CableCARD removable security module that authorizes access to a specific cable network. The new 2.0 specifications support two-way communications for ordering interactive services.
But why waste time with multiple wires to and around the house? Once you have an Internet connection, all the other services can be provided as data riding over the broadband connection.
Why have a dedicated phone wire to your house? Instead, you can keep your number, but make and receive calls from anywhere you can find an Internet connection in any number of ways:
For phone service, PC software like Skype let you use you PC audio cards and webcams to make free audio (and video) calls from computer to computer. Skype offers plans for unlimited calls to any phone in the U.S. and Canada for less than $3 per month (www.skype.com).
VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services like Vonage connect your phones to an adaptor to route your calls over the Internet (www.vonage.com). You keep your phone number, but it’s no longer associated with a specific physical location.
New phone handsets are combining traditional phone service, VOIP, and mobile connections in one device to answer calls however they are made, and make calls over the most cost-effective service.
Similarly, why pay for a dedicated TV cable chained to a set-top box, when you can access much more content over the Internet, and view the shows on your big widescreen PC monitor, which may already have higher resolution than HDTV:
The Vongo video on demand service, for example, brings the Starz premium cable service to your computer (www.vongo.com). Vongo offers more than 1,800 feature films, concerts, sports and more, as well as a live streaming Starz TV channel, for $9.99 a month. Pay-per-view titles are available for $3.99 per movie.
Or for a more cable TV-like experience, the MobiTV service originally offered for wireless phones now is available for PCs as AT&T Broadband TV (att.mobitv.com). That’s some 30 channels of live streaming TV on your PC for $19.99 per month.
Or connect the Internet to your television with an IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) service that uses a set-top box to provide a cable-like experience, but with all the data flowing over your Internet connection, independent of any cable service. IPTV actually can refer to services like FiOS, and digital cable can be counted as IPTV if they use Internet protocols to transfer the TV service to your home over a dedicated network connection.
For example, Digeo develops IPTV boxes that are deployed through cable operators (www.digeo.com) and Microsoft TV develops IPTV software for cable networks and broadband providers (www.microsoft.com/tv). In addition, companies like VUDU also are developing set-top boxes that deliver movies over the Internet to your TV (www.vudulabs.com).
Even better, why have wires at all? Mobile phone service has swept the planet, not only providing service on the go, but also displacing landline service in broad areas like college dorms.
Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) brings digital television service from the sky, including DIRECTV, with over 250 channels and 16 million subscribers (www.directv.com) and EchoStar DISH Network with more than 13 million customers (www.dishnetwork.com).
And Internet service can be wireless as well. We’ve come to expect that Wi-Fi service will be available from coffee houses and airports (Wi-Fi Alliance, www.wi-fi.org). Wi-Fi currently provides data rates of 11 Mbps (IEEE 802.11b) or 54 Mbps (802.11a,g). Find a hot spot at the Wi-Fi ZONE, currently listing over 150,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in 135 countries (http://wi-fi.jiwire.com).
For service to entire neighborhoods, WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) technology is designed to provide service over long distances (WiMAX Forum, www.wimaxforum.org). Typical “last mile” deployments are expected to support a radius of three to ten kilometers, delivering up to 40 Mbps. Mobile network deployments are expected to provide up to 15 Mbps within up to three kilometers.
Meanwhile, the mobile phone networks are being upgraded to offer faster data services, and now can provide Internet service not only to your mobile phone or PDA, but also to your PC though a wireless modem PC card.
For example, Verizon Wireless has upgraded its BroadbandAccess EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) service to Revision A, with typical download speeds of 600 kbps to 1.4 mbps and typical upload speeds of 500 to 800 kbps. Data service starts at $59.99 per month — not so bad if you’re often paying $10 a day for Internet service in hotels.
You could go totally untethered and location-less — drop all your services except mobile Internet through your PC, use VOIP for your phone calls, and use an IPTV service to watch television and movies. However, you would end up swamping the cell phone network, and the mobile carrier would then need to explain its definition of “unlimited” data service.