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Multimedia Consumers: Large and in Charge!

In my last column, we discussed some of the many ways packet-switched networking technologies are extending their reach and availability, from an already powerful backbone infrastructure to the last-mile ubiquity that ultimately holds the key to increased profitability. So, as promised, let's examine some of the changes taking place within the walls of these increasingly digital kingdoms we call homes.

BLACK ARTS

As recently as five years ago, finding a house wired for Ethernet was a sure sign that its occupier was thoroughly versed on the black arts of IP-config manipulation, net masks and other such technical flotsam. Two years later, there was a veritable explosion of DHCP-enabled, $29.95 router/switcher combinations that deftly performed Network Address Translation (NAT) and offered easily configurable firewalls, allowing us to easily connect all our computers to the same broadband connection.

From an aesthetic standpoint, it was hard to beat the decorating value of gray Cat5 stretching from your den to the living room. Today, fashionable cocktail party discussions center on which proprietary flavor of enhanced 802.11g offers the best throughput for multimedia. Two years from now, multihop wireless networks will utilize Software Defined Radios (SDRs) to seamlessly integrate multiple physical layers and Medium Access Control (MAC) layers from a variety of devices connected to the network.

Whereas your Internet traffic, including the Voice-over-IP (VoIP) that your cable company is dying to offer you, will be easily accommodated by 802.11, the signal going from your HD-DVR to your new plasma screen might require the additional horsepower of ultrawideband (UWB) with its theoretical maximum of 188 Mbps for distances up to 35 feet or 660 Mbps within 15 feet.

Either way, I think we can all agree that we are not going to miss the rat's nest of cables behind our entertainment centers.

Did I say "entertainment centers?" How quaint! Don't get me wrong. I love multiple pieces of equipment as much as the next guy and I'm a sucker for dozens of shiny buttons, but I can't help but be intrigued by a powerful PC-based media center that allows me to store all my permanent and transient digital assets in a single, easily accessible, shareable and secure consolidated environment.

Within 18 months, we will see such an integrated system sporting a multiple terabyte RAID 5 storage array that will safely conserve home movies, Hollywood blockbusters, music, photos and documents. It will seamlessly interface with Internet, cable, over-the-air, satellite television, radio, speakers, car A/V system, PDA and personal audio devices. You will see television in your laptop and respond to e-mail on your 56-inch DLP set (I know, I know. You already do that...).

It will cost less that $2,000, and it will include upgradable software modules that will automatically ensure that not only do you have the latest performance and security patches to your operating system, but also the latest available version of your ATSC tuner software.

And so the picture in the puzzle emerges-Powerful, easily scalable Dense Wave Division Multiplexing (DWDM)-based backbones, combined with rapidly evolving multimegabit last-mile solutions and inexpensive, wireless, user-friendly home digital asset management systems will combine to empower the multimedia consumer in the near future.

And it is not as if we haven't clearly demonstrated our willingness to spend substantial discretionary income in the creation and maintenance of our digital dens. After all, home theater setups comprise the fastest growing segment of the consumer electronics market, and the average cable/DBS bill keeps going up without any erosion to the market.

From a broadcast business standpoint, audience fragmentation, personal scheduling and commercial skipping will continue to increase, and we will do well to adapt to these new consumer patterns. Leveraging content across a variety of distribution channels was a daring idea during the heady days of the Internet.

Temporarily, it fell prey to the dual-headed monster of immature business models and inadequate distribution networks, but rest assured that it will come back with a vengeance as we continue to demolish the obstacles to its success. It behooves us then to create the infrastructures and corporate knowledge that take advantage of all the distribution methods flooding the marketplace.

If history is of any help, we need only look at the music business to discern where television will be within a couple of years. If you take away bandwidth and storage requirements-and technology is rapidly doing that-nothing prevents it from working the same way.

After all, if it can be done, if it addresses a human need/want and, more importantly, if there is money to be made from it, it will happen! Faster and faster! You can count on IT!