Raising a Ruckus

By Gerry Blackwell

June 01, 2006

The best home networking solution for IPTV might be the wireless solution.

When Oklahoma-based Pioneer Telephone Cooperative installs a new IPTV subscriber, technicians typically rewire the customer's home from top to bottom. They run standard Ethernet Cat-5 cabling through walls from the Pioneer network interface device (NID) outside to the modem in a home office or den, and from there to three TV set-top boxes in different rooms.

The job takes about three to three and a half hours, so the labor involved represents a significant cost. The installation is also disruptive for customers and if they want to move a TV later or add another, it means Pioneer has to come out again.

The company has been doing it this way since it began rolling out IPTV to rural and small town Oklahoma in July 2004. Today, it serves 73 communities and has about 5,400 subscribers. The company's aim was to grab 35 percent of the available market within the first two years. It's on track to do that, says video products manager Scott Ulsaker. But provisioning was time-consuming and expensive. It needed to be fixed.

Earlier this year, Pioneer started testing a solution from Silicon Valley startup Ruckus Wireless that it believes will radically improve its provisioning process. Ruckus makes Wi-Fi wireless gear tailored for distributing multimedia in the home. Pioneer has found in its testing that it only takes about 45 minutes to an hour to set up the wireless equipment in a typical three-TV installation.

When purchased in volume, a pair of Ruckus devices—an MF2900 Wi-Fi router connected to the broadband modem and an MF2501 adapter (functioning much like a Wi-Fi Ethernet bridge) connected to the TV set-top box—will cost between $100 and $130. According to Pioneer's calculations, the savings on labor mean the Ruckus solution may be slightly less expensive than rewiring, but it brings more important benefits as well.

The provisioning process today takes four to five days from receipt of the customer's order to the service being set up and turned on, and two truck rolls. Using the Ruckus gear will allow Pioneer to reduce that to one truck roll and 24 to 48 hours elapsed time from order to provisioning—which means the customer revenue stream starts that much sooner.

"We figured we'd break even or see a slight decrease [in cost per installation]," says Ulsaker. "But where we saw our real positive points was on the quicker return to revenue. Plus the ease for the customer." If a customer wants to move a TV from one end of the room to another, the customer can do so, now, without assistance from the ISP.

Smart radio

Wi-Fi has always been an option for distributing IPTV signals in the home, but standard 802.11 technology is unreliable and too vulnerable to interference. "The one thing that is constant in Wi-Fi is its inconsistency," says Ruckus marketing director David Callisch. "[Radio frequency] in a home is always changing. People come into the room, they shut doors, they pick up a cordless phone, a neighbor turns on their [wireless] network. That's not a big problem if you're just surfing the 'net, but it is for video."

Interference can cause delays in IP packet delivery or loss of packets, which in turn results in degraded video—jerky motion or pixelization. The Ruckus gear uses a combination of technologies to solve these problems.

Chief among them are a patent-pending multi-element antenna design used in both the router and adapter products, coupled with sophisticated network traffic management and antenna control software. They allow a Ruckus system to select the optimal path between router and adapter on which to send packets and to concentrate RF energy on that path rather than spraying the signal as most Wi-Fi antennas do.

"Based on the quality of the link and the responses it's getting from the other end, [the system] can steer [the signal] in a different direction on a moment's notice, picking the best antenna [element] and path on a packet-by-packet basis," Callisch explains. "If it starts to see a degradation, it automatically switches to a different antenna pair."

Using a Ruckus router and adapter together gives the Wi-Fi system 53 possible paths from which to choose. "The best performance is when you have our technology on both ends," explains Ruckus president and CEO Selina Lo. "But you can see some benefits even if you're using somebody else's wireless router."

Ruckus developed the antenna and software technology over a two year period. "A lot of people know how to make multi-element antennas," Lo concedes, "but to make it small enough to fit in a consumer electronics product takes a certain science. The second item, the software controlling the antenna, is really where the smarts are." The third leg of the Ruckus stool is technology that solves problems with reliability of multi-cast streams from the IPTV modem.

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