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Make way for faster, smarter, cloud-savvy networks

Networks are getting faster and smarter--and vendors are preparing a slew of new security cameras and media streamers.

Network gear may not be the sexiest stuff at the International CES, but it provides the infrastructure for lots of cool gadgets and cloud services on display here. And those products will benefit from the improved networks and network devices that vendors plan to ship this year.

One example of these trends came from D-Link, which announced a gaming router based on the draft 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard and on Qualcomm Atheros' new StreamBoost technology for bandwidth management. It's due around mid-year and price will be announced then.

StreamBoost, which Qualcomm Atheros announced last week, differs from existing QoS (quality of service) technology--including the IEEE's own 802.11e spec--in that it allocates bandwidth based on the actual requirements of applications running on connected devices in real time. (Many QoS technologies simply prioritize application bandwidth requests, which often far exceed actual requirements.) The D-Link Gaming router, expected to appear around midyear, will be one of the first to incorporate StreamBoost.

With a StreamBoost-enabled router, you'll be able to not only map every device on your network, but see what application (or application type) it's running and how much bandwidth it is actually using. An optional StreamBoost cloud service will constantly update the software's intelligence about app and device bandwidth needs.

The rush to 802.11ac

Lots of vendors are already shipping (or about to ship) routers based on the IEEE 802.11ac wireless ethernet standard, the successor to 802.11n that promises nominal speeds of up to 1300 megabits per second--in other words, faster than gigabit ethernet. D-Link itself announced two other ac routers at the show, and a company called EnGenius that has previously been selling primarily to businesses announced three consumer-focused models. All this is happening even though Wi-Fi Alliance officials say the IEEE is unlikely to formally ratify the standard before next fall.

However, no one expects the final standard to differ significantly from the draft version (at most you'll simply have to upgrade firmware), and the Wi-Fi Alliance plans to begin its 802.11ac certification program--which runs tests to ensure compatibility between products from different vendors--in April.

In a private meeting cubicle concealed from the Las Vegas Convention Center crowds, Alliance officials at CES also demoed some of the first products based on its Miracast spec for displaying content stored on Wi-Fi enabled devices on an HDTV. This is useful for both businesses that want to put presentations on big screens and consumers that want to watch web video on their TV without having to use a home network.

Miracast requires support at both ends to enable the sender and recipient devices to make a Wi-Fi Direct (peer to peer) connection. Legacy devices can add Miracast support by using third-party adapters, such as the ActionTec ScreenBeam Wireless Display Kit that the Alliance used in its demo along with the Netgear Push2TV (PTV3000), which also supports Intel's competing (and proprietary) WiDi technology.

The Wi-Fi Alliance also recently absorbed the trade group supporting Wi-Gig, the ultrafast but short-range 60mhz wireless technology designed primarily to replace unsightly cables connecting HDTVs to peripherals and laptops to docking stations. This should speed up long-awaited product releases.

Leveraging the cloud HDTV 

Many networking products now come with built-in support for free or fee-based cloud services. D-Link offers remote monitoring across its Cloud Router line (which is growing with the two aforementioned 802.11ac products. EnGenius announced separate cloud service offerings for businesses and consumers, due to launch by spring; the business service lets you monitor switches as well as access points, while the consumer service will include remote access to media.

Home entertainment continues to drive new product announcements: Netgear is introducing a NeoTV Prime media streamer with Google TV support, while Asus announced the Asus Qube, which also delivers Google TV and a remote that also lets you control the device with voice or gestures. Reflecting increased consumer adaption, routers and other networking gear continues to arrive in diverse industrial design, from D-Link's dark cylindrical towers to the "pod" theme of EnGenius's consumer line.

But this year, media streamers ceded the spotlight to more business-oriented networking hardware: IP cameras primarily for use in remote surveillance of small businesses and homes. All major network vendors now have an IP camera line, and at the show at least three of them--D-Link, Netgear and DropCam--were showcasing newer models that support night vision.

Vendors are also diversifying their related cloud offerings. Typically, vendors will let you access at least a couple of live camera feeds for free via a browser or mobile app, but charge service fees for extra cameras or for recording and/or storing video.

The explosion in network adoption in homes and small businesses is luring new vendors to the category. For example, longtime scanner vendor Plustek now sells routers designed to work with their IP cameras, along with the cloud services to go with them. Plustek plans to sell the product and service on a whilte-label basis--that is, to vendors (such as telecommunications or cable operators) who will market them under their own brand name.

A messy wired networking market

While Wi-Fi is fairly well entrenched as a worldwide wireless standard, at least some vendors are still fighting over non-ethernet wired technologies. HomePlug and MoCA currently dominate for powerline and coax networks, respectively, but the HomeGrid Forum continues to promote the development and deployment of products based on the International Telecommunications Union's G.hn standard for all wired network types (i.e. powerline, coax, home phone line and plastic optical fibre). G.hn stands for gigabit home networking.

The goal is to support and ensure compatibility between all types of wired networks, and supporters include AT&T, Intel, Marvel, Motorola and others with an interest in addressing compatibility issues that continue to plague wired home networking technologies. At CES, the HomeGrid Forum was showing adapters from several chipmakers and vendors--but facing fierce opposition from current wired-home networking vendors, who have little motivation to switch from whatever current technology they support to yet another new solution, G.hn will likely have an uphill fight.

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out complete coverage of CES 2013 from PCWorld and TechHive.


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