Startup Ruckus to help deliver video over WLANs

A Silicon Valley startup aims to solve the problems of sending video over Wi-Fi, looking to IPTV (Internet Protocol television) service providers as a highly motivated distribution channel.

Telecom carriers and cable operators that want to deliver successful IPTV services need a way to get voice, and especially video, from a gateway device to multiple devices around a home, according to Selina Lo, president and chief executive officer of Mountain View, California-based Ruckus Wireless Inc.

Ruckus, formerly known as Video54, on Monday launched a wireless LAN product line equipped with multiple antennas and software for maintaining a steady video stream. The line, which includes a router and an adapter, complies with the IEEE 802.11b/g standards and uses Ruckus technology on top of that, Lo said. Consumers can use the products with conventional gear from other vendors but will see the greatest benefit from an all-Ruckus network.

Cable operators and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) carriers preparing voice and IPTV service both face an in-home connectivity problem, according to Lo. Cable Internet services normally come into the home near the TV but not near a phone. DSL often comes in near a phone but far from a TV. Consumers don't want to run wires to every TV or phone in the house, so the best way to distribute the content is via wireless LAN, she said. Conventional Wi-Fi equipment, even gear that uses the upcoming 802.11n high-speed standard, won't adequately address the quality requirements, in her view.

"Multimedia is not about top-line bandwidth," Lo said. Rather, voice and video are uniquely sensitive to other factors such as delay and jitter, she said.

The Ruckus router can connect to either a cable or a DSL service, and the adapter is a client that attaches to a PC, set top box or other device via Ethernet. Ruckus attacked the quality-of-service issue by building six antennas into each access point and adapter and by developing special queuing capabilities in software.

A Ruckus router and adapter working together can set up 63 different paths for radio signals to get around obstacles or interference, thereby keeping a good connection alive as conditions change, Lo said. In addition, Ruckus software supports the IEEE 802.11e standard, which can put different types of packets in different queues, but provides more granular classification of traffic, she said. The Ruckus MF2900 router and MF2501 adapter will carry list prices of US$169 and $129, respectively.

PCCW Ltd., Hong Kong's incumbent fixed-line operator, hopes to roll out Ruckus access points this month to differentiate itself from other broadband providers in the densely populated Special Administrative Region of China, said Allen Wong, director of products for PCCW's consumer business.

The carrier offers IPTV on its DSL service, but subscribers who want to watch it in a different room from the DSL modem currently have to run a wire through the home to get a high-quality viewing experience, Wong said. They prefer not to use wires, so PCCW had to solve performance problems with wireless LANs, he said. Some problems are especially prevalent in Hong Kong, where most people live in high-rise apartment buildings: There tend to be many residential wireless LANs close together, which sometimes causes interference, and interior walls of solid cement -- hard for Wi-Fi to penetrate -- are common, Wong said.

In testing at PCCW, the beam-forming antenna systems of Ruckus access points have helped to literally bypass both of those problems and delivered a high-quality experience viewing the IPTV service, which takes up about 15M bps (bits per second), according to Wong. The video looks good even when running alongside a file-transfer application that takes up another 6M bps to 8M bps of bandwidth, as well as a VOIP (voice over IP) session, he said.

PCCW plans to give away the Ruckus gear as a free gift for new subscribers and sell it at a discount to existing subscribers, Wong said. A similar product made by Ruckus will also be sold at retail stores in Hong Kong, he added.

Service providers want to help subscribers get good performance beyond the broadband piped into their homes, but they want to do it in an economical way, said Kurt Scherf, an analyst at Parks Associates, in Dallas.

"They've all been struggling with how home networking is going to work," Scherf said. That's one reason broadband companies are becoming a big channel for network gear, he added. "I think we're seeing a significant shift, and we're going to see that over the next two years," Scherf said.

Although gear that uses strictly the IEEE 802.11n and 802.11e standards may bring better multimedia capabilities to standard commodity wireless LANs, there will still be a place for specialized companies such as Ruckus, analysts said.

"These [standard] solutions are not going to work 100 percent of the time in 100 percent of the situations out there," Scherf said.

Ruckus won't be alone in offering specialized systems for better performance, said Craig Mathias, principal at advisory and systems integration company Farpoint Group, based in Ashland, Massachusetts. He sees the company's emergence as part of a larger trend in which the home networking market becomes segmented between run-of-the-mill, midrange and high-end products -- just as other consumer electronics categories have.

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