Ed Driscoll

Coming Soon To Your Home Theater: Gigabit Ethernet

Back in the 1990s, the big buzzword in the home theater industry was “convergence,” i.e. computers merging with home entertainment and home entertainment merging with computers. Nobody was really sure what was going on, but there was a lot of merging and converging that was promised for the 21st century. It would end with a “Star Trek”-style Holodeck in every basement.

Well, the 21st century is here, and convergence is becoming more of a reality every day. It’s entirely possible that within a few years as much audio and video will be coming via an Ethernet cable as from a length of RG-6 coax.

Products such as DVRs by ReplayTV and TiVo are beginning to ship with Ethernet jacks to allow for the routing of recorded shows from one unit to another. The idea is that if you record a show on your TiVo in the den, you should be able to watch it on your TiVo in the bedroom. Current units are equipped with 100 Mbps network connections, but there’s no doubt they’ll have Gigabit (1000 Megabits per second) connections when and if there’s a large enough base of home Gigabit Ethernets to make them worthwhile for their manufacturers to install.

Lots of people also have multiple PCs in the home and they’re routing photos, video clips, MP3s, CD-quality Windows audio files, and other files from computer to computer. So speeding up the home LAN with Gigabit connections is something to consider.

Speed Kills, But Not Necessarily the Bank Account

Gigabit cards for PCs aren’t much more expensive than 10/100 Mbps, and switches are available for a sawbuck or two, depending upon how many ports you need. If you’re starting from scratch, you might as well start with the fastest speed available.

However, before you jump to Gigabit, make sure the cabling is Cat 5e, not Cat 5. In a recent interview for an upcoming article for TechLiving magazine (Electronic House’s sister publication), Ian Hendler, director of business development for the integrated networks division of Leviton, told me that Gigabit gear would more than likely slow to Megabit speeds if it’s run on regular Cat 5 instead of Cat 5e. Cat 6, the newest standard for commercial networks, doesn’t yet have the full range of jacks and other parts for residential work. Cat 6 isn’t necessary unless you’re planning for the next revolution that’s to come after Gigabit networks have been played out: 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

I Feel The Need, The Need For Speed

The Internet as we know it first went online in 1969. It was — and is — a marvel of engineering, and the fact that it can do so many things its designers never intended it to do is a testament to its flexibility. But the speed limits of the Internet’s current architecture prevent it from being a method of delivering multimedia such as HDTV-quality video.

Even at the highpoint of Internet Gold Rush Fever in the late-1990s, researchers were working on building Internet2; a better, faster, stronger, waaay-more than-six-million-dollar Internet. One of the earliest tests of the Internet2 program was to send an HDTV recording across its infrastructure, which required speeds of 270 Mbps to do so. And although this has been done on limited experimental levels, Internet2’s speeds are not here yet.

But even before they arrive, the next revolution in networking is already on the drafting boards: 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

(Originally an August 2004 newsletter to Electronic House subscribers.)