Today has been the 50th anniversary of the self-dial long-distance telephone service in the UK, where telephone subscribers culd call across the country without needing the help of an operator. The demonstration call that was made on this day in 1958 was made by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who was located at Bristol to the Lord Provost who was located in Edinburgh. A re-enactment of this call will take place between the same people at the same locations but using video-conferencing technology, not just as a celebration of accessible cost-effective long-distance telephony for all but as a proof of concept that this can be done with today’s video-conferencing methods.
The reason that this event is being celebrated is because it is one of the major milestones in telecommunications, where these calls had transcended many barriers. It was about bringing the business centres of a country together and simply bringing country areas to the city, just by lifting that telephone handset and dialing the correspondent’s number. It has then paved the way for such technologies as computers, the Internet and home networks.
I had talked about in a previou article on how to go about setting up your computer and your home network for video-conferencing with distant relatives using Skype or Windows Live Messenger. This, like VOIP (Voice Over IP) is now making long-distance telephony so much more affordable for most that we can even take this kind of service for granted.
Happy 50th Anniversary for the Self-Dial Long-Distance Telephone Call!
You have taken the plunge to buy the Tivo personal-TV service and have this unit add increased value to your free-to-air TV viewing. But this Tivo box needs to be connected to the Internet for online registration and to benefit from an updated electronic programme guide plus all the extras that are available for that platform. This is also of importance where there is the possibility of Tivo running video-based services like “catch-up TV” as part of the platform. It is similarly true of any set-top-box IPTV or video-on-demaind platform which relies on Internet connectivity.
The Tivo people mention in their advertising material and product document of only two ways to connect the Tivo unit to the home network and to the Internet. They are either an Ethernet cable or an optional USB-connected WiFi wireless network adaptor supplied by Tivo. The problem with these wireless network adaptors, and the WiFi wireless network in general is that they can be very “hit and miss” in their performance.
But there is another way to connect the Tivo to the home network without running extra wires around the house. This is in the form of HomePlug which uses the AC wiring as a data transport.
Typically you would connect a short wire from the Tivo’s Ethernet socket to the Ethernet socket on a HomePlug-Ethernet bridge and plug the HomePlug-Ethernet bridge in to the wall. Then you connect anther short wire from the router to another HomePlug-Ethernet bridge and plug this HomePlug-Ethernet bridge in to the wall. Out of the box, these units would simply just work.
If you had an existing HomePlug setup, you would simply just use another HomePlug-Ethernet bridge for connecting the Tivo unit to the existing HomePlug segment. You may have to use the PowerPacket utility supplied by the HomePlug equipment vendor to enrol the new HomePlug unit in to the existing segment.
Once this is going, the Tivo unit should just work as though it is using the Ethernet connection to the router. This would then lead to any download that is part of the platform taking a relatively short time, and would be important if there is the possibility of video-based services being part of that platform.
Disclaimer: This post has been written by myself based on an observation of a demonstration Tivo setup at the Digital Life exhibition that was held in November this year at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. It is not sponsored by HomePlug or any of its affiliated organizations.
There has been recent talk about the idea of providing the National Broadband Network, a super-fast broadband Internet service, either with Telstra or Terria (an Optus-led consortium) providing the infrastructure. One idea, proposed by Terria (who was OPEL) was to provide a fibre-optic service to urban locations and use a WiMAX radio link for rural and regional locations and the other idea, proposed by Telstra was to use fibre-optic in all towns and a DSL service optimised for long distance for rural areas. This issue even ended up being one of the platform issues for the Australian Labor Party during their campaign for Election 2007.
There are some “greenfield” (newly-released land) housing developments in Australia where this kind of fibre-optic broadband service is being deployed. This has been made easier due to the development not having telecommunications or other infrastructure and is used as a promotion tool by the developers in showing how “switched on” the location is.
Some other population-dense countries such as France and the USA are deploying a commercial fibre-optic broadband service into various neighbourhoods.
FTTN (Fibre To The Node) – fibre optic link to a cabinet deployed in the neighbourhood with intentions to cover a number of streets
FTTC (Fibre To The Curb / Kerb) – fibre optic link to a cabinet deployed in a street with intentions to cover that street and perhaps “courts” and other cul-de-sacs running off that street.
FTTB (Fibre To The Building) – fibre-optic link deployed to the wiring closets of multiple-tenancy buildings (blocks of flats, office blocks, etc). Single-occupancy buildings may be served in a manner similar to fibre to the curb or may be served using fibre to the premises.
FTTP (Fibre To The Premises) / FTTH (Fibre To The Home) – fibre optic link deployed to the customer’s premises. A strict interpretation would require that multiple-tenancy buildings have optical fibre running to each unit (flat, office, shop) in the building.
Setup at the customer’s location
Systems other than FTTP / FTTH will have a copper-wire link running from the system cabinet or wiring closet to the customer’s door. This will be deployment-dependent and may be a high-speed variant of DSL piggybacked on the telephone lines; a coaxial link similar to cable TV and cable Internet; or simply a twisted-pair Ethernet cable run similar to what is implemented for wired networks in the home or workplace.
In the case of an FTTP / FTTH service, there will be an “optical network terminal” device that is deployed at the customer’s premises. It is simply a fibre-optic – Ethernet bridge that links the fibre-optic cable to the home network. The device would either be fixed outside the house with an Ethernet cable run to a room nominated by the customer; or be a box the same size as a typical cable modem and is installed in a similar manner to cable-based broadband Internet.
Typical standard of service
The typical fibre-optic service that is being provided would be a “single-pipe triple-play” service with broadband “hot and cold running” Internet, multi-channel pay-TV and landline telephony provided over the same “pipe”. Due to the “fat pipe” provided by the fibre-optic infrastructure, the level of service would be beyond the average telephony, pay-TV and broadband Internet service.
This would usually be represented by the TV service carrying a large number of high-definition channels, the IP-based landline telephony service being capable of handling “high-band” telephony services like FM-grade or better audio and / or videophone services with smooth pictures The Internet service would be able to offer a level of service that is beyond what the typical broadband Internet service can provide, which would be a high throughput service with a very low latency.
This kind of service would typically be provisioned using an Internet gateway device equipped with an “analogue telephony adaptor” interface so the customer can continue to use existing telephony devices. If the customer subscribes to pay-TV service, they would be supplied with an IP-TV set-top box that is connected to the Internet gateway device via a high-speed network connection like HomePlug AV, Ethernet or 802.11n WPA wireless.
Some installations have used a “single-box” solution for the network-Internet “edge” with the Internet gateway, analogue telephony interface and IP-TV set-top box function built in to the one box but such installations are unpopular because of the desire by most households to keep TV viewing and computer use in appropriately-comfortable areas.
Issues that are currently being raised mainly in France are the provisioning of fibre-optic broadband on a competitive footing where competing service providers have access to the same customer base.
One of them is a competitive delivery scenario where one or mor competing service providers use their own infrastructure to provide their own service. The issues that are raised are primarily focused on multi-occupancy buildings like blocks of flats, office blocks or shopping centres which France has many of. It concerns whether multple operators should or shouldn’t share the same wiring closet and infrastructure for the cabling to the occupant’s premises and what happens when an occupant changes service providers.
Ultimately, the issue of competitive delivery in all kinds of locations will need to be worked out, especially for the good of the customers.
You might be thinking of using video conferencing as a way of talking with distant relatives or friends. Infact, there was an article on TV Channel 7 News (Melbourne, Australia) on 4 December 2008 regarding the use of this technology to allow families to communicate with elderly relatives who are in nursing homes that are a significant distance from the family.
Is your network ready?
You shoud make sure that you have a broadband service of at least 512kbps ADSL or standard cable specification. As far as your router is concerned, it needs to support UPnP IGD / NAT traversal behaviour. This may be easier with most home-use and SOHO / small-business routers bought from retailers. But you may have to be careful about routers supplied by Internet service providrs, especially if the equipment is not available for general retail sale.
Also check that you are getting good WiFi reception if the computer you intend to use is to be connected to the network via WiFi wireless. This may include making sure that the aerial(s) on the wireless router is upright and, perhaps, considering setting up a wireless network with two or more access points. This has been talked about in my feature article on multple-access-point wireless networks. If the computer is a desktop unit located far from ther router, such as a home theatre computer, and you don’t want to pull Ethernet cable out to it, it may be worth considering a HomePlug powerline network kit. This kit uses the AC wires in the home as a network segment and still provides Ethernet stability in a “plug and play” manner.
What hardware to use
Computer with properly-performing video and audio subsystem and and a decent-quality webcam like a Logitech or Microsoft unit. Most recent laptops have a webcam built in to them for this kind of activity. If you don’t have a microphone attached to your desktop computer, the microphone that is part of a decent-standard webcam can do the job for picking up the voices.
What software to use
There are three different platforms to work with for video conferencing. One is the Skype platform which has existed mainly as an international free-telephony platform. But now it has become more popular as a video-conferencing platform. This one is available for the common computing platforms such as Windows, MacOS X and UNIX / Linux as well as some devices like the Sony PSP and would be the preferred choice if you want to be sure of accessibility.
The other two are the Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger. Both of these are popular instant-message platfrms but have voice and video telephony built in to them. The main problem with them is that they work only with the Windows platform and the MacOS X platform, which may preclude UNIX / Linux users from using them. Windows Live Messenger is at the moment being rolled out to the XBox 360, mainly as a text chat system but could be rolled out for full video chat.
Going about it.
You will have to complete the setup wizard for the conference program and this will typically require you to use your e-mail address as your identifier.
As well, you will need to complete an audio-video check which allows you to make sure that the microphone is going to pick up the sounds and that the speaker is loud enough without causing unnecessary echo or feedback “howl”. This test simply requires you to set the microphone gain to a proper level by you saying a test passage in to the system at your normal voice and checking a level meter on the user interface. It also requires you to set the speaker volum by you hearing an audio test signal and adjusting the volume for personal comfort. At this point, the system sets itself to avoid the echo or feedback “howl”.
There will usually be a “video” test to make sure that the webcam is working properly and can see you. This will typically be a “mirror image” showing up on your screen of what the camera can see, so you can focus the camera and determine how much lighting you may need for proper visibility.
Then you exchange your video-conference ID with your family and friends who are running the same software. Typically, when a user adds a contact to one of these programs, the program sends a message to the contact asking for permission to add them to the list. This is to protect the contact’s privacy and make sure they are dealing with the right people.
Other issues to consider
If you are planning to engage in “group” video conferencing such as when your family is talking to a distant relative, it may be worth using the large-screen TV set for this purpose. Such a TV set should have a VGA connector or HDMI connector and can be connected to the computer via the VGA socket or a DVI or HDMI socket. If you are not using HDMI as the connector or your computer doesn’t pass audio through the HDMI connector, the sound should just be connected to the TV set or home-theatre receiver via a standard audio lead. Most older CRT-based sets can only be connected to a computer via a composite or S-video cable and the video driver set up for work with the composite / S-video output.
As well, you will have to make sure the webcan stays on top of the TV set. This may involve the use of a USB extension lead to connect the camera to the computer and the use of Blu-Tack or double-sided tape to keep the camera from falling off the set. This issue is more real with flat-screen sets which don’t have much space on top of them
If you are concerned about your privacy and security, you may need to keep the webcam disconnected while you are not involved in video conferencing so that rogue software doesn’t “open” the camera up.
Before long, it will be that nearly every consumer-electronics manufacturer will be providig a DLNA-compliant Internet radio in the form of a table radio. What will need to eventually happen is that the manufacturers design units that offer something special beyond their competitors.
From this review that I read, I had noticed that Nokia had moved away from the same old monochrome LCD display and headed towards a colour display like on their phones. Other steps of improvement in this class included a digital output which can allow the set to be amplified via a home theatre receiver like some of the Philips and Yamaha “soundbars”. But the way Nokia could improve on this design would be to have a variable output connection for a matching right-channel speaker that can be sold as an option; similar to the Tivoli NetWorks Internet radio.
But with more of these sets coming on the market at prices affordable for most, it may be worth reading my article about establishing a PC-less media network in your home network i.e. to set up a dedicated media server like a NAS box and move your media to that server.
Now Netgear is raising the bar as far as these network media receivers is concerned. It is an attempt to provide a UPnP-complint high-end network media receiver for those of us who want to bring the video files held on the NAS unit to the home theatre that has the big plasma screen and surround-sound.
The built-in hard disk option could be improved upon in the form of being able to be a UPnP AV / DLNA media server. This can then lead to the unit being an entry-point media server or supporting the provision of “load ‘n’ show” media being available on other DLNA media devices in the home network. This is if the purpose of the optional hard disk isn’t just for downloading content as part of an rental-based or subscription video-on-demand service. Another ideal function would be to be under the control of another UPnP AV control point, whih can allow it to play audio content without the user needing to have the TV on to choose the content.
It will be interesting to see what the reviews in the computer press and the blogosphere think of this unit and its usability.
A PC-less networked AV setup doesn’t need a particular computer to be present and running to provide AV media to DLNA client devices.
The media is provisioned by a box that is designed for providing AV media to client devices 24/7. This avoids situations where the media is not available due to the PC crashing or being infested with malware; both events that can be very common occurrences with most home computers. There is no need to worry about a PC which is being used for playing games or doing other system-intensive activities limiting media availability. Similarly, these setups use less energy than a PC working as a media server.
This setup also suits today’s laptop-based computing environment where laptop computers are more likely to be moved from place to place. It also suits environments like holiday houses where there is no real use in keeping a desktop computer on the premises but there is the desire to have occasional Internet access at such locations.
As well, this kind of setup appeals to computer-shy people who may want to benefit from digitally-hosted media. This is because there is no need to have a noisy ugly computer in the house for this kind of activity to occur.
Another bonus is that when you add more media client devices to the network, a dedicated media server can handle the increased demand more capably. Contrast this with a PC where the odds of failing when serving more devices can increase rapidly.
What kinds of PC-less media server exist?
Dedicated DLNA music server (Philips Streamium WACS-7000, Sony GigaJukeNAS-S55HDE, etc)
This unit is typically in the form of a hi-fi system or component that is part of such a system. It has a single hard disk that is primarily for storing media, typically music files and have a network interface, either in the Ethernet or 802.11g wireless form.
Such units will have a built-in CD drive and can “rip” audio tracks from CDs loaded in that drive. They will have access to a metadata service like Gracenote so that the tracks are properly indexed by song title, artist (both album and contributing), genre and album title. As well, they could record audio to the hard drive from a device connected to the server’s line-level input or, where applicable, from a built-in radio tuner. This is in a similar manner to recording music to tapes from the radio using that good old cassette deck.
A lot of these systems expose features and functions that only work best with selected client equipment sold by the server’s manufacturer. They may have limitations concerning transferring audio files to and from the unit’s hard disk, which may limit backup or secondary-storage opportunities. Usually they require a computer to run a special utility in order to transfer music files to or from the unit.
Standalone NAS (network-attached storage) box
These devices are simply a dedicated file-storage device that is connected to the home network and handles files according to standard network-based file-handling protocols. They often provide backup file storage and secondary file storage for computers on the network as well as media-server functionality.Some users may use the hard disks in these units as a “holding bay” for their computer’s hard-disk contents while they are upsizing that computer’s hard disk.
These boxes will typically come either as a single-disk unit which is the size of a book or as a multi-disk unit that is typically the size of a toaster or breadmaker. These unitseither uses the hard disks as a huge storage volume or sets aside some of the disks as a “shadow store” for the data should any of the disks fail. This latter technique, which also provides higher data throughput is known as RAID which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks.
They are available as a unit fitted out with the necessary hard disks to the capacity you pay for or as an enclosure where you install hard disks that you buy separately. Earlier versions of these enclosures required the user to mess around with a screwdriver and end up losing screws in the assembly process, but the newer units just require the user to slide in or “clip in” the hard disks.
This class of device includes “headless” small-scale server platforms like Windows Home Server and some Linux distributions which can be expanded by the user to perform different functions. They may include this kind of software being loaded on an otherwise-redundant PC that is being repurposed as a small-form file server.
This device will be the way to go eventually because of its ability to provide a flexible media-sharing solution for most small networks.
"Ripping" NAS units
There are a class of NAS boxes that are just like a regular NAS box, having the same number of hard disks as these devices and having the same capacity and functionality as these boxes. But these units, such as the RipFactory RipServer, have a built-in optical disk drive and software which “rips” CDs loaded in to the unit’s optical drive, in a similar manner to a dedicated DLNA music server. They will use a music metadata service like Gracenote to index the tracks that are ripped from the CDs loaded in the unit’s optical drive. These units would be considered as a “bridge” between the dedicated DLNA music server and a general-purpose NAS box.
USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-compliant USB file server
Another common method is to use a USB network file server device that is connected to a USB external hard disk. The device can typically be part of another network device like a router or just become a standalone box. These units, again, handle files according to the standard network-based file-transfer protocols.
They work best with one self-powered USB hard disk because most of these server devices usually run on a low-output power supply that typically powers the electronics within. Most of these units also don’t have the logic to properly handle a USB hub or multiple USB hard disks. If you are using a small hard disk that doesn’t have its own power supply, you may need to connect it via a self-powered USB hub. Similarly, you may find that using a self-powered USB hub can assure reliable service with any of the USB file servers that can support USB hubs,
These setups are useful for a temporary media-sharing arrangement where you are providing media to one or two devices or as an auxiliary media server for other media that isn’t always used.
Storing your media on these devices
If you use a dedicated NAS unit without a built-in optical drive, you will need to make sure that you have SMB (Windows, MacOS X, Linux) or NFS (Linux) read/write access to the media share on that NAS unit. As well, make sure that there is a desktop shortcut, mapped drive letter or other mount point to that share on your computer(s) that you are preparing the media on.
Prepare your media as you normally would, with it ending up in your computer’s media directories. Then copy the media directories to the NAS media share using the standard practices that you use for copying files and directories. You may need to set up a “sync” routine to automatically copy new media to the media share so you can be sure that the new media is available on the network.
Avoid the temptation to "rip" a CD directly to the network share because there is the increased likelihood of errors and slow performance due to multiple points of failure existing between the CD and the NAS’s hard disk, being the optical drive, the ripping and encoding processes and the network transfer process.
Increasing and evolving the DLNA networked media system
One media Server, work towards a NAS unit
This is more analogous to a business’s file server where the IT department want to make sure that all company data is seen as one collection to back up and manage and is at one location. This may appeal to you if you want to have only one primary storage point for your media.
The only limitation about this is that if you need to “do anything” with the NAS unit like upsize it or replace a failed hard disk, you will have to have the media library out of action.
Two or more Media Servers serving different content
You may want to have the media on two or more media servers rather than one media server. This may appeal to a household which has young adults or adolescent children living in it. In this situation, they may want to keep their media on an NAS that they have responsibility for and can take with them when they move on. This avoids you having your media server being “clogged up” with their media which you will less likely want to touch whether they are with you or when they have left your place.
Similarly, you may have media to do with your personal activity as well as media to do with your business or community-engagement activity. Here, you can run a separate media server which houses your business media and this one can be managed under business standards and be financially underwritten by your business. This includes Web developers who run a NAS box as a “Web-page workbench” and want to view primary pictures for their Web page on a DLNA media client attached to the big-screen TV.
Here, you create the different media servers but you make sure they have different names so that your DLNA client devices can differentiate between the server devices. You may use different types of server such as a USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-capable USB file server for a small project or a business-class NAS unit for your business data.
An increasing number of NAS devices pitched at the domestic market are starting to support the ability to aggregate multiple DLNA media libraries in to one large media library. This allows the user to point their media client device at one reference point for all the media that exists on the one home network.
Media Servers in different geographical locations
There may be the possibility of running another DLNA-based media network in another geographic location like a business premises or another house.
The main issue about this is keeping both locations in sync with the desired content. You may have to use an Internet-based sync utility which is supported by your media server to synchronise content between locations.
On the other hand, you could set up an IP-based NAS-NAS backup set for incremental or differential (only files that are new or have changed) backup, but the backup jobs could still be large if any metadata is changed.
You would have to make sure that both NAS units are accessible from the Internet. This may involve establishment of a “dynamic DNS” setup through the use of “DynDNS” or similar utilities; or having each location have a fixed IP address. Then there is the issue of setting up a port-forwarding rule in your router, which may be easy if your NAS units implements UPnP-based port forwarding and you are using a UPnP-compliant router in each location. On the other hand, you may have to visit the router’s Web page to set up the port-forward rules.
This situation hasn’t been made easy because typically the concept of using multiple NAS boxes for applications like multi-location file storage hasn’t been defined as a key application.
Once you have moved towards the PC-less DLNA-based media network, you will thank yourself that you have headed down that path. You won’t need to keep a noisy computer on all the time just to enjoy your music over the network.
At least there is some accurate information regarding the arrival of Vista Service Pack 2 and what it will contain. This service pack could draw more people towards Windows Vista and offer something that can avoid the idea of going “back to XP”.
At least there are a few options that may benefit the laptop user and the modern WiFi-driven home computing environment. One would be to work hand in glove with WPS configuration as more routers come with “over-the-air” WPS configuration. As well, the Bluetooth Feature Pack which will offer what is expected of a Bluetooth setup will be available for people who buy Bluetooth functionality independent of the operationg system. This would encompass system builders; and those of us who provide Bluetooth functionality via an aftermarket device such as a USB dongle or move to Vista by buying it through the retail channel. The other desireable feature would be for the operating system to “natively” burn data to Blu-Ray discs; which would definitely come in handy with backing up hard disks or archiving old data.
In my honest opinion, this service pack can “tide us over” until Windows 7 comes on the scene as the next operating system.
This device is one that I would consider important for anyone who is building or repairing computers such as building that dream gaming rig. It allows them to check if each of the USB ports are wired properly, thus making sure that the installation is going to work properly and to plan before they put the side panels back on the computer’s case.
In a similar vein, a person who has taken apart a USB hub to build it in to something else can make sure that it is wired up properly as far as the USB infrastructure is concerned. All that is needed is more USB hubs and 5V 2.1A power-supply circuits (working from 12V – 24V DC or 110V-250V AC) in “short-form” versions for thos of us who want to build custom USB hubs or add USB hub functionality in to existing devices like desk lamps.
A “netbook” computer is a low-cost portable computer the same size as a classic “Day-Planner” or “Filofax” personal organizer but is primarily designed to be used for basic computing tasks like Web browsing, e-mail work or basic word-processing. Typically they will have up to 1Gb on the RAM and up to 80Gb on a solid-state disk or 120Gb on a mechanical hard disk. They will use a processor like the Intel Aero that is pitched at ultra-portable computer work by being designed to offer basic processing power without much energy being used. . The display won’t have the kind of performance that you would expect for intense game play or video editing but would be suitable for most tasks including playing casual games. Typically, they will have built-in wireless networking support primarily for Internet access. The operating system they will often run with is either a customised Linux build or the latest “out-of-box” build of Windows XP. They usually don’t come with any sort of “load device” like an optical disk drive because you are expected to work with the software that is supplied as part of the unit or download extra software from the Internet to suit your needs. If you do need auxiliary storage or a “load device”, they may come with an SD card drive or you plug in a USB Mass-Storage compliant device like a memory key or external optical drive.
This class of computer was born out of the “One Laptop Per Child” project where the idea was to provide computer and Internet access to children in marginalised Third World countries. They have also gained appeal in Western countries as a small secondary computer for e-mail and Web use or as an entry-level computer for the likes of students. One area that they can come in handy in the home is as a “Web terminal” that is used in the kitchen or lounge for casual Web browsing. This would be set up in a similar manner to what I have suggested in a previous article about how a secondhand computer could be set up as a kitchen computer.
For most people, it may be preferable to work with Windows XP-based netbooks rather than the scaled-down Linux units. This will provide a lot more operating room through the unit’s working life. If you do a lot of work with Linux, I would suggest that you go for the high-end Linux units and know how to keep their software up to date. This may involve “rolling in” the latest version of a standard distribution like Redhat or OpenSUSE with all its functionality. Some Linux “geeks” may be interested in using a “netbook” for modelling programs that they are developing or building the “perfect” distribution.
I would still certainly say that these “netbooks” still have their place in the computer market in all market conditions.
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