Who will support the 'whole home network'?

Moving and sharing your digital media files on a home network can be a cool and fun thing -- until something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. In a networked home, with DVRs, cable boxes, PCs, and media players sharing the same network, who do you call when you have a problem?

With 11 million U.S. Internet users reporting technical problems with their home networks last year, a handful of companies are picking up the ball on supporting the "whole-home network." Several of them were on hand at the Connections 2007: Digital Living conference in Santa Clara, California, on Wednesday.

New services popping up

A case in point is Peak8, which chose the Connections event to launch its new "Supportal" service. Supportal, Peak8 says, offers support for everything in the home from set-top boxes to iPods to printers to Xboxes.

"Supporting the home network is something that is causing significant frustration for consumers," says Peak8 cofounder and COO John Fisher. "There was no single source people could go to."

Once a customer signs up, Peak8 downloads the Supportal software to PCs on the troubled home network. The software provides step-by-step problem fixes (with pictures) for a large number of broadband services and devices. For instance, Fisher demonstrated how Supportal deals with a Vonage service installation that yielded no dial tone. At one side of the interface is a chat application used to communicate with a rep in the Peak8 support center. The software also can look directly into the home network to run diagnostics and automatic fixes.

The Supportal service (including the software and phone- and chat-based help) runs $US30 per incident, or $US10 per month for ongoing coverage. Phone support is provided by 200 reps in four call centers, all in the United States.

Services expand scope

Verizon has also been talking a lot about whole-home network support. Last month, the telco launched a new support service called Verizon Premium that deals with practically every service and device one might find in the connected home.

"They call us anyway, so we thought we might as well make it into an opportunity," says Shawn Strickland, Verizon's vice president of video solutions. Strickland says his company has become increasingly focused on connecting and supporting, not necessarily inventing, new devices and services.

Verizon Premium covers connected devices such as routers, network cards, video cards, sound cards, CD/DVD reader-writers, hard drives, flash memory systems, printers, scanners, gaming consoles, and firewalls. A support contract costs $US10 a month, Verizon says.

Existing consumer support companies are also widening their scope to include the whole home network. The Geek Squad will help you troubleshoot and fix your home network for $US159 if an on-site visit is needed -- or for $US49 if the job can be done over the phone.

The geeks fix problems with connected devices like Xboxes, digital cameras, MP3 players, and networking gear. Phone support is available for doing things like putting your music library on the home network for sharing between devices.

A Geek Squad rep who identified himself as "Wayne" says the geeks are beginning to receive calls for help with connected devices like iPods, phones, and gaming consoles, although the majority of calls still concern basic Internet connectivity issues.

Not everybody is getting with the whole-home support trend. Executives from the satellite TV company EchoStar and cable companies Cox and Comcast say that, for now, they'd rather confine the scope of their support to set-top boxes and TVs. Supporting other devices in the home, they believe, is probably best left to the companies that made them.

Support remains an issue

The emergence of the whole-home support concept comes at a good time. The sites of many service providers and device vendors often force users to wade through pages of FAQs and other stuff, before an actual support telephone number appears.

The problems can continue after you dial the number. The biggest pitfall for callers with home network problems is when buck-passing occurs. That's when the support rep listens to your complaint, then says something like, "Oh, that's a router problem; we only support the (fill in the blank), sorry."

With different types of media flowing freely around to different devices in the connected home, it can be hard to tell where problems originate. Verizon, Peak8, and Geek Squad want to provide a smart rep who knows something about the whole network and all the devices on it. Hopefully, a "whole-home" approach to support will replace the "pass the buck" model that's all too common today.

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