The winding road ahead for home networking

A myriad of home networking tools were available for the choosing at Comdex in Las Vegas last week, but wider use of those products will only come about after more consumers get the fat pipes necessary for high-speed Internet access, to facilitate bandwidth-intensive applications such as video-on-demand and audio file sharing, analysts said.

Greater broadband penetration in households is set to boost the growth of home networking within the U.S., Europe and Asia. The market research company Park Associates Inc. estimates that some 17 million households in the U.S. will have home networks by 2005, compared to a little over 5 million networked households today.

However, before users get their home appliances to operate via broadband, they are faced with a barrage of considerations when choosing how to network their homes. The variety of technologies in the market -- including phone line, power line and wireless options -- flood the home networking space. Thinking about which appliances would be included in the network, and which technology to adopt, are considerations that need to be thought out before a household considers a home network.

Supporters of phone line networking suggest that the best way to connect a home is through telephone lines, because most homes have phone jacks located around the house. On the other hand, power lines are even more prevalent, and should be even easier to hook up appliances to, power line network supporters said. Three wireless LAN technologies are competing for home users' attention: IEEE 802.11b, which runs at 11M bps (bits per second), IEEE 802.11a, which operates on a different frequency band but can deliver as much as 54M bps, and the 10M-bps HomeRF standard, also with a speed upgrade in the works. Higher data rates means being able to support bandwidth intensive content such as video and audio files.

Yet another wireless standard, Bluetooth, provides up to 720k bps data transfer within a range of 10 meters to 100 meters. It was designed for "personal area networks" to link systems with nearby peripherals, but is also in the running as a home networking option.

Advocates of phone line connectivity say having home appliances "talk" to each other wirelessly doesn't make any sense. "Wireless is used more for mobility, but in a home there are devices such as entertainment systems that would stay put, and it would make no sense to have these devices connected to wireless access points," said David Thomasson, marketing committee chairman of the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), a consortium developing standards for networks that use phone lines.

"Having wireless access near a PC would cause interference, and so you'd have to mount something from the ceiling, which is difficult to do in a home," according to Thomasson, who added that wireless access points could be an eyesore. For its part, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), backers of 802.11b and 802.11a, contends that interference generally is not a problem when wireless devices are placed near a PC.

HomePNA is not against wireless connectivity all together, however. A hybrid network of HomePNA and wireless technology, using a wireless bridge for Ethernet and HomePNA, would be a reasonable resolution between wired and wireless, and this hybrid would be popular since it gives consumers the flexibility to use both options, Thomasson said.

In another camp are promoters of wireless technologies. "Wireless is useful because with a wired network, it would be necessary to retrofit your home," said Wayne Caswell, Home RF marketing manager at Siemens Information and Communication Mobile, who is also communications chairman for the HomeRF Working Group. Five companies, including Compaq Computer Corp. and Intel Corp., are shipping HomeRF products today, according to the group's Web site.

At the moment, "home networking is still difficult to install, and too confusing to choose from," Caswell said. Another barrier is the marketing to consumers of 802.11b, which is best suited to corporations, according to Caswell. In the home, microwave ovens, cordless phones and nearby 802.11b networks can cause interference, and the security features for 802.11b can be difficult to use, he said. In addition, HomeRF is based on a frequency-hopping system, which by its nature makes data a moving target for would-be hackers.

"There are security concerns, and if using the wrong technology means that some of those concerns are not met, it confuses the marketplace even further," Caswell said.

Another possible hurdle for Home RF and HomePNA is that their very names suggest "they will never enter an office building," said Andrew Steedman, president & chief executive officer of Calgary, Alberta-based Wireless Networks Inc. "It's fine that they are creating a niche, but that also means it's possible that end-users will end up having a technology at work, and another technology at home, that don't speak with each other."

With about 200 products shipping now, according to WECA's Web site, 802.11b has been widely deployed in workplaces and in some public spaces, according to Allan Scott, secretary of the WECA board of directors. "If someone spends money on a client device, they'll know they can use it elsewhere," Scott said.

As for security, Microsoft Corp. has built into Windows XP a data encryption protocol for 802.11 networks, called 802.1x, Scott said. In addition, the 802.11 standards body is working on more secure systems for encrypting data and generating encryption keys. Most vendors also supply their own encryption features, as well as mechanisms for reducing interference, he added.

Despite the multiple options for home networking, early adopters are leaning toward wireless home networking technologies because of higher data rates, easier installation, and falling prices, said Michael Greeson, Dallas-based senior analyst at Parks Associates Inc.

However, he acknowledged that home networking is still in its infancy. "In the U.S., those who want to home network are homes with broadband looking to link PCs for shared Internet access," said Greeson. In other markets with high broadband penetration, such as Japan and Korea, where homes are generally smaller, home networking is used more often to link multiple appliances, a trend that will eventually reach the U.S., he said. Home users who link multiple consumer appliances tend to use their home connectivity for entertainment more often than those who primarily link PCs together.

Survey results released Friday by the research company Yankee Group Inc. showed that 35 percent of surveyed households with PCs are interested in buying a home network, only a small increase over the 31 percent reported for the company's 2000 survey. Moreover, only 28 percent of households with PCs expressed interest in sharing audio, video or games across a home LAN.

According to Park Associates, mid-year figures show that 5 percent of all U.S. households, or about 5.34 million, have broadband access. Of those with broadband, 32 percent have more than one PC, making them ideal candidates for home networking, Greeson said.

"To move to the mass market, there needs to be seamless networking," he said, adding that although early home networking adopters are data users, this trend will evolve. "Eventually, home networking will be used to facilitate entertainment in the household for gaming, audio sharing, and video on demand."

Ease use will be critical for these users, Greeson said.

"It's important for devices to be network-agnostic to achieve the value of shared Internet access, file sharing or shared peripherals," he said. "The end-user does not want to be confused over what works with what . . . they just want to plug and play."

What needs to become available are "chips that allow for two chips to coexist in the same device, to allow optimum selection of technology, whether in a home, in the office, or in a car," HomeRF's Caswell said. For example, a mobile phone could use Bluetooth technology for wireless access in the car, and still be able to operate in a wireless LAN environment in the home. However, it will take a while for multiple technologies to operate seamlessly, he said.

Although Bluetooth can support point-to-point and multipoint applications, it usually is used for short-range transmission of digital voice and data between mobile devices, such as laptops, PDAs and phones, so teaming it with a wireless LAN chip could extend the flexibility of use of the mobile devices. As a result, Wireless Networks is drawing on its experience with BlueLAN, its Bluetooth-enabled LAN, and has come up with a device that supports both Bluetooth and 802.11a, which is currently in testing.

"We developed not a single technology, but a single infrastructure in the same physical environment," Steedman said. "And since Wi-Fi does not support voice very well, we'll add a voice component by the end of 2002."

Another contender for home networks is power line networking. Power line LAN vendors offer equipment such as routers, switches, and bridges that let consumers share a broadband Internet connection anywhere in the home by plugging PCs into existing 110-volt electrical outlets. "Challenges for home networking are for end-users not to lose previous investments they have made on existing appliances," said Debashis Pramanik, product line manager for home networking at NetGear Inc.

But every home networking standard has its use. The range 802.11b provides is good, although for voice and streaming data, 802.11a, which offers higher bandwidth, is the way to go, said Ronald Willis, vice president of Worldwide Commercial Marketing at Cisco Systems Inc. "802.11b just doesn't have the power (to run multimedia), although it does have the range."

Service providers are bundling home networking packages with broadband access and have an incentive to offer a variety of technologies because they are still playing it safe and hedging their bets, said analyst Greeson. He said it is still to early to call a winner on wireless standards in the home.

Price, of course, is another important factor.

Wireless networks need to be adopted by large corporations before they become affordable enough for widespread use at home, said Wireless Networks' Steedman. "It's a tough value proposition for homes at the moment. We need to gain a critical mass before we can sell to the consumer market at a lower cost," Steedman said.

However, analysts and vendors suggest that pricing is not the consumer's biggest concern. Instead, they say, the momentum for home networking remains slow because not enough applications exist to motivate people to network their home devices.

"As long as there is confusion, we will not cross the threshold," said HomeRF's Caswell. "But when it becomes simple, and inexpensive to install, then we'll see the market explode."

Following are some details of the various home networking standards to choose from.

-- IEEE 802.11b: Provides a maximum 11M bps throughput on a 2.4GHz radio frequency, over a range of at least 100 meters. Client interfaces on the market today for notebook and desktop PCs and some handheld computers communicate over wireless LAN hubs.

IEEE 802.11a: provides a maximum 54M bps performance on a 5GHz radio frequency, over a shorter range than that offered by 802.11b.

More information is available at http://www.wi-fi.org/.

-- HomePNA: Version 2.0 of HomePNA can run at speeds as high as 10M bps. Version 3.0 specifications, which were unveiled last week at Comdex, will deliver up to 100M bps, enabling broadband entertainment, voice, and file and Internet sharing throughout the home with no disruption to phone service.

HomePNA 3.0 will be integrated into silicon, which will power a variety of devices including pre-configured PCs, network interface cards, residential gateways, broadband modems, printers, multimedia devices, Internet appliances, set-top boxes, and consumer electronics products such as digital voice recorders (DVRs) and home entertainment systems.

More information is available at http://www.homepna.org/.

-- HomeRF: Offers a single specification, the Shared Wireless Access Protocol (SWAP), which enables a range of devices, applications and services. Outside of data networking, SWAP targets new and emerging content and services with support for streaming media and cordless phones.

HomeRF uses the 2.4 GHz ISM (industrial scientific and medical) band frequency, and its wireless range is about 50 meters in radius. HomeRF 2.0 transmits at speeds up to 10M bps, with voice calling integrated into the HomeRF network within its personal area network. The technology is expected to advance to 40 Mbps next year and to eventually reach 100 Mbps, Caswell said.

More information is available at http://www.homerf.org/.

-- Home power line networking technology: Offers a shared broadband Internet connection among multiple PCs anywhere in the home by plugging into existing 110V electric outlets. Products operate at speeds up to 14M bps and are rate-adaptive in order to minimize interference from household appliances.

More information is available at http://www.homeplug.org/.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Lawson in San Francisco.)

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Stephanie Sim

PC World

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