Home LANs arrive in dizzying variety

With products on offer from network hardware vendors, PC makers and even consumer-electronics giant Sony, it was easy to see that technologies to link digital devices throughout the home have truly arrived, at least on the vendors' radar screens.

It was harder to tell what the best tools are for individual users. On show were phone-line networks, power-line networks, two kinds of wireless LANs (local area networks), and wired and wireless options for linking electronic devices. Coming next year will be three more wireless LAN technologies and at least one more wired option.

Consumers this year have more reasons to set up networks in their homes as more bandwidth comes into homes with cable modems and DSL (digital subscriber line), and more entertainment becomes available over the Internet that can be played on home devices.

If a family wants to share files, peripherals or an Internet connection, or if one user has multiple PCs, they need a way to link them together. Ethernet, the standard for enterprise LANs, requires wiring that can be expensive and difficult to install.

However, consumers who came here looking for home-network options found enough choices to make even a hard-core computer buff's head spin. They may even find conflicts that will keep them from using two of the technologies together. What's more, the options are set to expand before they consolidate.

Nor are home LANs left out of the explosion of wire-free offerings. Most prominent are wireless LANs using the IEEE 802.11b specification approved last year, which delivers a maximum 11Mbps, slightly faster than standard Ethernet.

A bevy of networking and system makers, including Compaq, Sony and Cisco, offer these wireless LANs for both enterprises and homes. Although standardised and, in theory, interoperable among different vendors, these components are more expensive than some other options. Sony prices a PC Card antenna and central access point device at $US599.

Bay Networks spin-off NetGear showed off an alternative that is under consideration for the designation IEEE 802.1e. Wireless11x adds in QoS (quality-of-service) control so voice calls or video transmissions across a LAN can be guaranteed to be both smooth and steady, said Patrick Lo, president and chief executive officer of NetGear. This feature is critical for wireless LANs in the home because the applications are different from those in enterprises, Lo said. Sharewave and Philips Electronics NV also will offer 802.11e products.

"It's not just file and printer sharing, but in the home, it's media-centric," Lo said.

This group of technologies will take a big leap to between 36Mbps and 52Mbps as early as next year with the 802.11a standard. Development started on this specification first, before the current 802.11b was put together as a quick, lower speed solution. The new standard will shift the wireless LANs from the current 2.4GHz range to around 5GHz.

A competing wireless LAN system in the 2.4GHz range, designed specifically for homes, runs at a much lower 1.6Mbps but is due to catch up. The HomeRF (radio frequency) specification predated 802.11b in the market but has a lower profile than the 802.11b products here. Backers such as Proxim point to recent US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for a boost in speed next year to 10Mbps, and they say this technology suffers less interference from microwave ovens, cordless phones and devices using Bluetooth, a short-range technology for linking devices without using cables.

Bluetooth, which is being demonstrated all over the show floor here and just began to ship in products, will let consumers set up tiny networks on the fly where PCs, keyboards, printers and handheld devices can exchange information. Some vendors, including Sony, are even developing tiny Bluetooth access points for wireless access to an Internet connection.

But in the dream of a fully wireless computing environment, there is a catch. Because they all operate in the 2.4GHz spectrum, Bluetooth, the 802.11b and HomeRF wireless LANs can't work at the same time without a performance hit. Vendors' test results vary from showing a 15 to 30 per cent degradation in performance.

An official at Compaq, which early next year will offer both 802.11b and Bluetooth capabilities in separate modules for its Armada notebooks, said users won't notice the slowdown unless the two are working within three feet of each other. Software now under development may allow one device to run both at the same time, toggling back and forth in milliseconds. Although there will be interference if a user has a wireless LAN and several Bluetooth devices operating simultaneously, it is unlikely to stymie most home users, according to one networking analyst.

"What are the chances that they will be using both at the same time? Probably kind of slim," said Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group.

Even higher on the bandwidth scale is IEEE 1394, a wired connection between devices that was popularised largely by Apple Computer, which calls it FireWire. This technology screams at 400Mbps over a standardized 4.5 metres, and sample components are out now for a faster version coming next year that will run at 800Mbps over 100 metres, according to James Snider, chairman of the 1394 Trade Association, in Dallas.

Although the wiring requirements of IEEE 1394 would restrict home uses to connections between adjacent devices such as home-entertainment products, some vendors are now developing a wireless version of the technology.

Standards are near completion in Europe and Japan for wireless 1394 systems that would offer up to 56Mbps throughput, operating in the range of 5.2GHz to 5.3GHz, said Hiroyasu Noguchi, assistant manager of the corporate R&D (research and development) strategy department at Sony, based in Tokyo.

Vendors are promoting two other approaches on the strength of ease of use and low cost. HomePNA (phone network alliance) lets consumers plug PCs and other devices into their phone jacks and network them at speeds up to 10Mbps over the phone wires inside their homes.

Power-line networks, due to arrive on the market in mid-2001 from members of the HomePlug Alliance, will use the home's electrical wiring for a network that will offer speeds as high as 10Mbps. Adapters that plug into ordinary phone jacks will offer Ethernet or USB (universal serial bus) ports for connecting devices. Other devices will be able to use ordinary power cords to send and receive data. One vendor of power-plug-to-USB adapters, Phonex Broadband, expects to price them at under $US90 each, a company official said.

An executive of one ISP (Internet service provider) that helps users wire their homes and businesses in Asia and in the US said wireline options such as HomePNA still hold an edge over wireless according to the company's tests. Wireless LANs are less stable and more expensive than wired networks, said Amber Yu, product marketing manager at GUS Networks. Still, most users don't want to tear holes in the walls of their homes, she pointed out, so there are places where wireless may be preferable.

At the same time, phone-line networking is likely to have limited appeal where residents are likely to have just one or two phone jacks in a home.

Although big names such as Cisco, 3Com, Intel and Compaq may have signed on to several home networking interest groups, efforts now are narrowed down to a few, according to Meta's Kozup.

For example, "the vendors driving HomeRF are few and far between compared with the [IEEE 802.11b] group," he said.

"Today, if consumers are looking for home networks based on wireless, they're pretty limited to 802.11b," Kozup said. The slower speed and more limited availability of HomeRF products make it less attractive, he said. Moreover, by the time HomeRF is boosted to a higher speed next year, 802.11b products are likely to be much more price competitive.

Manufacturers in lower-cost production sites already are interested in breaking into the home-network market. Otto Fung, vice president of marketing at CeLAN Technology, visited the HomePlug booth and expressed interest in adding new technologies such as power-line networks to its low-cost Ethernet products made in Taiwan.

Amid the promise of screaming home LANs coming in the future, users today should be happy with offerings such as 802.11b wireless LANs, Meta's Kozup said -- even though those LANs actually deliver an average of only 5.5Mbps. With the average ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) Internet connection providing just 1.5Mbps, this level of performance should be plenty for now, he said.

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Stephen Lawson

PC World

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