To understand the full impact that home networking can have, it's important to discard the notion of what an "office" has meant historically, complete with the requisite spidery web of wired connectivity between computers, printers, monitors and scanners, and replace it with how an office should function.
Networked homes of the not-too-distant future will be complex. Data sharing between PCs and peripherals is only a small part of the picture (see "Networked Nirvana?," on page 30). As broadband service providers (BSPs) scramble to develop a whole host of new data, video and voice services, consumers who've had a taste of broadband access realize they want to distribute these broadband capabilities throughout the house.
And much like the first-to-market reasoning that fuels new service development, anyone who can help consumers network these services first will go a long way in securing customer loyalty and long-term revenue.
This growing demand for home networking solutions, says Gary Brand, vice president of business development at Home Director Inc., a recently launched home networking spin-off from IBM, not only feeds off the growing demand for broadband, but fuels it as well.
"I think home networking is crossing the chasm (of consumer awareness) and is ready for total market acceptance across the board in all demographic areas," says Brand. "It's getting there very rapidly, and the consumers are driving the demand.
"All of the excitement over broadband that's being created by companies like AT&T and SBC is doing nothing but facilitating our business."Options abound
Much like the broadband service arena, consumers are faced with a variety of options when it comes to home networking solutions. Among the wired solutions, consumers can distribute content around the house on new or existing Ethernet, coax, copper phone lines or electrical wiring. They can even go wireless.
But, naturally, the choices aren't simple.
Each of the platforms (except Ethernet) is struggling to formulate standards (see page 38), which is currently clouding the deployment picture. Given the vast market potential in both newly built and existing households (single family and multi-family alike), the ultimate solutions may have to take all into account.
"Home networking is a very complex scenario," says Alberto Mantovani, director of strategic planning for the Personal Computing Division and Business and Consumer Networking at Conexant Systems Inc. "It's a very young market, but there's a great opportunity for growth. It's going to be very much fragmented and we see (the various) technologies evolving at a different pace for each medium. There will be a lot of experiments, which could run two to three years before things settle down and there is a common way to do it.
"The ultimate goal is a broadband connection that includes all types and forms of home networking. I think it will be deployed when the home networking technologies will be mature and stable enough. Today, the only one that is mature is 10/100 Ethernet."Structured solutions
Like most telecommunications sectors, time-to-market forces are having an impact on home networking as well. While the "ultimate" solution may be a few years off, a growing number of companies aren't waiting for the delayed denouement. They're forging ahead and, at the same time, they're trying to cover as many bases as they can as various technologies and standards evolve.
While simple PC/peripheral connectivity will serve many homes and SOHO (small office/home office) situations, the real key to home networking success for most operators lies elsewhere. The ability to distribute not only data, but also voice and video, may be a killer application. "When it comes to carrying voice, data and streaming media," say Vince Izzo, director of home networking for Motorola Inc., "one of the only ways to really get that to all the devices in the home is to use home networking. We really see this as a complement or service extension capability."
Izzo says the company has been working on home networking for a couple of years and recently unveiled two DOCSIS-certified home networking enabled modems. The PL1000 is geared toward phone line distribution and meets the HomePNA 2.0 specification. The AL2000 is a multi-user HomeRF (wireless) based product for connecting up to 10 computers/devices within 150 feet of the modem.
Home Director Inc. is trying to cover all the bases with a technology portal for the home that can incorporate both wired and wireless solutions. The core piece of its approach is focused on three types of Network Connection Centers (see photo above) that allow telephone, video and computer wiring (e.g., category-5, RG-6 coax, and even fiber optic cables) to be combined at a central location within the house. This modular, upgradable "structured wiring" hub can handle up to 16 incoming telephone lines going up to 32 wallplates; be configured to include an eight-port, 10-Mbps (expandable to 10/100) Ethernet hub; and distribute up to 16 incoming video signals to any television in the home.
Not surprisingly, the company's early success with this network comes mostly in new construction. Working with contractors, homebuilders and a national network of approved installation companies, more than 10,000 home systems have been installed to date. The cost to a builder, says Home Director's Brand, runs "anywhere from $500 to a couple of thousand dollars" or "somewhere in the two percent cost of the home" range.
"It's no longer an issue of just a few homes here and there and a smattering of communities," says Brand. "This is something that has crossed the chasm and is ready to have widespread adoption."
Brand readily admits that "the lion's share of the opportunity within the next 24 to 26 months" lies in being able to retrofit existing homes and that it's "inevitable" the company will be working with major BSPs to develop packages or service offerings to do just that.
"There are a couple of intriguing issues you have to address on retrofit," says Brand. "You have to go in, meet with the homeowner and do a needs assessment. And then, you have to do a turnkey solution based on that home's needs."The RF factor
One of the most appealing solutions, the HomeRF or wireless solution, continues to get a lot of attention because of its apparent simplicity and ease of installation. Pace Micro Technology recently debuted its latest home networking technologies—Gateway Expander, pcConnect and tvConnect. Used as a stand-alone unit or integrated into a home gateway, the Gateway Expander acts as a wireless base station that enables two-way communications from the broadband access point to peripheral electronic devices throughout the home.
Pace's pcConnect provides high-speed Internet access (up to 500 kbps) to PCs via a home gateway's integrated cable, DSL or other broadband modem. The company's tvConnect technology enables high-speed interactivity and Internet access between any secondary home television and the service provider's network via a home gateway.
Graham Williams, Pace's vice president of engineering/U.S. market, thinks the designation of the home gateway has a certain logic to it. "I believe there are a lot of good reasons for the home gateway to be the set-top box. The cable coming into the house has broadband access, and it's always going to go into the back of the set-top box. So why not use it for other things as well?"
Another attraction of the wireless approach, notes David Fox, vice president of marketing and sales at HighSpeed Surfing Inc., is its self-installation capability and the money that can save operators. "Today, most cable operators are using contractors to get cable TV and cable modems installed," says Fox. "A contractor will probably charge an operator anywhere from $100 to $200 to run a new line. The rub is that the cable operator, because of the DSL competition, can't pass that cost along to the consumer. They're forced to eat it in order to compete.
"With the wireless solution, there is no installation cost. So, operators are able to pass along a wireless benefit to the consumer, which the consumer prefers anyway, and they're able to reduce their operating costs once you multiply that by all the cable modems that are being installed today." HighSpeed Surfing offers its WM100 Access Point that functions as a bridge between wired and wireless LANs, and the WM010 Wireless LAN PC card for wireless PC connectivity. The company's Broadband Gateway Router allows multiple computers to access the Web at the same time, to print and share files, as well as bring in and distribute audio, video and networked games.
Another wireless home networking providers is SOHOware Inc. Its Broadband Internet Gateway, which shares broadband Internet service via a single cable modem and IP account, can use the company's CableFREE NetBlaster to connect enabled PCs and devices wirelessly throughout the house.
The company recently began a 90-day, e-commerce-based trial program with Time Warner Road Runner Cable in Columbus, Ohio. To share Road Runner high-speed Internet access with an additional two computers in the home (for $9.95 per month), Columbus-area customers can now subscribe online. The site offers a direct link to SOHOware, which provides assistance to users in selecting, purchasing and installing the appropriate hardware products for a home network.
The decision to work with a wireless home networking provider was not all that difficult, says Dave Tabata, director of marketing for Time Warner Road Runner in Columbus. "Based upon our research," says Tabata, "we're seeing an increasing number of multiple PC households. We're also seeing an increased number of laptops in the home, and they want to be mobile with them in that environment. They're also looking for an easy installation process, as well as ease in getting their hands on the (networking) devices quickly.
"It's the less sophisticated folks that we want to make sure we take care of. It's that family of four or five, having multiple PCs, that wants to get started. And the first phone call they're going to make is to the cable operator that's providing that broadband Internet connection. But that's not our core business. We want to get to the experts, so that's why we felt we needed to identify a provider or providers to help us meet those customers' needs."A new RF factor?
Current wireless home networking solutions are based on an 83.5 MHz-wide slice of spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band. However, there's unlicensed spectrum (300 MHz worth) at 5 GHz. A number of companies are working hard to exploit this spectrum for next-generation wireless LANs, especially those used for home networks.
The recent advance in RF technology announced by Atheros Communications Inc. could very well speed up that next-generation. The company announced it had developed a new chipset based on a fundamental rearchitecture of the radio. The AR5000 chipset provides the first two-chip, all-CMOS device for next-generation 5-GHz wireless LANs operating at speeds up to 72 Mbps over a 100-foot radius. The company claims its low-powered "radio-on-a-chip" technology is compliant with the new IEEE 802.11 a 5-GHz wireless standard and will be shipping in volume by the second quarter of next year.
"The price points are actually below today's 2.4 (devices)," says Rich Redelfs, Atheros president and CEO. "But we think they'll be similar to the 2.4 in this time frame. We're using one-sixth the energy of today's 2.4 GHz solutions. And as far as range is concerned, we can get twice the speed at the same range as the 2.4 GHz solutions. Granted, when you get into the really high speeds, it's a little more limited. But you can still get very reasonable range. It sits on a single-sided PC card, as opposed to the 2.4 GHz cards that are two-sided."Far-reaching impact
Like many new technologies and applications, the true impact of home networking can't really be determined yet. The various home networking platforms offer differing levels of convenience, ease of installation and throughput. But it's no flash in the telecommunications pan, either. The wired or wireless home of the future is fast becoming a reality.