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Abracadabra and...(poof!) No...Wires!

Wed, 10/31/2001 - 7:00pm
Michael Lafferty, Senior Editor


Wireless home networking is working its magic on the market, and 
it looks like the IEEE’s 802.11 approach may steal the show

Broadband service providers have always touted the capabilities of their platform to deliver vast amounts of voice, video and data. Unfortunately, as more and more new services roll out of the broadband pipe, consumers have a lot of content on their hands...and no place to put it.

That's where home networking comes in. While a number of people and companies believe the "no new wires" approach (see "Highly wired act," on page 36) is the way to go, there is a growing crowd of proponents who believe "no wires at all" is an even better way to go.

But, even in the wire-free space, there are competing technologies and approaches. While Bluetooth, HomeRF and the IEEE's 802.11 specs are knocking heads (See Figure 1, page 48), by many accounts, they're cleaning the collective clocks of the wireline networking folk in the marketplace at the same time.

Who's going to come out on top of the wireless group? Indications are that the 802.11 people (and there's a bunch of them) may pull off that particular trick.

Sharing the load

Up to about two years ago, home networking was available in "a very, very rudimentary form," says Milosz Skrzypczak, an analyst for The Yankee Group. That is, it was mostly Ethernet-based and done by computer "enthusiasts" to primarily share peripherals. But, the early adopter phase of home networking is passing, and broadband is spreading out to the masses. That, he says, is putting home networking, especially wireless LAN networking, in the fast lane.

"In our studies," says Skrzypczak, "the drive to share broadband Internet access–all that goes with it, faster e-mailing, browsing, downloads–that's the main driver for home networking right now.

"The biggest pro of (the wireless approach) is the sexiness of it, and I'm not kidding. Whenever you say wireless, people jump and say, 'Wow, really?' There is a huge perception that wireless is better, it's cooler, and it's simpler. Often, it is.

"Simplicity is a huge draw, especially when you move beyond the early adopter market. People really don't want to deal with a lot of stuff and they don't care about technologies per se. So, when they say wireless, they really don't know if it's 802.11b or 802.11a, or HomeRF or something else. It really doesn't matter that much (to them)."

A recent national survey of 600 PC users conducted by RTNeilson for Efficient Networks Inc. bears that, and a lot more about home networking preferences, out. While the study pertained essentially to home data networks, it did give some interesting insights on the type of networks they preferred and the impact of cost, convenience, and complexity on their networking decisions.

When asked which home networking "medium" they would rate as "extremely attractive," (see Figure 2, page 50) just over half (50.2 percent) opted for the wireless approach. The powerline approach (HomePlug) got a nod from a third (33.3 percent) of the respondents, while phone line (HomePNA) appealed to just under a quarter (23.6 percent) and Ethernet networking was tapped by just 12 percent of the respondents.

Figure 2: The HP/RCA SystemLink group of
 products make networking truly “plug-”and-play.

At the same time, the survey asked at what price point consumers would most likely network two PCs in their home (see Figure 2). Not too surprisingly, the $99 or less price point won a clear majority (53.1 percent) and it was downhill from there for networking solutions priced at $150, $200 and $250.

More than two-thirds (70 percent) of the respondents said they had two or more computers to be networked. And nearly the same amount (73 percent) said they'd be willing to install the network themselves if given detailed instructions. As far as what they cared about most when it came to installing a home network, price (33 percent) and convenience (35 percent) came out on top, with an additional 20 percent saying a combination of both was a determining factor for them.

Who's on first?

While there seems to be a fairly apparent bias toward the 802.11 approaches to wireless home networking, that doesn't mean some of the other approaches, both wired and wireless, are totally cut off from the marketplace just yet.

The often-mentioned Bluetooth approach to networking, says Aaron Vance, an industry analyst for the Synergy Research Group, is by it's very definition and capabilities (see Figure 1) unable to step up to LAN or large area network responsibilities.

"Bluetooth, more than anything," says Vance, "is what some people like to call a PAN or personal area network. It's just for personal connectivity and it just isn't robust enough to even connect things outside of a room.

"So, more than anything, it's just for things that you have with you. For example, if you have your cell phone and you need to zap something over to your PDA, or between your PDA and your laptop, that's where Bluetooth comes in."

Meanwhile, Vance notes that the popularity of wireless LANs had not been diminished by the recent economic slump (see Table 1, page 52). "Wireless LANs," says Vance, "in general have been almost completely unaffected by the economic turndown of the market. That market has had very, very healthy sequential growth every quarter."

Despite the growing popularity of wireless LANs, Vance believes some wired approaches will always have their adherents. "I can't see phone line or power line getting much momentum," he says. "I think wireless is always going to win as far as market majority. But, I think phone line will always have its niche because some people don't care about being tethered to the wall. It's easier for them to plug in a phone jack, and they're certainly not inclined to open their computer and install a PCI card."

Hongjun Li, strategic marketing manager for Efficient Networks Inc., a home networking equipment developer, says that while HomePNA was a winner in the early stages of home networking development, sales of HomePNA products "have slowed down significantly." The real battle in home networking, he says, will be between wireless and HomePlug.

"In the future," says Li, "I think the battle in the home networking space will be between two camps–wireless and HomePlug. These two, I think, will be the dominant solutions for consumers who want to have a home network.

"HomePlug has two advantages. Number one, every home has ubiquitous power outlets. The average home has only about three phone outlets. But, the number of power sockets is about 40 per home. So, it provides good convenience.

"Number two, I think the HomePlug products will be pretty competitive in terms of pricing. Initial prices (for wireless products) will be relatively high. However, the starting prices (for HomePlug) are actually lower than the starting prices of wireless solutions."

The RF factor

Navin Sabharwal, vice president of residential and networking technologies at Allied Business Intelligence Inc., says that there are two technologies in the wireless space that have been duking it out over the last year and a half. One is HomeRF; the other is the IEEE's 802.11b.

HomeRF, he notes, was started in 1998 by a group of companies that included Intel, Proxim, Motorola, Compaq, Hewlett Packard and IBM. "What they basically saw," says Sabharwal, "was a huge opportunity for the wireless home networking market. So they took a look at the technologies out there at the time and they tried to take more of a consumer focused approach, rather than looking at it from a technology perspective.

"They decided that in order to get a consumer solution out there, it needed to be below $100 per node. The only option at that time was 802.11b, which was still going through ratification."

Sabharwal says the RF consortium took the original 802.11 frequency hopping standard, which was about 2 Mbps, and tried to reduce the cost and simplify it. In addition, they wanted to see if they could overlay some sort of voice capability.

To accomplish that, they looked to Europe and the DECT–digital enhanced cordless telecommunications–standard which has a reserved, dedicated band between 1.8 and 1.9 GHz. DECT, says Sabharwal, "is sort of the gold standard for cordless voice in the home and it's far superior" to the proprietary protocols used in the United States.

HomeRF 1.0 was developed early last year, and featured a data rate of 1.6 Mbps that was primarily based on Proxim's intellectual property. The primary vendors at that time included Proxim and Intel.

"The reception was pretty good," says Sabharwal. "They did fairly well in the retail market primarily because they were able to start hitting the cost points. The HomeRF adapters came out for about $120. Now, they're about $90 or so."

Unfortunately for RF, he says, the market dynamic changed in two important ways. First, the voice component never got included in the 1.0 version of HomeRF. At about the same time, 802.11b, which had an 11 Mbps data rate and had been targeted primarily at the enterprise market, actually became cheaper.

Sabharwal says the momentum changed rather quickly. At the beginning of last year, he says, HomeRF was in the lead (See Figure 3, below). But, by the end of the year, 802.11b had come on strong. While the cost did not exactly match HomeRF products, it was only a $10 to $20 difference.

Figure 3: Total wireless nodes. 802.11b vs. HomeRF node shipments world markets: 2001-2002

That small difference in price and the big difference in throughput (1.6 vs. 11 Mbps) "became a no-brainer," says Sabharwal, and "a lot of the momentum swung over to 802.11b." As a result, he says some of the founding companies (e.g., Compaq, IBM and HP) "started distancing themselves gradually" from HomeRF.

Sabharwal says that when Intel switched its allegiance early this year to 802.11b, it essentially took the wind out of the HomeRF sails. He says cheap 802.11b chips and a massive amount of product hitting the shelves were beating HomeRF. Sabharwal says you can still get HomeRF product from Proxim, but "generally speaking, all the momentum is now behind 802.11b."

Learning your ABCs

The alphabet soup that's known as 802.11 is sometimes confusing even to those who are intimately involved in developing the various flavors of the IEEE specification. At this particular point, the main players are 802.11a, 802.11b, and to a lesser extent, 802.11e.

The differences (and similarities) between the three wireless LAN versions lie with their PHY (the radio which establishes the physical connection) and MAC (the media access control which determines how information is formatted and sent across that connection).

Broken down to the most basic elements, 802.11a and 802.11b have different radio technologies, but the same 802.11 MAC. 802.11b operates in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz range and uses direct sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) technology. 802.11a operates in the unlicensed 5 GHz band and uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM).

If this were a totally logical process, 802.11a would have been the first out of the gate. But this is the real world, and logic doesn't always take the lead. 802.11b hit the shelves first and has taken over the wireless LAN market...for now (see Table 1).

Bob Bennett, vice president and co-founder of ShareWave, whose acquisition by Cirrus Logic has just been finalized, says 802.11b's phenomenal market growth has been orchestrated by its performance, price and certification process.

"802.11b supports a data rate of up to 11 Mbps," says Bennett. "With wireless LANs, there's overhead associated with how the LAN is established and monitored. So, you actually see something south of that. Yet, at the same time, with the high volumes you've seen over the last year or 18 months, price points have come down dramatically."

What's also helped 802.11b's success, says Bennett, is its WiFi certification process. While the IEEE delves into the nitty gritty of developing specs, it doesn't actively monitor whether products adhere to those specs. In 802.11b's case, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) was formed to establish a testing lab to certify that products met the 802.11b standard and were interoperable. Bennett says this WiFi certification, as it's known, has gone a long way in bolstering consumer confidence in the platform.

Bennett says that 802.11b's 11 Mbps data rate was something that consumers, who were familiar with 10 Mbps Ethernet, could identify with. But, like all good things, 802.11b has its shortcomings, says Bennett.

"Some of the disadvantages of 802.11b," says Bennett, "are that there are other products that operate in that same 2.4 GHz wireless spectrum. You now have the 2.4 GHz cordless phones. You have things like microwave ovens, walkie-talkies and other radio technologies (e.g., Bluetooth, HomeRF, fixed wireless, security systems, ham radios, etc.) in this unlicensed band."

Setting aside quality-of-service (QoS) issues momentarily, says Bennett, 802.11b does have its strengths. It has a data rate that could support a PVR video stream that works at 6 Mbps or an SDTV broadcast across a digital cable connection at about 4.5 Mbps. So, it can support a single MPEG-2 stream and multiple audio, voice or data streams.

"It's very serviceable for what people are looking at doing today," says Bennett. "But, as you move forward in the future, you may want to do multiple MPEG-2 streams, or you may want to do multiple streams to multiple TV sets. You may even want to do HDTV, but that requires roughly 19 to 20 Mbps. That's where 802.11a's 54 Mbps data rate starts to come in."

And that's where companies like Atheros Communications join the fray. Atheros announced in September that it was shipping its 802.11a chipset in volume to companies developing next-generation 5-GHz WLAN products for "enterprises, small/medium businesses, home and public 'hot spot' areas such as airports and hotels."

Incorporating a complete radio-on-a-chip (RoC) and integrated MAC/baseband processor, the AR5000 chipset is the first two-chip, all-CMOS platform for 802.11a WLANs. The chipset also provides full 128-bit WEP encryption and support for Dynamic Key Exchange. And, importantly, it includes QoS support for video distribution and other multimedia applications.

Mark Bercow, vice president of marketing for Atheros, says 802.11a product is already available through CardAccess, which is selling cards with the chipset. The variety of product, he says, will ramp up starting this winter and steadily rise through the first half of next year and beyond.

What's 802.11a got going against it? The word on the street says range performance and cost. Bercow respectfully disagrees. "The difference," says Bercow, "is that nobody has been able to do real-world testing before on 802.11a because no 802.11a products existed. So, all the analysis that's been done up to now has been based on modeling, and the modeling has typically focused on the issue of path loss.

"It's absolutely true that a 5 GHz signal will not propagate as far as a 2.4 GHz signal. That's physics. But, the reality is that in a wireless LAN, in an indoor environment, there are a lot of things that affect what your overall range performance will be. And the most significant one isn't path loss, it's multi-path."

The first salvo against the range performance criticism, says Bercow, can be found in a white paper recently published by the company (www.atheros.com/atherosrangecapacitypaper.pdf). The company conducted a study on 802.11a range and system capacity in its Sunnyvale office in California. This is a 265-foot by 115-foot rectangular facility with conference rooms, closed offices and walls, as well as semi-open cubicle spaces. Both 802.11a and 802.11b systems were measured in distances of up to 225 feet.

According to Atheros, 802.11a held its own in this first of several studies. The study said that for all distances up to 255 feet in a typical office environment, the data link rates of 802.11a were two to five times better than 802.11b, while 802.11a throughput was two to 4.5 times better than 802.11b.

Bercow says the cost factor between 802.11a and 802.11b is incremental and temporary. "Intel's PC card for its 802.11b product retails at $149, and they've priced our 802.11a product at $179. Basically, it's a $20 to $30 premium and I don't expect that to stay around very long," he adds.

Does Bercow see one rising triumphant over the other in the marketplace? Yes...and no. "We see the initial volumes coming largely from the enterprise/corporate market," says Bercow. "I think what you'll see is similar to what we see in Ethernet/Fast Ethernet. Fast Ethernet did not make Ethernet go away.

"If you have a data-only environment in your home, then something like 802.11b may be enough. We think the application in the home (for 802.11a) is video distribution. It's not just data networking in the home anymore. It's going to be all kinds of different mediums. That's the reason why the consumer electronics guys have so much interest in this stuff, is that it allows them to do things like distribute video within the home."

And that, says Frank Koperda, chief systems architect for High Speed Surfing, is where 802.11e comes in. "You'll have 802.11a and 802.11b, and 802.11e is the mechanism that will be used for the QoS delivery over A and B." Koperda says the 802.11e spec is so close to completion that "they're dotting the i's and crossing the t's."

Koperda says upgrading legacy 802.11a and 802.11b product with 802.11e functionality will depend on the chips that are actually out there. "It's going to be dependent on the chips," says Koperda. "But more resides in software than in hardware. It's the creation of an additional interval period so that the QoS traffic will have priority. It's primarily a software upgrade, but can you get at what you need to is the question. It isn't like every vendor will be able to get at their piece to do that upgrade. That's the only caution on it."

What a way to go

802.11b is leading the way for wireless LAN implementation in residential settings, whether it's for personal or SOHO business use. 802.11a has just begun to hit the street with even higher data rates and multimedia capabilities. And QoS functionality for voice and video in the 802.11 arena is just on the horizon.

Where does that leave the wired LAN approach? For many, the answer is "out in the cold."

"The whole networking thing," says Bercow, "is going to be as much about the physical connection as it is about how does this stuff plug in, work and install. That's always been a huge issue in networking overall, but certainly with wireless as well.

"Six months ago I might have said there's room for both wired and wireless. I actually don't think that's the case anymore. I think things like HomePNA and powerline networking are falling off. I just think in the next year or two that wireless is going to be relevant because of ease and cost. And don't forget the convenience factor."

Easy, cheap and convenient...That's a tough act to follow in any marketplace.

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