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Highly Wired Act

Wed, 10/31/2001 - 7:00pm
Duffy Hayes, Senior Editor


Riding phone and power lines in homes, wireline home networking 
products are trickling in to consumers’ consciousness

Share and share alike. At least, that's what networking industry analysts have continued to say consumers are clamoring for as their cache of home technology grows to include a family of technology beyond their PCs. Broadband connections are starting to proliferate in homes, and envy runs high when you have multiple users and just a single DSL or cable modem connection. Printer sharing technology is becoming a necessity, especially in homes where kids and adults often find themselves working off of a single printer. And on the new technology front, intelligent devices like digital tuners, MP3 servers, and other Internet appliances with embedded intelligence are anxious to be included in networks where their advanced capabilities can be maximized.

In short, as our cache grows, so does the need for technology that unifies it all into one useful, coherent, intelligent "home network."

And as the predicted rise of the networked home seems to finally be coming to fruition as more and more home networking products are reaching consumers through the retail channel, what still remains to be sorted out are the winners and losers on the technology side of the home networking equation.

In essence, the technologies used to link home PCs and peripherals fall into two distinct camps–wireless and wired solutions. While the advantages of each are fairly clear (Wireless offers "use-anywhere" capability; wired solutions are tethered to wired networks, but whose home doesn't have multiple phone lines or power grid wiring?), the battle for your home's networking needs will be won by technologies that can overcome the various and sundry obstacles that pepper each side of the networking technology fight.

Here, we'll be detailing the race to develop wireline technologies, as opposed to the increasingly popular (and cheap) wireless solutions. (See related story on wireless home networking solutions, p. 46.) Most analysts predict that both wireless and hardwired solutions will emerge and eventually coexist, but the specific market challenges faced by companies looking to develop "no new wires" networking solutions–essentially products that work wirelessly or run on either a home's phone wiring or electrical wiring–are worth examining.

First out of the gate in the wireline fight was the phoneline camp, led by an industry alliance called the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, or HomePNA, as its known. The group developed standards for networking products that utilize the regular, old telephone wiring found in most homes to network personal computers via simple phone jack connections. In terms of development of standards and the release of products into the retail channel, HomePNA is the clear leader, developing a 2.0 specification in 1999 based on submitted technology by member companies Broadcom Corp. and Agere Systems. The spec calls for a minimum data rate of 10 Mbps along the phone line network, a speed likely sufficient for the kinds of networking tasks homes will be asking their simple home networks to perform–shared Internet connection, simple file and printer sharing, or low level multi-player gaming, for example.

In the retail channel, which is the ultimate destination for most of the companies looking to develop technologies for the home networking market, HomePNA 2.0 products have been available (and selling reasonably well) since August 1999. Intel has been the retail leader with the success of its AnyPoint networking products, which include embedded HomePNA technology.

But, as analysts point out, the rise of lower cost wireless products have begun to cut into HomePNA's retail lead. Wireless networking products based on HomeRF (another industry working group, this one wireless) technology hit shelves in 2000. An even greater "threat" emerged with the release of lower-cost 802.11b wireless (still another wireless protocol) networking products in late 2000.

"We're still seeing decent sales of HomePNA 2.0 products in retail, but it is actually down versus last year, where it started off at," explains Navin Sabharwal, vice president of residential and networking technologies with Allied Business Intelligence. "If you think of overall home networking products, though, sales are up at the retail level...There's no doubt about that."

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

Where HomePNA has made the greatest inroads, according to Sabharwal, is in embedded technology, or design wins in related products like PCs and gateway products. He points to PC vendor Gateway, which has incorporated Broadcom HomePNA-enabled chip technology into many of its new PCs. The Broadcom chipset is actually a hybrid solution, with functions for 56k modems as well as HomePNA compatibility; other Broadcom chipsets add basic 10/100 Mbps Ethernet compatibility. An inherent synergy between HomePNA and Ethernet has led to more design wins for the HomePNA technology, and the consequent acceleration of related product development based on the protocol.

And product is really what we're talking about when it comes to the success of one protocol versus another. And as such, HomePNA has a real bevy of products available to consumers today. Preconfigured PCs are on the market from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Fujitsu and others. HomePNA network interface cards (NICs) are on the market from companies like 3Com, Conexant, D-Link Systems, Intel, Linksys, NetGear, and Samsung. Modems enabled with HomePNA functionality are available from a number of manufacturers.

Where we've seen some real breakthroughs has been in the nascent broadband gateway market. San Jose-based 2Wire offers a new gateway, the HomePortal 1000 series, that essentially combines an integrated ADSL modem, a DSL router, and a firewall in one box, with the added capabilities of HomePNA, Ethernet and USB connectivity for simple home networking included as well. For even more compatibility, new gateways from 2Wire and Panasonic also offer wireless compatibility via an 802.11b interface.

An early HomePlug 1.0 offering–Phonex Broadband’s NeverWire 14 adapter.

Irvine, Calif.-based D-Link offers a similar product that enables broadband connections to be connected to a HomePNA network, the DHN-1000 Ethernet to HomePNA Bridge. Using the 2.0 spec as its guidepost, the bridge allows consumers to distribute their broadband connection to a simple network of phoneline-enabled computers. And by adding a broadband router, its capabilities grow even greater.

But, as David Thomasson, chair of the HomePNA Marketing Committee, explains, home networks are evolving to include new peripheral devices in the network, especially as consumers become more reliant on technology for more than simple PC work.

"If you really look at the evolution (of home networking), it really started with the data centric applications," he says. "If you look at the profile of a typical HomePNA network user, they started out being a multi-PC home. Then they got broadband access. That drove them to the next step, which was to network that and share it. That's what has really been driving the adoption of home networks in general, and HomePNA in particular, but now we see other applications coming down the road."

The first wave of next-gen HomePNA-compliant products is just now hitting the retail channel, offering even more reason for consumers to build up networks of devices within their homes. With Internet music taking off, we're seeing the release of MP3 receivers from makers like Dell and SONICblue. For about $300, SONICblue offers the Rio Receiver, a powered music "server" that can distribute your MP3 or WMA music files throughout your home via Ethernet or HomePNA interface.

On the powerline side, the market is more muddled. While HomePNA has unified its membership, developed a relatively fast baseline technology, and released retail products over the past two years or so, the movement to develop networking products that use the powerline has been splintered into several factions. Because of it, the powerline folks are just now beginning to make inroads into the retail channel.

Serve up Internet music at any phone jack with 
SONICblue’s HPNA-enabled Rio Receiver.


Like its phoneline counterpart, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance is a grouping of companies looking to unify standards relating to products that work off of a home's powerline network. The concept at face value is a good one–use ubiquitous power outlets to power and network computers and peripherals.

But obstacles–technological and otherwise–have hampered progress in this arena. We're now starting to see some movement on the HomePlug side, with the release in June of the HomePlug 1.0 specification based on chip technology called PowerPacket from Ocala, Fla.-based Intellon. The spec allows for a minimum data rate of 14 Mbps, slightly faster than the competing HomePNA 2.0 technology, and in August Intellon announced that it was shipping reference designs for development of networking products based on the protocol. That should mean product will reach retail shelves sooner, rather than later.

Salt Lake City-based Phonex Broadband claimed first-to-market ground with the release of its NeverWire 14 adapter, based on the new HomePlug 1.0 technology. The freestanding powerplug-to-Ethernet networking device essentially turns any AC outlet into a 10 Base-T Ethernet port, networking devices like cable modems, PCs, set-tops or gateways that are Ethernet compliant at the current HomePlug data rate of 14 Mbps.

Another early entry into the powerline networking market comes from a product alliance between Hewlett-Packard and Thomson/RCA. The HP/RCA SystemLink allows for multi-computer networking at a data rate of 2 Mbps. You can find it on retail shelves, specifically in areas dedicated to computer accessories, according to company spokespeople.

For network gear maker Cayman Systems, recently acquired by broadband gateway maker Netopia, it is important for any successful networking protocol to be included in its gateway products. Its current line-up of gateways allows for connection via HomePNA, USB, Ethernet, HomeRF or 802.11b protocols. "Cayman prides itself on being LAN agnostic," says company spokesman Darren Franco. He says that it is likely Cayman will be releasing products incorporating the new HomePlug 1.0 chipset in 2002.

As previously mentioned, the powerline folks have been slowed in their progress by a few obstacles...some technological, some simply political. Where the phoneline crowd has spoken with a unified voice over the past couple of years, powerline technology advancements have been marked with opposition from a few different camps.

Even as the HomePlug alliance releases its initial 1.0 spec, a comparable group is coalescing within the powerful Consumer Electronics Association. They've established a "working group" called the CEA Data Networking Subcommittee-R7.3, or R7.3, for short. Silicon vendors like Inari, Adaptive Networks, Itran, nSine and PolyTrax have developed competing proprietary chip technologies, and they hope to win an upcoming "bake-off" within R7.3 that will determine a baseline technology for an inevitable R7.3 1.0 specification.

So, on the near horizon, home networking technologies look to be gaining a bit of momentum–albeit a little later than many analysts predicted. Look for CEA's R7.3 group to make some noise in the near future as they hammer out their initial spec, and garner industry support for their competing protocol. With HomePNA, look for that group to try to build on the momentum it's already built up. A host of advanced devices that can connect to HomePNA networks will likely make waves over the next year, especially with the younger set.

But in the broader view, wireless technologies are poised to take a bite out of the wireline home networking market, especially as price points for the successful 802.11b wireless products keep descending into reasonable retail territory.

In other words, there's room for more players in the home networking game, just less market share per player.

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