A broad variety of wired, wireless and phone-line-based systems for constructing home and small-office data networks is beginning to appear. But the same issues that have plagued many emerging consumer electronics markets-standards, interoperability, volume production of systems and ICs, and costs-are affecting this one, also. The multiplicity of networking standards and technologies is, to some extent, accompanied by segmentation into several target markets: branch offices of larger corporations, small business offices, home offices and the home itself.
Technologies cluster around either the 10-Mbit/second or 1- to 2-Mbit/s domains. In the first camp are the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (Home-PNA) 2.0 standard and the IEEE 802.11b high-rate wireless spec. Down around the 1- to 2-Mbit/s domain lie the original 802.11 spec, along with the wireless HomeRF and Bluetooth technologies, and most power line networking. Contributors to this week's Focus section on home wireless networking discuss the significance of these standards and their impact on designing more affordable systems.
Although 802.11 wireless Ethernet is being promoted as an existing technology that can be easily migrated from the corporate enterprise into home networks, doubts remain. The chief concern has been cost. Most industry observers cite a $100-per-node price tag as the entry barrier, but Apple Computer Inc. broke it recently with its 11-Mbit/s AirPort system at $99 per network interface card and $299 per access point.
The second concern, interoperability, looms large. Many first-generation, 1- to 2-Mbit/s products are not always compatible among vendors, although that is expected to change with second-generation 11-Mbit/s products just beginning to ship, due to the efforts of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance.
The major wireless competitor to low-rate 802.11 in smaller office networks is the 1-Mbit/s standard of the HomeRF Working Group. Although this standard began as a wireless LAN technology, with its origins in corporate LANs and data management, it is beginning to achieve significant volumes in cards and chips, said Kumar Sivakumar, director of broadband wireless access products for LSI Logic Corp. (Milpitas, Calif.). In general, standards for home networking must be as simple as possible to keep a lid on cost and power, he said. While the lower speeds are probably adequate for simple home networks, the higher 10-Mbit/s speed of HomePNA 2.0 phone-line networking is more useful for small offices and branch offices.
The typical driving application of HomePNA technology is multiple-PC households whose owners don't want to pay for additional accounts with Internet service providers, said Cyrus Namazi, HomePNA chairman and director of communications platforms for AMD Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.). Adapter cards and dongles (adapter cables) based on the slower 1.0 spec, priced at less than $50 per node, have been shipping since last January. The faster 2.0 spec is expected to be published before the end of this year."The indications we've seen so far for 2.0 prices are about $150 for a two-node kit," Namazi said.
"We don't think phone line and wireless technologies in home networking will be complementary," said Rich Nesin, senior manager of strategy and business development at Lucent Technologies Microelectronics Group (Allentown, Pa.). Phone line-based home networking is quick and easy to implement in PCs since it uses an Ethernet media-access controller and NDIS drivers from the Windows networking environment. So that technology is likely to get up and running first, Nesin said.
But as process technology improves, it will become easier to integrate the digital components of wireless technologies to get costs down. Lucent, for example, now has an 802.11b baseband and a DSP, both in 0.5 micron, which will be integrated into a single chip.
The specification developed by the Bluetooth group is potentially the lowest-cost option of all, say proponents, because it was not designed as a wireless LAN, but as a low-power cable replacement technology. The worst-case Bluetooth node cost should be $15, said Curtis Schmidek, group marketing manager, Infineon Technologies Corp. (San Jose, Calif.).
The cost of upgrading existing consumer equipment vs. design-ins on new systems, must also be considered. For Bluetooth, the price point must reach $30 to $50 per node to the consumer for a plug-in module, said Andrew Burt, senior market development manager, Toshiba America Electronic Components Inc. (San Jose). But the right interfaces are needed on the baseband ASIC that allows the module to interface to the OEM's system.
From a laptop manufacturer's perspective, two approaches are needed: integrated and add-on, said Warren Allen,senior product planner, Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. (Irvine, Calif.). On the integrated side, the OEM needs a PC module with the correct interface to the system board. "Initially, that's USB. Maybe later, it will be PCI," Allen said. On the add-in side, the least that's needed are PC cards, since all machines have a slot for them. Most laptops, as well as desktops and servers, have USB ports, so USB dongles will also be required.
The module Toshiba intends to use has a USB interface, a serial interface and pulse-code modulated audio for notebooks. A Bluetooth module should cost the OEM $5 to $10 in quantity, assuming multiple interfaces, said Allen. "Most of what we've seen from the module vendors indicate that price is possible, once volume and additional integration within the module have been achieved."