Home networking may be the most exciting market that doesn't yet really exist. The chip companies will insist that PCs are already shipping with devices pre-installed to permit foolproof operation by even the most tech-phobic consumers. But for the moment, those chips are mostly sitting idle, alongside millions of infrared ports that have been a common feature in PCs for years but are rarely used. Part of the problem is image. Home networking has been kicking up a buzz for a few years now, but its original format was little different from a corporate network: a way to link several PCs with printers and other peripherals, route e-mail to different users and distribute Internet access within a home. Sounds a lot like any business network.
While that vision is close at hand, the real visionaries are looking beyond that, to the fully wired home that has little in common with business LANs beyond the flow of digital data packets throughout the building.
But in the meantime, home-networking vendors are waiting for the market to take off. While they are happy now to book any revenue for their products, the most elusive statistic to track is how many of the chips shipping within PCs are actually being used, and here the companies are often a bit evasive.
Broadcom Corp. produces chips that can turn a home's internal telephone wiring into a network, and those products have been shipping since the third quarter of last year inside machines from Compaq, Dell, Gateway and IBM, according to Adam Stein, director of marketing at Broadcom and director of marketing at the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), an umbrella group that promotes the technology. However, when pressed, Stein admitted that his company is not certain what percentage of the chips have been used to set up networks and which ones are just nifty add-ons that consumers might or might not use sometime in the future.
Telephone wiring is one of three main technology contenders to carry home networks. The others are internal electrical wiring and wireless networking using some type of RF format. The advocates of power lines have formed a trade group of their own, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. But they have not yet settled on a standard format, and thus far no products are commercially available.
Alberto Mantovani, president of the HomePlug group and director of strategic programs at chip vendor Conexant Systems Inc., said the group will finish defining and testing its specification by the end of the year and promised that the chips will be able to send data signals over electrical wires at speeds up to 10 Mbits/second. That format is based on technology developed by Intellon Inc., an Ocala, Fla.-based company dedicated to power-line networking designs.
"Most rooms have more electrical outlets than phone jacks, which gives users more options with our technology," said Mantovani. However, with no products expected for several months, Conexant is running significantly behind in the race to colonize consumers' homes.
More or less
The wireless camp has the most momentum but the least unity. Several companies already sell wireless networking equipment, for either the home or businesses, using a variety of incompatible formats. Those formats include HomeRF, promoted chiefly by Intel Corp., along with three versions of wireless Ethernet, defined by the IEEE 802.11 working group.
"We have the only home networking product that is being used in large numbers," claimed Judy Baliman, North American marketing manager for Lucent Microelectronics' Orinoco line of wireless networking devices. Lucent makes that assertion based on its design win with Apple Computer Inc., which is using Lucent chips for its Airport line of wireless networking systems, built into the latest generation of its desktops.
While she conceded that some of these internal chips may be sitting idle, it's a pretty reasonable claim that few of those paying for the addition of an Airport node-which is required to link PCs and peripherals-are going to shove them into the back of the closet. Lucent also offers the same technology in its own systems for use with Windows-based PCs.
Lucent's products use the 802.11b version of wireless Ethernet, which delivers up to 11 Mbits/s of total bandwidth, with a range of about 500 feet. That is a significant step up from the original 802.11 specification, which offered only 2 Mbits/s.
Even faster is the 802.11a format, which can deliver bandwidth of up to 54 Mbits/s but which will not be available until later this year. The drawback is that it transmits signals in a completely different spectrum, the 5-GHz range, instead of the 2.4-GHz band used by all other wireless Ethernet products. That means the existing installed base can't be upgraded.
Chris Fisher, vice president of sales and marketing for Radiata, an Australian startup focusing on this technology, said that 802.11b has yet to become entrenched in the marketplace. In Fisher's view, Radiata's format could become the dominant wireless networking technology because of its higher bandwidth. And Fisher said that prices are comparable to those seen in 802.11b products. "The 802.11a format will be here this year, and we think it has the ability to become a mainstream technology," he said.
The key, according to Fisher, is the bigger bandwidth, which will facilitate the emergence of a new class of home networking applications. The current vision for home networks is to simply link up a few computers, a printer or two, send Internet access to both the kids' rooms and the home office, and maybe transfer some information like digital photographs. Fisher and the other executives advise people to think far beyond that, to a wired home with a variety of interactive entertainment modes all routed through the network.
Imagine a single network controlling access to TV programs, interactive gaming, video-on-demand and digital audio. Users can link their TV sets and set-top boxes, game consoles, home audio systems and other electronic equipment, all through the same network. If there is enough bandwidth. "We see a huge need emerging in the home market for interactivity," Fisher said.
Mike Wolf, enterprise and LAN services analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group, agreed. "For the first few years people were just thinking about sharing Internet access, but home networks really need to evolve into some cool applications." Most of these will require some type of streaming-video capability, which he said will require bandwidth of at least 25 Mbits/s. While the 802.11a spec offers that type of power, neither the HomePNA nor the HomePlug group has any current technology in that range, although both promise that later generations of their formats will deliver higher speeds.
In the meantime, Wolf said digital audio may emerge as a driver for home networking technology. Downloading music is becoming increasingly popular, and the capability to route songs throughout the home may be something that users will pay for now. Even more important, without a video component, digital audio is one application that can be delivered now, with current technology.
The final key to this puzzle is broadband access in the home, because without a fat pipe delivering a wide variety of video, audio and Internet content, there just isn't any data to distribute. "It's like the chicken-and-egg question. Broadband is very important," said the HomePlug group's Mantovani. "It goes hand in hand with home networking."
In the end, most vendors agree there will likely be room for more than one format, but they are all trying to get established now as the market prepares for liftoff.
"They are trying to time the market, which could take off next year as broadband becomes more common," predicted Wolf.