Electronic Design

Home Networking: What, When, And How It Can Bloom

The idea of home networking isn't new. In fact, I had my first home network in 1995, and so did others. But it's even easier today because the technology and the products are here. What's lacking is the market. It will take three major breakthroughs to make it blossom.

First, you need a really good reason to have a home network. Many households now have two or more PCs, making it necessary to share a printer and Internet connection. If you have a fast digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem, it makes sense to add a home gateway and build your home net.

The second thing that will help users justify the expense of a home network is at least one relevant application beyond the sharing of the Internet connection and a printer. What about video streaming or home control and security? It depends on your want or need. Maybe just sharing an Internet connection is enough. Then again, perhaps the average person simply doesn't require a home net or else doesn't understand what it can do. We invented the technology, so why not invent the application that will make it fly?

A third breakthrough is cost and simplicity. If the hardware and software are cheap and easy to install, they will sell. Vendors in this market are now testing the waters with different systems and prices. Right now, prices are still a bit too high.

There are three leading contenders for the technology: phone line, wireless, and power line. The leader seems to be products blessed by the Home Phone Networking Alliance (www.HomePNA.org). This system uses installed home-phone wiring to carry data, which is modulated on a carrier above 2 MHz so that it won't interfere with normal telephone use, or even a DSL line. Data rates can be as high as 10 Mbits/s.

Wireless systems are available too. HomeRF (www.HomeRF.org) defines a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum system with frequency-shift keying (FSK) in the 2.4-GHz band that it shares with the IEEE-802.11b and Bluetooth standards. Recently, the FCC boosted its basic 1.6-Mbit/s data rate to 10 Mbits/s.

But that may not be enough to save it from competition with the wireless Ethernet standard 802.11b, which continues to grow in popularity daily. This 11-Mbit/s system has many supporters and manufacturers. It's reliable, and the interoperability between units from different manufacturers is excellent thanks to the Wi-Fi qualification effort (www.wi-fi.org). I recently tested one of Lucent's 802.11b wireless gateways and found it fast and simple to set up. Plus, it works over an incredibly long range. Still, it's a bit pricey for home use.

Wireless technology will no doubt remain the most expensive, but prices will continue to decline. Inexpensive Bluetooth systems may become available, although only time will tell if Bluetooth is reliable and fast enough for the home environment.

Power-line systems also are available. These modulate the data on high-frequency carriers, which are transported over the home ac wiring. HomePlug (www.homeplug.org) sponsors the favored system. It uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) and digital quadrature phase-shift keying (DQPSK) to produce up to a 14-Mbit/s data rate. It should be very reliable even in the presence of the high noise and attenuation of the ac power line. These units seem to be the least popular despite the ubiquity of ac outlets in a home.

It looks as though all of these technologies will coexist in the home market. Most consumers don't care which one wins out as long as it's easy to set up and use. If I had to bet on one home-networking technology, it would be wireless. It may seem like the 802.11b standard has won the battle, but I'm not ruling out HomeRF or even Bluetooth.

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