Home Networks Spotlighted at Comdex

Networks of computers and digital peripherals in office buildings are becoming old hat. Most organizations have hired a specialist to maintain the network and install new equipment as it comes in. Such an environment makes it possible to add complex new systems and software along with infrastructure (wiring) upgrades on a regular basis.

But in the home, there is no information-technology (IT) administrator. In addition, most people do not often build new houses and are unlikely to rewire their existing homes for any new network that comes along, especially at the rapid rate of change these systems seem to be experiencing. Even if you built a state-of-the-art home network within the last few years, your system might already be out of date when FireWire rolls in later next year.

To solve this problem, big money has been investing in several new companies to bring true high-speed networking into the house with the least amount of wear and tear on the walls and carpet. Last week's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas saw a multitude of "solutions," all aimed at connecting computers, TVs, set-top boxes, surround-sound systems, and maybe even your telephone into an easy-to-use network.

On the wired front, Epigram unveiled its InsideLine networking technology, as well as the first InsideLine product group for phone-line networking, the iLine10 chipset family. Epigram demonstrated a system that delivers up to 10 megabits per second (Mbps) of high-speed networking and works with existing phone wiring. Several recently announced partners, including 3Com, NETGEAR, and Texas Instruments, also demonstrated iLine10 products with 10 Mbps concurrent video, voice, and data. Manufacturers are scheduled to begin offering Epigram products based on iLine10 technology by the second half of 1999.

According to Jeff Thermond, president and CEO of Epigram, "InsideLine technology connects the vast majority of 100 million US households and 20 million US small businesses with an instant network for the growing wave of Internet communication and entertainment applications. Networked applications, including Internet access sharing, full-motion MPEG digital video, and concurrent phone services, spring to life." Epigram is also a founding member of the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA). The iLine10 chipsets will be interoperable and backward-compatible with the 1 Mbps HomePNA 1.0 specification.

On the wireless front, ShareWave, Inc. announced a system that enables 4 Mbps wireless connections between home PCs and other digital appliances for under $150 per connection. Code named "Osprey," the system includes chips and other components that will be supplied to consumer-electronics manufacturers for inclusion in new products. ShareWave intends to demonstrate the technology at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in January.

"Osprey allows manufacturers to provide high-speed, wireless, PC-to-PC connections to the consumer at affordable price points," says Jim Schraith, ShareWave president and CEO. "Products built around this technology will allow consumers to share high-bandwidth applications, including high-speed Internet access, among multiple PCs and appliances within the home."

Unlike faster wired systems such as Epigram's InsideLine, ShareWave's wireless networking technology allows reasonably high-speed connections to be located anywhere in the home, because they are not tethered to a phone jack or power outlet. For example, the company promises that the system will support transmission of digital video from a cable box or PC to a television located elsewhere in the room.

Later in 1999, ShareWave says they will introduce an 11 Mbps system that will increase the number of concurrent video channels that can be supported. ShareWave's development plans also include scaling this technology beyond 11 Mbps, which would allow broadcast of uncompromised DVD or MPEG2 audio/video signals.

Philips Electronics announced at Comdex that they will incorporate ShareWave Digital Wireless into Ambi, a wireless home-networking product for consumers that turns a TV into a big-screen PC monitor. According to Philips, Ambi establishes a high-speed, digital wireless connection between the PC and TV, allowing users to run their computer applications, including Internet access, from a TV located anywhere in the home. Ambi will be available from Philips in early 1999.

Tethered or not, expect home networks to become feasible for more homes in the near future. What we end up doing with them, however, remains anybody's guess.