The Year Of The Home Network?

Easy-to-use new systems and cheap PCs could make it a big hit in '99

The idea of linking home computers in an office-style network has been around about as long as the computers themselves. But despite the steady growth of multicomputer households, few consumers were interested. The technology was too hard for people to use, and the benefits didn't justify the considerable expense of installing special wiring.

This will be the year that home networks start to make sense. Computers are cheap enough that Dataquest estimates that 15 million U.S. households own at least two. Soon, inexpensive high-speed Internet service will become available to millions of homes through cable systems or new fast phone links. But these connections will come one to a house. So for computers to share them, they'll have to be networked.

DO IT YOURSELF. Equally important, you will be able to link computers at low cost, without networking expertise and without installing any new cabling. The method that will make the biggest initial splash, at least in North America, will use existing phone wiring to transmit data. A consortium of companies called the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance jump-started the market by agreeing that everyone would build their first products using a technology called HomeRun from Tut Systems, so that equipment from different companies will work together.

I built a do-it-yourself system with hardware from Tut. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked on the 50-year-old phone wiring in my home. Configuring the network software was a bit tricky, but I got two Windows PCs and a Macintosh talking to each other and sharing an ISDN Internet connection. Although Internet sharing is the best reason for a home network, computers can also exchange files and share accessories such as printers or Zip drives--or run multiplayer games.

The setup is a lot easier with the built-in networking from PC makers such as Compaq Computer and add-on kits from companies such as Diamond Multimedia Systems and Boca Research. These packages include software that configures the network automatically, allowing all PCs to share files and printers and setting up one computer as an Internet gateway.

HomeRun networks run at one megabit per second. That's one-tenth the speed of standard office networks, but plenty fast for home use. And because they use standard Ethernet technology, HomeRun systems can be cheap; Compaq expects that phone- wire networking should add less than $50 to the price of a desktop system.

The limitation on phone-wire systems is that you can only put a PC where there's a phone jack. This will be a problem in some older homes and especially outside North America, where most homes have only one or two jacks. Here, a wireless solution is a better answer. In operation and setup, it is much like phone-wire networking except that it uses radio waves.

Wireless networking companies have agreed on a draft standard, but current products from different vendors won't work together. Wireless is a bit faster than phone wire, but also more expensive. Diamond sells its HomeFree wireless networking in starter kits consisting of two plug-in boards for desktops or one plug-in board plus a PC Card for a laptop for about $200. Prices for Proxim's more versatile Symphony system start at $149 for a desktop card. Proxim eliminates the need for a gateway PC that must be powered up all the time with simple standalone gateways that give any networked computer access to the Net. A gateway, including a standard v.90 modem, costs $299, while a device that works with a cable modem or fast phone link is $399.

SLOW AND STEADY. The final method uses electrical wiring to carry data. The version I tried, the $200 Passport Plug-In Network from Intelogis, consists of two computer modules and a printer unit. The big, awkward modules plug into a power outlet and connect by cable to the computer's printer port, blocking the use of other parallel-port devices such as scanners, and the system runs at just 350 kilobits. Powerline networking will likely end up being used to manage home climate-control and security systems, applications where fast data transfers are not needed.

One of the best things about the home networking products I've seen is the effort companies have made to make configuring and running the network truly easy. The systems still aren't perfect, but if you have succeeded in setting up a PC to use the Internet, you should be able to manage home networking without trouble. Considering the amount of difficult technology that must be hidden to get computers talking to each other, this is a considerable accomplishment.

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