HomeRF wireless networks gain speed

HomeRF-based wireless networking technology, which is playing catch-up with archrival 802.11b standard, moves a key step forward with the announcement of the first shipping products to match 802.11b’s 10-megabits per second speed.

Proxim Inc.’s Symphony HomeRF, announced on Monday, is the first product line to support the HomeRF 2.0 standard. That spec offers speeds of up to 10 megabits per second, more than six times the 1.6-mbps limit of previous HomeRF Working Group products. Proxim’s new products should deliver real-world throughput on a par with that of 802.11b networks, which have a theoretical maximum of 11 mbps.

The Symphony HomeRF line includes a US$200 base station, and $100 PC Card and Universal Serial Bus adapters. Prices are comparable to the most inexpensive 802.11b products; brand-name 802.11b hardware generally costs a bit more. Proxim expects products to be in stores by mid-October.

Symphony HomeRF products will be backward compatible with legacy HomeRF adapters. This will allow upgraders to use older hardware, but they won’t gain speed if they do so.

Improving Security

Aside from HomeRF’s new capability to compete against 802.11b on speed, HomeRF proponents say the standard is superior in other regards.

HomeRF’s frequency-hopping technology is inherently more secure and less vulnerable to interference from other devices in the home, says Jeff Orr, Proxim’s product manager for home networking. Microwave ovens, cordless phones, and similar devices sometimes interfere with 802.11b’s spread-spectrum technology, he notes. Indeed, vulnerabilities in 802.11b’s Wired Equivalent Protocol encryption have been widely reported in recent months.

Orr says HomeRF is also better suited for streaming multimedia and telephony, applications that may become more important for home users as new convergence devices hit the market.

Marching Uphill

But HomeRF 2.0 products still face an uphill battle for consumer acceptance. Dozens of vendors are already shipping 802.11b products, and the standard’s proliferation in corporate and public environments is a distinct advantage as well. Somebody who already has an 802.11b-equipped notebook is unlikely to want to invest in a different network for the home.

Also, 802.11b’s architects are now readying new versions of the standard that will improve encryption (802.11i), make the standard more multimedia-friendly (802.11e), and up the speed to a whopping 50 mbps (802.11a)–more than enough to move full-motion video through the home.

Gartner Inc. analyst Van Baker says he used to be a HomeRF proponent, especially a couple of years ago when the first 802.11b products were considerably more expensive. But with 802.11b hardware now barely more expensive than HomeRF products, he doesn’t believe anything will stop 802.11b’s momentum.

“I think HomeRF is dead,” Baker says. “The advantages they try to tout now are just not that compelling.”

The multimedia and telephony applications haven’t arrived yet, so consumers aren’t concerned about them, he adds. And while the security benefits of HomeRF may be real, Baker concludes, “I just don’t see security as being an issue in the consumer space.”