Sony shows off range of home LANs

Sony Corp. last month provided a glimpse of the many choices consumers will soon face when putting together home networks for entertainment, information and telecommuting.

The entertainment giant’s huge booth at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas included demonstrations of systems that may use four different communication technologies.

Home LANs were are a hot topic at the show as products using the Bluetooth wireless specification finally begin to hit the market and join a plethora of other wireless and wireline technologies. Using home LANs, consumers can link together broadband Internet connections, multiple PCs, connected PDAs (personal digital assistants) and digital game and entertainment devices. However, the range of network technologies available, all useful for different applications, may make choices difficult.

At Sony’s booth, first-day visitors saw demonstrations of networks that can use IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN, Ethernet, IEEE 1394 wireline technology (called iLink by Sony) or the Bluetooth short-range wireless system to connect PCs, portable digital devices and home-entertainment products, including TVs and stereos.

Sony’s vision sees consumers downloading movies, games and other digital entertainment from the Internet as part of a service that delivers Sony-produced content. Gateway devices will bring in the data from the Internet and deliver it on to PCs and entertainment devices.

However, the range of technologies and their capabilities is huge, including Bluetooth’s point-to-point 1Mbps (bit per second) connection, Ethernet at 10Mbps or 100Mbps, IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN at 11Mbps and IEEE 1394 at up to 400Mbps.

At the centre of one demonstration network is Sony’s Broadband Gate, an Internet gateway that can bring in streaming content directly from the Internet via cable, 10Mbps FTTH (fibre to the home) or 52Mbps VDSL (very-high-speed digital subscriber line). Sony demonstrated both _igitised standard TV and digital HDTV (high-definition TV) programming, with interactive features, coming through the device.

Consumers will be able to watch the programs over PCs connected to the Broadband Gate via either iLink or 10Mbps (bits per second) or 100Mbps Ethernet. Ethernet is likely to be an early choice of consumers because it is a widely-available connection option on PCs, said Kanji Mihara, a system architect in the video networking system products department at Sony.

The Broadband Gate will ship “very soon,” Mihara said – in either 2001 or 2002.

Closer on Sony’s radar screen is its Entertainment Server System, which will probably ship in mid-2001 and take advantage of more commonly-available cable and DSL systems that may not provide the powerful incoming bandwidth of VDSL. The Entertainment Server System includes both an Internet gateway and a server that stores entertainment content such as movies and music on a hard disk. Sony demonstrated PCs accessing movie clips from the server over an 11Mbps wireless LAN. The future 802.11a standard, to offer 36Mbps to 54Mbps, will boost performance further.

Sony probably will package the system with a service that draws on the company’s films, music and games, said Ko Togashi, manager of the Business Strategy Department of Sony’s Personal IT Network Company. Pricing will depend on how the package works, he said.

In yet another display, a PC playing digital music files fed the output of high-end Sony stereo components through iLink. For that application, high sound quality demanded the ultra-high-speed wired connection, a Sony spokesman said.

Also on view at the booth were a prototype PC, PDA (personal digital assistant), Internet gateway, cell phone and phone headset that use Bluetooth. The technology provides for short-range, low-speed, point-to-point transfers of small amounts of data, such as synchronizing a PC and a PDA.

Togashi dismissed concerns about a conflict between Bluetooth and 802.11b, both of which operate in the 2.4GHz frequency band.

“Except for extreme cases where the two are very close together, you’re not going to have a conflict,” Togashi said. Sony has tested Bluetooth and 802.11b on PC Card devices in adjacent slots in the same notebook PC and found they both worked, though with a 30 per cent degradation in performance, Togashi said.

However, Togashi had harsher words for HomeRF, another home network technology that uses the same band. He warned that the 1.6Mbps wireless LAN technology, which Sony is not using, could conflict with other systems.

HomeRF “doesn’t have the flexibility or scalability that we think is needed,” Togashi said. “We don’t endorse it in any way.”

Sony also has not adopted phone-line-based HomePNA or power-line networks, because they are useful mostly in the U.S. and not in Europe or Sony’s home market of Japan, Togashi said.

For the world at large, the company is looking to wireless in the long run.

“If you really think big, it has to be wireless,” Togashi said.

– IDG News Service