Small networks may be the next big thing on the homefront

Futurists insist that one day your refrigerator will talk to your PC. I have a recurring dream in which my dog learns to talk. So far, little progress has been made on either front. But home networks are taking off. As is often the case, the killer application is so obvious most futurists missed it: sharing high-speed Internet access.

Once homes are equipped with access-sharing networks, applications that sounded futuristic become eminently practical. Your pooch may never recite poetry, but with a US$60 Webcam you can look in on your favourite canine from the office. And with a US$99 wireless transceiver, you can pump Internet radio from your PC to your sound system.

Networks will extend the Web’s tentacles to every nook and cranny of the home. In some applications, home networks will reach out to the ‘Net for videos, music and e-books. In others, remote services will look in on the home to monitor security, diagnose appliance problems and turn off lawn sprinklers when it’s raining.

Entertainment will be the biggest motivation for installing home networks. There are thousands of Internet radio stations to choose from, and sites such as let anyone become a broadcaster. Those with broadband access can get a taste of Internet video at

Education is another key driver. Many schools routinely assign homework involving ‘Net-based research. Households with two or more school-age children that can afford the extra hardware will, in the interest of family harmony, set up home networks. Home networks will inspire more schools to offer ‘Net-based instruction.

There are three basic network technology options for the home: install new wire, use existing wire or go wireless. While some pundits moan about the lack of a single standard, I suspect home networks will use different media for different purposes. The typical home network could end up looking like a miniature Internet: a “network of networks.”

The initial application, sharing high-speed ‘Net access, requires about 1Mbps to 10Mbps of throughput. The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance standard, HomePNA, uses existing telephone wires and is likely to remain dominant for the next few years.

But wireless LANs could be the ultimate winner. Today, 802.11b wireless LANs run 11Mbps, and an upgrade to 22Mbps is planned. The 802.11a standard promises speeds up to 54Mbps, and vendors speak confidently about extending that to 108Mbps and even 216Mbps.

Many say electric power wiring is the best medium for home nets because it covers every room, and most have more than one power outlet. It’s best for controlling light switches and, someday, reaching network-capable refrigerators. But HomePNA and wireless will always be faster – and easier to troubleshoot.

Someday your refrigerator will talk to your PC. And you’ll never need to find the printed owner’s guide, because you’ll access it from your Web browser. Now there’s a killer app.

Brodsky is president of Datacomm Research in Chesterfield, Mo. He can be reached at [email protected]

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