Non-Ethernet solutions do exist

When you work with computer technology on a daily basis, you can easily forget that the knowledge that is simple to you is usually far more arcane to people who aren't involved in the world of technology. This knowledge gulf is highlighted for me when a friend or relative asks about setting up a home network. For a long time, I responded to these questions by telling my friends to buy a couple of cheap Ethernet cards, an inexpensive hub, and some premade cables. At the retail prices that computer superstores or mainstream electronics retailers charge, the price for all these components is less than $100. So, the "Go buy some Ethernet stuff" answer has always worked for me.

Not a Simple Proposition
Recently, however, home networking has become more complex. No longer do my friends simply want to hook up two computers sitting next to each other; now they want to connect the computers in their kids' room, in their spouse's home office, and in the den. Depending on the person's level of technical competence (or whether he or she can talk me into helping), I still recommend Ethernet (although pulling Category 5 cable through a house is definitely not for the faint of heart).

For my friends who are renters, though, pulling cable isn't a viable option. In addition, geographic location can make a difference in how easy cabling is. For example, my house in the Northeast has a full basement, so I ran drops down to the basement and placed hubs wherever I felt they were appropriate. However, although my friends in south Florida have heard of basements, they aren't really on a first-name basis with them. If these friends want to cable their homes for traditional Ethernet, they must locate a place to use as a wiring closet and run all their cables to that point. This effort is more than most people are willing to expend to set up a home network. So what are their alternatives?

The Contenders
A quick look at current nontraditional network technologies reveals three contenders (aside from Ethernet) for the title of best home-networking environment. These technologies are wireless, phone-line, and power-line networking.

Wireless networking. The alternative I place first is wireless networking. Unfortunately, the cost to access the 11Mbps 802.11b networking standard is pretty steep. A simple four-machine network would require network access point equipment at a starting cost of more than $500. Add wireless network adapters for every computer, and you'll easily break the $1000 price point.

Fortunately, some wireless solutions are more compatible with household budgets. For example, the Proxim Symphony Cordless Networking Suite can cost as little as $120 per computer. Symphony doesn't require a network access point. Simply install a PCI card or PC Card in your computer, plug in its antenna, install the software, and you're up and running. Symphony's 50-meter range means you probably don't have to worry about networking your neighbors' computers accidentally, but the range is adequate for the average home. You shouldn't have any problems adding as many computers as you need to your home or small office/home office (SOHO) environment, and Proxim offers a wireless Ethernet bridge, so you can share the hard-wired broadband connection with your wireless networked computers.

Intel offers a solution that is similar to Symphony in both price and performance. The AnyPoint Wireless Network connects to your local computer by USB, so you needn't open the box. Both Symphony and AnyPoint share a handicap, however: Performance is well under the 2Mbps mark. To people familiar with 100Mbps or even 10Mbps performance, moving data at about 1.5Mbps will seem awfully slow. But remember that even 1.5Mbps is likely faster than your Internet connection and will still be useful for passing files between computers and sharing printers and similar peripherals. However, if you need to pass large files between computers on a regular basis, the low-speed wireless solution isn't for you.

Phone-line networking. The fastest of the nontraditional networking alternatives is the phone-line technology that vendors such as 3Com and Intel offer. This technology lets you plug in to your household telephone lines to create a connection as fast as 10Mbps, without affecting your telephone usage. Wherever you have a correctly wired phone extension, you'll be able to connect a computer to your SOHO network. (Telephone connections are created with two-wire pairs. You can pair wires randomly without affecting telephone operation, but to allow a network connection, you must pair specific wires.)

At press time, PC Cards weren't available for phone-line technology, but PCI and USB connections were. 3Com expects to ship a PC Card solution by fourth quarter 2000. Individual adapters sell for about $65; starter kits with two cards, cabling, upgrade software for Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE), and Microsoft Home Networking Software (for Win9x) sell at discount retail for about $100. This type of networking is perfect for people who rent or who don't want to run cable.

Power-line networking. For people for whom plugging a computer into the wall defines high technology, Inari has a home-networking solution. For less than $40, PassPort Plug-In Network lets you connect two computers and a printer anyplace an electrical outlet exists. The computers connect to the PassPort adapters through a parallel port connector. Plug the PassPort adapters into an outlet, install the PassPort software on your computer, and you're networked. Networking doesn't get any easier than that. Inari also includes a firewall and configuration wizard so that you can isolate your powerline network from other users who might be using the same power transformer.

If power-line networking is this easy and inexpensive, why haven't I ranked it at the top of my list? Simply because the first generation of power-line networking products are slow—only 350Kbps. And although 350Kbps is more than 6 times as fast as a 56Kbps download, that speed is not suitable for much more than sharing small files and a printer for small print jobs. By the time you read this, the second generation of power-line products should be appearing, and they'll support 2Mbps networks.

If Inari can keep PassPort Plug-in Network's price in the same range the product occupies now, the company will have a winner on its hands for the SOHO network market. And the company has announced plans to ship a 10Mbps version of PassPort Plug-in Network in 2001. If the company keeps a price edge as it increases performance, these power-line solutions could easily become the SOHO network of choice. But for now, little recommends the 350Kbps technology unless it's the only accessible solution.

Windows Support Is on the Way
At press time, none of the solutions I've described support Windows 2000, although all have promised Win2K support in fourth quarter 2000. Only Inari offered support for Windows NT 4.0 at press time.