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Competing efforts may threaten home-networking standard

An alliance of technology firms forms this week to develop standards for networking on power outlets, but it's struggling over the process.

    An alliance of technology firms formed this week to develop a common way for consumers to connect their computers and other electronic devices through existing power outlets. But like many standards efforts, there is disagreement over the process.

    Thirteen tech companies, including Cisco Systems, Intel and Compaq Computer, launched a nonprofit group to develop a way for all appliances with power cords to communicate and share Internet access. Theoretically, a stereo in the living room could send music to a PC in another room, while a computer in a bedroom could turn on a Web-enabled dishwasher.

    But the new nonprofit group, called the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, isn't the only effort to create a home networking standard for electrical outlets. Late last year, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) formed a group that includes Sony and Thomson Consumer Electronics to develop a similar standard. Some companies, including 3Com and Panasonic, and powerline companies Enikia, Adaptive Networks and iTran, are members of both groups. The two groups are currently discussing whether to collaborate.

    But why did the companies create a new standards group when one already existed?

    An Enikia executive said speed is an issue. The HomePlug coalition can build a standard faster than a typical standards organization such as the CEA, said Jarek Chylinski, Enikia's vice president of Global Marketing.

    "We are a group of highly motivated companies that have aggressive plans to build a specification fast," Chylinsky said.

    The home networking market is starting to take off as high-speed Internet access becomes more widely available in homes. And technology companies want to offer a mix of home networking products.

    Two previous coalitions have created standards for wireless and phoneline connections in the home. A phoneline networking kit allows PCs to network with each other by simply plugging them into regular phone jacks. To remain competitive, the powerline companies decided they needed to create a standard.

    Analyst firm Cahners In-Stat predicts that phoneline will capture 50 to 70 percent of the market, wireless will get a third, leaving powerline with less than 10 percent.

    "We have a feeling of urgency here," said Alberto Mantovani, president of the HomePlug Alliance and division director for strategic programs for chipmaker Conexant. "We have an opportunity to create a market for powerline, and it's a small window of opportunity. We don't have time to spend the next three to five years figuring out which technology is best."

    Both groups have similar goals, however. They both want to create a standard that will handle not only Internet data, but also audio and video. Their plan is to test the technology from powerline companies, such as Enikia and Intellon, and pick the best one as the standard. The only difference is HomePlug hopes to finalize a standard by September, while the Consumer Electronics group wants to nail down a standard by the end of this year.

    One start-up, whose technology is crucial, is a member of the Consumer Electronics effort and refuses to join the new HomePlug group.

    Inari, which spun off from software maker Novell several years ago, is the first powerline company to create a home networking kit that allows PCs to link and share Internet access through electrical outlets. And company executives say they hope to sell enough products in the market to become a de facto standard.

    Todd Green, Inari's director of product marketing, said the company joined HomePlug briefly but decided to drop out because it felt HomePlug wasn't an open enough process. Green said it was unfair that rivals Intellon and Enikia have more power as founding members, while the other powerline Firms--such as Inari, iTran and Adaptive, wouldn't have as much.

    In the meantime, Green is hoping his company can take an early lead in the market with a new, faster product later this year. "We believe our technology will stand on its own," he said.

    Mantovani, of the HomePlug Alliance, said the group is open and fair. The alliance asked 20 companies to submit their technologies, including Inari's, and have received about 10 submissions, he said. To keep the effort fair, the alliance will not allow the powerline companies to vote, he said.

    Similar to the standard efforts for wireless and phoneline, the company whose technology becomes the standard will benefit. It gets a head start in selling chips for the home networking kits since they know the technology, while the other powerline companies would have to learn the technology and have their products conform to the standard.

    Bill Rose, a vice president of Leviton, a company that joined the Consumer Electronics standards effort, said the two standards groups are talking about working together.

    "It makes no sense to come out with two standards," Rose said. "There is a desire to coordinate the two efforts, so that when we reach the end, there's a single standard."

    Analysts agree, saying the whole powerline home networking effort will only work if there's one standard allowing electronic devices to communicate.

    "There's like six or seven of these little start-ups who want to be big players in the market, and they're playing politics behind the scenes," said Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Mike Wolf. "Ultimately, the big computer companies are not going to put up with a bunch of competing standards."