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Wireless networking baffles some household customers

Successful installation can be a headache, especially for the less technologically inclined. Do you know what a router does?

Anne McNamara needs a wireless Internet network in her Germantown, Md., home. It's a good thing her son knows how to set one up.

"If Kevin wasn't here, I probably wouldn't attempt it at all," said McNamara, 49, who describes her computer knowledge skills as "Amish."

With six children and two adults across three floors of the McNamara household, someone is always online. Having a wireless network makes it easier for them to be connected at the same time, and more American homes are discovering the joys of Internet surfing from anywhere in the house.

Like scores of other people, the McNamaras have discovered that successful installation can be a headache, especially for the less technologically inclined. For those without a friend or relative steeped in the technology arts or access to a professional, returning the gear may be the only option.

Dena Andre, 57, returned her NetGear router to the friend who gave it to her last January after she failed to get it to work.

When she tried a Linksys router, it took multiple customer service calls, both her daughters, her piano teacher and her friend to figure out why she couldn't get her two Dell computers on the network.

They all failed.

It took a technician from the Geek Squad, Best Buy's home computer tech service, to figure out the problem. He nailed it in less than an hour.

"The geek was absolutely necessary," Andre said.

His services also set her back $180, plus the $10 tip she insisted that he take.

Free--and easy-to-read--help is available at several other Web sites for people who want to avoid a Geek Squad fee.

But not everyone gets that far. "Ultimately, nothing is as effective as having someone on site to be able to troubleshoot," said Ross Rubin, an analyst at the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y.

Best Buy salesman Ninart Amaraphorn has seen his share of frustrated customers. About a quarter of the people who buy wireless networking products bring them back, he said.

"Some people, they just return them and we never see them again," Amaraphorn said.

That's because networking is not yet a consumer-friendly technology, said Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group in Seaford, N.Y.

Doherty estimates that more than a third of home-networking customers just give up and return their routers, network cards and other products.

"It's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to discuss," he said.

Retailers generally will not reveal the return rate on their networking products, but the Consumer Electronics Association put the rate at about 9 percent. About half those returns are exchanges, a spokesman said.

Linksys, one of the more popular home networking brands, has a return rate of less than 8 percent, said spokeswoman Karen Sohl.

Nevertheless, Linksys parent Cisco Systems and its competitors "still have a lot of work to do on making the products easier," she said.

Geek squad technician Matt Dworkin said he gets plenty of calls for people who support that notion.

"In a lot of cases, the biggest stumbling block is, 'Well, I couldn't get it to work,"' Dworkin said.

Geeks, of course, know their way around the centerpiece of the home network--the router.

Routers are boxes of varying shapes and sizes that direct Internet data. In a home network, they lurk unobtrusively, beaming an Internet connection to laptops and PCs.

Dworkin, who works for Geek Squad at the Best Buy in Deptford, N.J., said people who buy networking equipment to add to new computers have less trouble than people who want to wire their older computers.

"In a lot of cases they need to go into the router and configure the router," he said. "They can't just go and push an easy button."

Chief among the obstacles to wider popularity of home networks is that people simply don't know the meaning of terms like "router" or "IP address," said Stewart Wolpin, a consumer electronics expert and analyst for the Points North Group of Larchmont, N.Y.

"If you asked a hundred people walking down the street...I would bet you that 90 of them, if not 99 of them, would ask, 'What's a router?"' Wolpin said.

Dena Andre agreed. "I could be smarter about it, but I'm not, and I figure there are lots of people like me, especially in my age group."