Future of home networking rests on FCC

A forthcoming Federal Communications Commission decision will determine the future landscape of wireless technology in the home.

A forthcoming Federal Communications Commission decision will determine the future landscape of wireless technology in the home.

Intel, Motorola, Proxim and other technology firms that support a wireless standard called HomeRF want the FCC to allow them to quadruple the speed of their wireless technology.

All of these companies build networking kits that allow consumers to wirelessly link their home computers together and share a single Internet connection. The technology allows laptop owners to work untethered around the house.

But the request is running into opposition from 3Com, Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies and others that build similar wireless technology, but support a different wireless standard called 802.11B, or "Wi-Fi."

HomeRF technology currently runs at 2 megabits per second (mbps), while Wi-Fi technology runs at 11 mbps. If the FCC approves HomeRF's request, they can build technology that can run as fast as Wi-Fi products. While the slower speed is sufficient for most consumers, the faster speed will allow people to connect more than five PCs, transfer large files or graphics, and distribute video and audio across a home network.

It's still too early to determine which standard will win out in the home, but analysts say HomeRF's future rides on the FCC's decision, which could come as early as this summer.

"It's a make or break decision," said Cahners In-Stat analyst Mike Wolf. "If it doesn't pass, it's going to be hard for HomeRF to tell its supporters, 'We have a migration path for higher speeds.'"

At stake is a piece of the emerging home networking market that is expected to grow from $600 million in 2000 to more than $5.7 billion by 2004, according to a recent study by Cahners In-Stat Group.

Wireless is just a piece of the puzzle. Tech firms championing home networking envision a future where appliances, phones and all electronic devices are linked to the Internet, allowing people to adjust the air conditioning from a PC, for example. The firms are also building networking kits that let people network devices by plugging them in phone jacks or electrical outlets.

Ben Manny, chair of HomeRF and director of wireless residential communications at Intel, said its proposal to the FCC would allow the two standards to compete fairly in the market. He is confident the FCC will approve it.

"(Wi-Fi has) a regulatory advantage, and we believe the government doesn't want to favor a particular technology," Manny said.

At issue is the 2.4 GHz portion of the radio spectrum, or the so-called "airwaves," in which the HomeRF and Wi-Fi technology operate.

The wireless technology works much like cars on a highway. Wi-Fi's technology is "direct sequence," meaning information flows through the same lane on a wireless "highway." HomeRF's technology is called, "frequency hopping," meaning the information bounces from lane to lane as it travels to its destination.

HomeRF wants to widen the lanes fivefold, so more information can flow through at a faster rate. Wi-Fi supporters are fighting against HomeRF's proposal because they say it will interfere with their technology.

"It hops around on a narrow signal, but now if you take that narrow signal and widen it out, it's like a truck taking up several lanes, hopping around, squashing things in its path," said David Cohen, vice chair of the Wi-Fi organization called Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance and product manager for 3Com's wireless division.

A third wireless standard, called Bluetooth, also operates in the 2.4 GHz portion of the spectrum--and proponents are also against HomeRF's proposal.

Bluetooth is an emerging standard that will connect personal technology, such as cell phones, Palm and Windows CE devices, computers and monitors. It is considered a replacement for networking cords and doesn't compete with either HomeRF or Wi-Fi.

HomeRF's proposal, if approved, "will cause harmful interference to Bluetooth products," Bluetooth supporters wrote in a recent letter to the FCC.

Manny of HomeRF disagrees, saying technology that uses the three standards causes interference today. HomeRF's proposal--originally submitted in the fall of 1998--doesn't increase the interference, he said.

Most consumers will only support one standard, so the interference won't be much of a problem, said Cahners In-Stat's Wolf. "If they're a reasonable distance apart, like a room or two apart, there aren't a whole lot of problems," he said.

An FCC spokesman said a staff recommendation to the FCC commissioners is expected within a month. A final decision by the commissioners is expected within a month after that.

If approved, Proxim chief executive David King said HomeRF would update its standard early next year to support the faster speeds and increase the number of voice channels from four to eight. The voice support will allow cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) providers the ability to offer phone services over the Internet, King said. The voice channels will allow consumers to create multiple phone lines within the home.

Regardless, analysts give Wi-Fi a competitive edge because several networking firms, including 3Com, Cisco and Lucent, are supporting Wi-Fi in both the office and the home.

Intel and other HomeRF supporters are supporting HomeRF in the home and Wi-Fi in the workplace. They argue that HomeRF is better for consumers because it's cheaper and supports voice calls better, two assertions that Wi-Fi supporters dispute.

"It's a fairness issue, and it's falling squarely on the FCC to make a decision," Wolf said. "In the short term, this is what HomeRF needs, but it doesn't ensure their long-term survivability."