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Home networking gets a boost from new standards

3Com, Intel, and others plan to release high-speed home networking kits that will allow users to share Internet access, play games, and enjoy movies and music at home.

3Com, Intel, and others hope to release high-speed home networking kits this holiday season that will allow users to share Internet access, play games, and enjoy movies and music throughout the household.

A consortium of tech firms today announced that they have agreed on a new high-speed standard that will network PCs and peripherals, such as printers, by means of plugging into standard phone jacks. A variety of high-profile networking companies believe that an agreed-upon method for linking devices will encourage a market for networking hardware and software by making the task simple for the common homeowner.

The technology--developed by chipmaker Broadcom with help from Lucent Technologies--features data transfer speeds at 10 megabits per second (mbps), a rate ten times faster than products now shipping. The increased bandwidth will give home networks increased flexibility to handle video downloads, such as MPEG2 video streams for DVD players.

"If you're playing Quake, the game will be much faster," said Brent Lang, 3Com's marketing director for home networking. Broadcom executives said speeds of 30 mbps could be available by the end of 2000, with speeds reaching 100 mbps shortly after.

"The speed will increase every 12 to 18 months, so you can do more without concern for bandwidth," said Tony Zuccarino, marketing director for Broadcom's home networking division. "Kids could watch the Disney Channel, parents can watch HBO, and someone else in the home could be accessing the Internet."

The new devices could be the first step toward a home networking appliance that many technology and consumer electronic firms believe will serve as a central server, or "residential gateway," for all manner of electronics as well as phone services in future households.

Analysts expect home networking market to explode in the coming years with a mix of phoneline, wireless, and possibly powerline technology. The residential gateway market, in particular, is expected to grow to $2.4 billion in revenue by year 2003, according to Cahners In-Stat.

The Home PhoneLine Networking Alliance, a consortium of 97 firms, will conduct field trials before chipmakers can release chips using the new 10-mbps technology. Home networking firms said they hope to release kits in time for the Christmas season, but ship dates could be delayed to early 2000 if chipmakers run into any production problems.

"It's out of our hands. We're ready to roll, but we just need the chips," said Intel spokesman Tom Potts.

By 2000, companies will release next-generation home networking products that marry high-speed Internet access, such as digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modems, with the phoneline technology. Initial products will feature phoneline technology for ISDN and 56K modems, said Broadcom's Zuccarino.

As expected, Broadcom was picked for the new standard after it bought start-up Epigram, creator of 10-mbps home networking technology. The technology has been quickly licensed by AMD, Texas Instruments, Nortel Networks' NetGear, and others.

Eleven companies had stated their intent to submit proposals for the standard, but at the end, the only proposal came from Broadcom and Lucent, HomePNA vice president Thomas Funk said.

Thanks to their win, Broadcom and Lucent get to charge a modest licensing fee, but the majority of their profits will come from selling chipsets for home networking kits. Other chipmakers will be able to compete with Broadcom and Lucent, but the two companies will essentially have a head start since they know the technology, and can rapidly release chipsets.

The new standard--which supports the previous 1-mbps standard--includes service quality features that will allow consumers to prioritize bandwidth use, said analyst Mike Wolf of the Cahners In-Stat Group. For example, users could give Internet phone calls priority over email transmissions, he said.

HomePNA's Funk said the organization's goals for 2000 and beyond is to market phoneline technology in Asia and Western Europe and make it compatible with wireless and powerline home networking technology.