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Giants team on home networking

High-profile industry players are banding together to promote a new standard for wireless communications within the home.

A consortium of high-profile industry players are banding together to promote a new standard for wireless communications within the home.

The new effort, announced at this week's Computer Telephony Expo '98 trade show, intends to make it easy for consumer devices, cordless phones, peripherals, and PCs to communicate with each other in a home via digital wireless technology.

Among the participants are software giant Microsoft, microchip kingpin Intel, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, among others.

All are part of a union calling itself the Home Radio Frequency Working Group (HRFWG). The work within the organization is expected to result in a specification called the Shared Wireless Access Protocol (SWAP), expected to be published as a standard by the fall of this year, with commercial products expected to support the enhancements by the second half of next year.

A variety of companies from different corners of the industry continue to converge on the home, believing it to be the next hot market to get wired with multiple PCs and high-speed Net access.

The emerging networking arm of chip giant Intel as well as veteran Cisco Systems have made it clear they will invest heavily in operations directed at the consumer who does not necessarily know anything about devices such as routers and switches.

Others are placing huge bets on a variety of high-speed access methods intended for home use, such as DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modems and back-end equipment.

Last fall, Microsoft signed a deal with Tut Systems, a small maker of networking equipment for the home, so that Windows-based PCs could be easily connected within a residence over existing wiring. Tut makes a "hub" device called HomeRun that creates an in-home Ethernet network.

Analysts have noted that this connected "nirvana" will not come any time soon, given the various requirements necessary to make home users desire such advanced technology. It is also unclear how much of a market there will be for wireless devices in the home.

But proponents of the effort insist that with an era of multiple PCs in the home dawning, naturally there needs to be innovation in the way those machines talk to one another. Steve Whalley, marketing chair for the HRFWG and connectivity initiatives manager at Intel, said many home owners may not want to rewire their house to become networked.

"That will drive the need for connectivity between them," he said. "I believe it will be fairly widely adopted."

The SWAP effort intends to define a common manner in which different voice and data devices can communicate in a home environment. The intent is to provide a way for a home to be as interlinked as possible, with users being able to receive incoming faxes on a cordless handheld device or activate other electronic devices with a simple voice command.

HP is already floating a device communications protocol to the industry with wireless capabilities. It was not immediately clear how that work would interoperate with the SWAP protocol.