Mobile

Home-wireless boom could boost Wi-Fi

As more people connect to the Net from home wirelessly, the Wi-Fi standard stands to gain ground over HomeRF, according to recent research.

Researchers are anticipating a boom in people setting up wireless networks in their homes, even as the standards for such local area networks shift to new technologies.

"The idea of being wireless-connected to the Internet is slowly becoming flashy and sexy, at the same time boosting mobility and productivity," analyst Gemma Paulo of Cahners In-Stat/MDR wrote in a recent report. "Users want to be wirelessly connected throughout their home environment: on the couch, by the pool, (or) on the front porch."

A wireless network allows consumers to connect PDAs, laptop computers and PCs to each other and to the Internet without the limitations of a wire connection through a LAN (local area network).

The Cahners report also said the networking protocol 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, will gain significant market share over the competing standard, HomeRF. HomeRF was used in 45 percent of the home wireless networking market in 2000 but dropped to 30 percent in 2001 and is losing ground.

One of the main reasons for Wi-Fi's ascendance is the number of companies promoting the standard.

"802.11 technology is available from many different suppliers, so there's greater availability, and competition will push prices lower," said analyst Joseph Byrne of Gartner Dataquest. Byrne compared the competition to the video standards war between VHS and Betamax, which VHS eventually won because it was more widely available.

HomeRF claims big-name supporters like Motorola, Nokia and Siemens, but those companies also support Wi-Fi, as do many others, including Microsoft and Lucent Technologies. HomeRF's cause looked bleak when Intel pulled out its support to concentrate exclusively on Wi-Fi.

But HomeRF's supporters maintain that there is room for more than one standard in the home market, and that HomeRF offers more attractive features than Wi-Fi.

"HomeRF's contention from the very beginning has been that home networking is much more than just two PCs connected to the Internet," said Ken Haase, the general chairman of the HomeRF Working Group.

Haase mentioned that Siemens announced Monday the availability of its wireless network gear called the voice data gateway, which transmits high-speed Internet data to home computer devices and voice calls to cordless phones.

The HomeRF standard also won a small victory when AT&T announced Tuesday that it was joining a HomeRF working group that develops the technology.

AT&T says it wants to keep its options open: "AT&T is standards-agnostic when it comes to home networking," said AT&T spokeswoman Ellen Zundl. AT&T "likes to keep an open mind and is exploring new technologies."

Wi-Fi also has a lead in the business market, which gives the protocol an advantage in the home market. "If you were using (Wi-Fi) at work or while traveling, you'd be more inclined to use it at home also," Byrne said.

Yet Byrne also believes it is premature to start writing HomeRF's epitaph, saying it is possible that future versions of the technology will also run Wi-Fi, which could forge a peaceful coexistence.

Cahners research predicts that even though HomeRF's market share is shrinking, companies that support it will still sell more equipment in the next few years. That could help, according to Byrne.

"HomeRF might become small enough to become a niche market so that the (Wi-Fi) guys will just focus on competing with each other," he said.