Wireless home network wars

You've got a few computers. You've got broadband Internet access. Now you want to pull everything together with a wireless network so you can share the wealth of bandwidth (not to mention printers and files) without having to run cables all over the place.

Your timing is perfect. Once scarce, extremely expensive, and tough to configure, home wireless networking products are more plentiful, affordable, and consumer-friendly than ever. With one of these setups, your small business or home can have a wireless network up and running in an hour or less. It won't be dirt cheap: Expect to pay $480 to $750 for the equipment to link two PCs to each other and the Internet. But it's a lot easier than tearing up walls to string ethernet cable; and for notebook users, having the freedom to move around in a home or small office can be worth a lot.

Before you invest in a wireless network, however, you'll have to choose between two competing standards--HomeRF and 802.11b--a potentially serious complication.

Up until now, HomeRF has been more popular--largely because 802.11b (also known as Wi-Fi) did not become widely available outside the enterprise market until late last year. Wi-Fi is rapidly catching up, however, and it dominates the latest round of products. Still, the battle is far from over, and you should investigate carefully before you choose.

Why the deluge of new Wi-Fi offerings? Probably the biggest reason is their 11-mbps speed, roughly equal to that of older, wired 10-mbps ethernet networks. In contrast, HomeRF currently runs at just 1.6 mbps, though the FCC has approved a next-generation HomeRF protocol that will support speeds of up to 10 mbps. Chips supporting this faster HomeRF are due later this year and should attract more vendors to the standard. Right now, however, Intel and Proxim are the only suppliers of complete HomeRF systems.

Other advantages of Wi-Fi include a far greater range--typically 300 to 500 feet indoors versus 150 to 300 feet for HomeRF--and a planned upgrade path to 54 mbps (although you'll likely need new hardware when that version arrives). Finally, Wi-Fi enjoys widespread use outside the home. Since numerous enterprises have 802.11b wireless networks, their employees already have Wi-Fi PC Cards for their notebooks. Several companies are beginning to offer subscription-based 802.11b Internet access in public spaces such as airports and hotel lobbies. Starbucks has said it will launch 802.11b access in its cafes this spring.

Security may be an issue for users of these public Wi-Fi networks, however, because none of the networks yet incorporate the standard's Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption algorithm. If your data is sensitive, you should take additional precautions--such as using a virtual private network (VPN) or encrypting sensitive e-mail--when using a public 802.11b network.

And enabling WEP may not allay all concerns. A group of Berkeley researchers recently identified weaknesses in the protocol that hackers could exploit. The Blowfish encryption used by HomeRF has known vulnerabilities, too; so again, extra precautions are wise unless you feel certain that no hacker can get within range of the network's signal.

The principal advantages of HomeRF start with price. For example, a Proxim Symphony-HRF gateway--the centerpiece of a wireless home network--costs $199, which is $100 to $200 less than most Wi-Fi gateways. The differential is less for the PC adapters: HomeRF network cards range from $100 to $135, whereas Wi-Fi cards for home use run between $100 and $175.

On the technological side, one of HomeRF's advantages is built-in support for voice communications (so you can get decent voice quality if you want to use your network to manage phone calls as well as data). Another plus is the wideband frequency-hopping transmission that HomeRF radios use; this is inherently less susceptible than Wi-Fi's spread-spectrum technology to interference from microwave ovens and from devices that communicate via Bluetooth. Wi-Fi's proponents respond that this advantage--which they view as marginal--will be wiped out when HomeRF's 10-mbps version kicks in.

Media Friendly

Perhaps even more important, HomeRF can give priority to streaming media packets, so it offers better support for multimedia applications such as viewing video over the Internet. That advantage may be temporary, however: A company called ShareWave has developed an extension of the Wi-Fi standard called Whitecap (and used in the Panasonic Concourse Gateway, listed in the chart below) that optimizes streaming media; and work has already begun on the next generation of 802.11b to improve voice and multimedia support. That coming version, 802.11e, is expected to address the current weakness in WEP security, too.

But just like its wired home-networking counterparts, HomePNA and HomePlug, HomeRF is expected to appear in an array of non-PC home entertainment devices. For example, SimpleDevices is committed to using HomeRF for its coming series of wireless consumer products, including a Net-connected alarm clock that will deliver personalized content each morning and an audio player that will use content stored elsewhere on your PC.

Whichever type of network you opt for, you'll need a gateway or access point--a hub that converts wired network traffic into radio-frequency data packets and directs the data streams to devices with wireless receivers. Early access points did just that, and nothing more. You needed additional boxes for your cable or DSL modem, an ethernet hub, an Internet router that let all computers on the network share a single connection, and in some cases a firewall to protect against intruders. Putting it all together was a challenging task even for experts.

That's changed. The new class of wireless residential gateways pack most of these functions into one easy-to-install box. Some units, such as those from Cayman Systems, do it all: They bundle a DSL or cable-modem wireless access point, an ethernet hub, a firewall, and an Internet router in a single box. Because different DSL providers have different modem requirements, you typically buy an all-in-one unit preconfigured by your ISP when you set up service. Most other new gateways are designed to work with the DSL or cable modem you got from your ISP. You buy these gateways off-the-shelf from conventional computer and electronics retailers and handle setup yourself.

If you decide on a wireless network, make sure you know what you're getting into financially: Besides purchasing the gateway, you'll have to buy a PC Card, a PCI card, or a USB adapter for each device on the network. If your devices and peripherals are ethernet-ready and not too far from your gateway, you may want to consider a gateway with a built-in ethernet hub. It will cost a bit more initially, but you might be able to make up the difference on the adapter side because you can pick up an ethernet card for about $30--far less than any wireless adapter costs.

If you simply want to share broadband access, HomeRF's 1.6-mbps speed is adequate, since most broadband hookups don't exceed that bandwidth. But if you expect to transfer a lot of large files (such as music, photo, and video files) between your computers, the difference will be very noticeable. Also, since 10-mbps HomeRF products are expected later this year, investing in HomeRF right now makes little sense unless you don't need the speed.

Check VPN Status

If you're a telecommuter or have a wireless network at your office, talk to your IT department before buying. Many companies require employees to use a VPN to connect to their corporate LAN. While all of the gateways in our chart claim VPN support to some degree, that support comes in many different flavors--and you don't want to install everything only to find out later that it won't work. If you have an 802.11b wireless network at the office, your decision is simple, since you already have an adapter. Frequent travelers should go with Wi-Fi to take advantage of its growing availability in public spaces.

While residential gateways are not yet truly plug and play, reasonably savvy users should be able to install them without much pain. And once you've tasted the wireless lifestyle, you'll never want to go back.

Wireless networks are sweet, but maybe you want something that's cheaper--and still doesn't require you to string new cables. If so, check out the "no new wires" alternatives based either on the HomePNA (www.homepna.org) standard, which uses existing telephone wires, or on HomePlug (www.homeplug.org), which runs on existing electrical power lines.

Both approaches offer decent speed: HomePNA is rated at 10 mbps, and HomePlug at 14 mbps--both comparable to older 10-mbps ethernet and 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networks. The hardware is eminently affordable, too--as little as $40 for a HomePNA PCI card, versus $100 to $175 for Wi-Fi cards. And supporters say that they handle streaming media and telephony better than wireless networks. So why do so few of the newer gateways--none in the case of HomePlug--support these standards?

There are three main reasons. First, the HomePlug standard is late out of the gate. It has only just reached draft certification (using Intellon's PowerPacket technology), and the first products won't hit store shelves until later this year.

Second, both of these wired standards are designed for homes: You won't find them in corporations or public spaces. In contrast, some companies and a handful of airports and hotel lobbies already offer Wi-Fi access.

Finally, a wireless network offers compelling convenience, and the extra cost is hardly prohibitive. You can go anywhere in the house--or outside it--without losing your connection. Sipping an iced tea on the patio while checking your e-mail is hard to beat.

But don't count the Homies out yet. Their much lower per-node costs will attract users who'd like to add non-PC devices such as game consoles and MP3 players to a network without spending a lot of extra money. SonicBlue (a founder of the HomePlug alliance) and Dell have MP3 systems in the works that feature HomePNA connections for transferring files to and from PCs and playing them back through home stereo systems. Other HomePlug Powerline Alliance founders include giants 3Com, Cisco, Compaq, Intel, and Motorola. Most of these are founding members of the HomePNA alliance as well--evidence that vendors are hedging their bets until a clear winner emerges.

This story, "Wireless home network wars" was originally published by PCWorld.

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