From the July 2002 issue of Startups

You're thinking about adding a few employees, or maybe your spouse has agreed to help out a little with your homebased business. Or maybe you just want to share the broadband connection with your kids. Whatever your reason for installing a home network, the process doesn't have to be the nightmare it used to be. There's a variety of wired and wireless solutions available that are all relatively simple to set up (so you won't be shelling out money to have an electrician rewire your entire house).

Unfortunately, at this point, the available solutions are not interoperable. The two newest--Powerline and 802.11a--haven't quite caught up to the popularity of 802.11b, whose price and speed make it a compelling offering. So what should you consider before deciding on one particular technology? Each has its limits, so take your home environment--as well as your budget-- into account before committing to one.

HomePNA, which uses phone jacks as network nodes and features speeds of 10Mbps, was one of the first home networking technologies available. The only problem? You can't use a computer in a room that doesn't have phone jacks. But the good news with HomePNA, according to Navin Sabharwal, director of Residential and Networking Technologies for Allied Business Intelligence, a research firm in Oyster Bay, New York, is that if you do have phone jacks in every room, the dropout rate for HomePNA is only about 80 percent. In other words, the network typically achieves 80 percent of the promised 10Mbps, compared to around 50 percent for both the 802.11b and 802.11a wireless technologies as well as for Powerline networking.

Powerline networking, which uses power plugs (generally more available than phone plugs), offers 14Mbps and was first introduced last November. Products are currently being offered by companies such as Gigafast, Linksys, NetGear and SMC for around $100. Only problem? You have to be plugged in to a power outlet. Surge protectors and extension cords are currently unsupported by the technology, so you'll have to be connected to the wall if you want access to the network.

Essentially, consumers will have to be educated about the Powerline technology before being convinced of its benefits. "Not only do you have to educate people about what Powerline is, but you have to educate them about power itself. I think people kind of tend to be a little cautious of power. As a child, you're told not to touch or play with it," says Jon Bettino, product manager of Powerline products for SMC Networksin Irvine, Calfornia. Bettino notes that people are afraid to plug in an expensive piece of equipment for fear that it will be ruined. There's also fear that neighbors can gain unauthorized access to networks through shared walls and wiring. Not true, says Bettino: Powerline products, like other network products, contain DES, an encryption key for data.

And then there's wireless. The 802.11b technology has been around for a while, and with modest price points, it's become the technology of choice, with some manufacturers delaying shipment of Powerline products because demand for wireless is greater. With speeds of 11Mbps (keep in mind fallout) and a range of a few hundred feet (depending on a building's structure), 802.11b products have yet to yield the top spot to 802.11a, though it offers faster speeds (54Mbps, though with a shorter range) than 802.11b. The two technologies cannot communicate with one another, so business owners who've recently invested in 802.11b may be reluctant to rip and replace with the new products. Still, if you're just now going wireless, you might as well go with 802.11a: It's simply faster. Even with dropout at 50 percent, that's still 27Mbps, the fastest of all four options.

NEXT STEP
Here are some more products to help you techify your home office:

1.Gigafastis offering USB adapters and Ethernet bridges as part of its Powerline offering. Both are HomePlug 1.0-compliant and retail for $99.

2. What's next? Try to imagine a networked home where not only computers, but PDAs, TVs and even cell phones are networked together. Allwell, a set-top manufacturer that runs Jungo's OpenRG residential gateway software platform, offers a DSL/cable broadband gateway for the home. The software includes a firewall and VPN functionality. For more information, see www.jungo.com/openrg.

3. For some of you, accessing the Internet when you're away from the office is crucial. Motorola's i90c wireless handset runs on the iDEN network and allows users to access the Internet from anywhere. It's Java-enabled, so you'll be able to download business applications. Use its two-way radio to keep phone usage down. Price: $199 at www.motorola.com/iden.

4. An always-on connection requires protection. Keep your data safe with the following products:

  • Celestix Networks' Orion Security Appliance. With a robust firewall and VPN controlled by an intuitive Web interface, it'll be easy to set up, even for the nontechy. Get five user licenses for $399.
  • SofaWare Technologies' S-box was designed for the home office and features Checkpoint-based Safe@Home software for under $300.