It's been six months since the Intel-led hoopla about
"Universal ADSL" technology exploded, then disappeared, amid speculation that
this computer-telco initiative was concocted to create a publicity barrier to the
The Intel cabal has now dropped the other shoe -- and this
time, it's inside the threshold of America's homes. With another team of allies
-- including competing chip-makers such as Advanced Micro Devices, Rockwell and Lucent,
along with PC vendors (Compaq, IBM, Hewlett-Packard) and AT&T -- the focus is now on
"home networking." The group, called the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance
(HomePNA), will seek to exploit universal-asymmetrical-digital-subscriber-line technology
to create a system that lets technologically advanced families string together their
computers, peripherals, Internet and telephone services through existing home-phone wires.
Theoretically, Internet access via cable -- or, for that
matter, cable telephony or any other telecommunications services entering the household --
could hook into the same home-area-network (HAN). A diagram among the group's
"Home Phoneline Network" background material acknowledged that a TV set-top box
and a camera might be connected to the in-house network. Not surprisingly, very little was
said about the cable connection in HomePNA's announcement last week. Maybe the topic
will come up when CableLabs meets with consumer-electronics executives in the coming week.
The HAN plan for repurposing -- and perhaps locking up? --
household phone wiring is fascinating for several reasons. It was just yesterday that the
home-automation industry, such as it is, envisioned that the electrical-wiring system
could be exploited to carry signals around the house to smart toasters and hot-water
As it turns out, there is a more pressing interest in
computers and online connections. Noting that by 2000, more than 30 million U.S. homes
will have two or more PCs (double today's figure), HomePNA figures that households
will want to share printers, scanners, multiplayer video-game machines and other
peripherals, as well as Internet connections.
Gee, ISDN was supposed to do all of those things too, but
... Oh well, forget that.
At the heart of the HomePNA plan is the technology of Tut
Systems, a privately held California consumer-electronics/communications company that has
been demonstrating and marketing its in-home phone-line technology for a couple of years.
Collectively, the new group hopes to upgrade the speed of Tut's initial system from
the current 1 megabit per second to 10 mbps by mid-1999. They promise that the system will
be scaleable, backward-compatible and interoperable, allowing simultaneous in-house
transmission of voice, video and data.
There's that ISDN echo again.
Of course, HomePNA offered no clues about pricing, other
than its vision that a $100 adapter card will be needed to allow sharing of all of the
household devices. That card would apparently wind up in one of the computers, allowing it
to function as a server. There were no hints about who would make or market -- or, for
that matter, install -- the cards. Nor anything about what carriers or Internet-service
providers might pay for or subsidize privileged placement through that card.
Intel and its cohorts are becoming increasingly clever in
these forays into home services. The venture was officially unveiled at a "Digital
Living Room" conference in California last week, amid digerati looking for the home
Curiously, Intel's earlier Universal ADSL announcement
involved regional Bell operating companies and GTE, along with network-equipment/software
vendors. The new group does not include local telcos, which seem to have a close interest
in that home wiring. And to no one's surprise, Microsoft also plays a role in
HomePNA, although it's still not clear what it plans for those home networks.
The home-wiring initiative raises usage and maintenance
issues that the technocrats running it were unable to answer as the project debuted.
Assuming that everything works efficiently, but the system generates problems in any of
the equipment attached to it -- or in the wiring itself -- who will be responsible?
Although the backers assured the security of the system, will the setup open household
files to hackers on larger networks?
How will the phone-line network work with future two-way
cable-network connections? Who will actually sell, service and maintain those adapter
cards, or any subsequent technology?
The questions are endless, but the first one remains: Is
this a way to expand the market for ADSL? Or will it truly offer an end-to-end alternative
to cable delivery that could sway customers toward a telco-based high-speed system?
I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen does home networking by