Fueled by a growing number of U.S. broadband homes with multiple PCs, wireless-Ethernet home networking has started to make a connection with consumers.
Home-networking products based on the 802.11 standard — now available at any big-box computer store — appear to have gained a lead over competing technologies in offering consumers a way to link more than one computer to their cable modem, without a lot of messy wires.
But though the technology can eliminate wiring spaghetti, it still faces the challenge of untangling consumers' confusion with the technology and finding a link to broadband-network providers, including cable systems.
With roots in enterprise local-area networking, 802.11 Ethernet technology is governed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. It's one of several wireless technologies jostling for early market share among the 22 million U.S. households with more than one computer.
"I think we really are starting to see the signs things are going to take off," said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, an industry organization that promotes 802.11 interoperability under the more consumer-friendly WiFi tag name. "At the beginning of  you were lucky to see some WiFi products on the store shelves, or maybe they had two or three down tucked away in a corner somewhere to now, literally, when I walk into my local CompUSA, half of the networking equipment is wireless gear."
At present, 239 certified products from 62 companies carry the WiFi product stamp. "We are hitting the consumer price points and we are starting to hit the consumer market with equipment," Eaton said.
The 802.11 technology comes in several flavors. The older 802.11b scheme, now widely available, operates in the 2.4-gigahertz range and can pump out a maximum throughput rate of 11 megabits per second.
The most recent addition to the family is 802.11g, which also runs in the 2.4 GHz range, promises to boost bandwidth to 54 mbps and is compatible with 802.11b.
Then there is 802.11a, a scheme that operates in the 5-gigahertz range and uses slightly different orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing to pump out 54 mbps. Dubbed WiFi5 by WECA, its frequency makes it incompatible with 802.11b or 802.11g.
Primarily driven by 802.11b products, WiFi home-networking products are coming into a more favorable price range. Residential gateways with built-in WiFi routers and four-port hubs are priced at less than $200, and the adaptor cards for networked computers sell for less than $100. Lap-top manufacturers also are starting to make the technology a standard feature.
But there are still potential barriers, not the least of which is consumer confusion generated by multiple versions of the standard that use two frequency ranges.
The cable industry's technology consortium hasn't placed any bets on WiFi, or any other wireless home networking scheme. Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s CableHome initiative instead focuses on developing the necessary service tools for cable-powered home networks, rather than specific wired or wireless home networking schemes, said CableLabs executive consultant Rouzbeh Yassini.
CableHome focuses on security, management and quality-of-service applications. The initial CableHome 1.0 specifications that debuted in October covered some of these objectives; a version 2.0 is already in the works.
"We in the cable industry want to be an intelligent pipe," Yassini said. "We want to be a fat pipe with the valves on it. So what we are saying is those key tools — those key valves, those key management, security and operations and QOS — are the stuff that a network needs to have."
Nevertheless, the technology has appeared within cable's realm. Last week, AT&T Broadband announced it would offer home-networking products to its cable-modem customers, with networking supplier Linksys Group Inc. providing the gear and support. One of the options Linksys offers is a WiFi configuration.
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s new PCX5000 cable modem, set to debut later this quarter, sports a WiFi connection. Chris Boring, marketing communications manager for Toshiba's network-products division, said growing consumer interest in the technology led to the new modem.