Networking alternatives, without wires!

It never fails: you finally get that high-speed Internet connection into your house, but it’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot — while you’re sitting there sucking down megabytes of Linux distributions and MP3 “samples”, your significant other (SO) is sitting in front of their computer, still off the ‘net, wondering what’s wrong with this picture.

Of course, the net step is setting up a small LAN in your house. Replace SO with employees and partners, and you can map the same problem into the small office environment as well. It basically comes down to the fact wiring a building for a network is a royal pain. Spending days pulling cable through walls and crawl spaces is few people’s ideas of fun, so many small networks end up being wired with cables running along the walls and through doorways. Not pretty.

To answer this concern, several new areas of networking technologies are being developed. The most exciting categories involve “hardware layers” of giga-hertz level short-range radio, or high-frequency electrical signals carried on a building’s 110/120V electrical wiring system.

A group called the “HomePlug Powerline Alliance”, or just “HomePlug” for short, has been formed to decide upon an open standard which all of its members will agree to. The membership includes many of the big names in the PC space, along with Radio Shack and many others. The group isn’t the only effort in this area, but it’s the most open, and seems to be the furthest along. Details are at www.homeplug.org.

Think of the possibilities with the convergence of ubiquitous networking in a home, and home automation. Imagine everything that is plugged in has an IP number; not just your computers, TVs, speakers and other multimedia devices, but every lamp and appliance. Even the wall-plugs themselves may have an IP number, and be able to respond to requests to simply remove power from whatever it is that’s plugged into it. This would allow “backward compatibility” with older hardware.

The home automation thing has been tried before. The X10 system, for example, can allow any PC to control lights and various other appliances. The problem with X10 though is it’s a closed spec, and has very low bandwidth ability. The HomePlug system, on the other hand, is able to carry 14-Mbit/second, or slightly more than Ethernet’s 10-Mbit. While this is starting to look slow for offices, for a home it’s enough to carry several compressed video, audio and data streams. All without extra wires!

Speaking of wires, getting rid of them entirely is the goal of several groups. Available off-the-shell today are products which implement a standard called IEEE 802.11. This can be used to provide wireless shots between distant locations with directional antenna. Of greater interest for small areas though is its use in a direction-less mode.

Because of the inverse-square-law of radiated energy, this can only be used for short ranges of a hundred meters or so. But within this distance, you can have speeds as high as 11-Mbit/second. Being radio, this can be used outside of line of site, right through walls and floors.

Soon to hit the market, a specification known as Bluetooth is designed for even shorter ranges, but with extremely dynamic routing in mind. The idea is a Bluetooth device could connect to and use any network it finds itself it, without reconfiguration. Imagine a restaurant providing a network in which a patron’s Palm could access the menu and place the order.

There are also cellular based networking options available in some areas. Ranging from the slow, grafted-on-analog CDPD to higher-speed digital services, in some cities it’s becoming possible to remain connected to the Internet without being tied to any particular location. Although not available to a large percentage of the population yet, this phase of the “build-out” is getting a lot of attention at the moment. And non-directional satellite based connectivity is only a few months away.

I sometimes take a measurement of how “geeky” a group is by counting the total number of phone numbers being carried by everyone, and dividing by the number of people. I’ve had numbers range from as high as 1.8 to as low as 0.2. I look forward to the day when a similar estimate measuring IP numbers begins to average at above one. One thing’s for sure — that ugly network cable lying on the floor, its days are numbered.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

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