Home Wireless Wars Heat Up at ComdexHomeRF and 802.11b compete to let you share files, connections, and media in your home.
Yardena Arar, PCWorld.com
LAS VEGAS-- A wireless war is waging between competing networking standards--HomeRF and 802.11. And it may prove a barrier to widespread adoption of the networked home.
At Comdex here, backers of both 802.11 and HomeRF were out in force, with arguments as to why their own standard is better, and products to prove the point. Now that broadband Internet hookups and multiple PCs are invading millions of homes, the capability to share files and bandwidth--and soon broadcast movies and support telephone services--has become more attractive. Wireless networks hold the most appeal because they don't require cables and they afford mobility. But picking which standard will win may stump prospective consumers.
The 802.11 Challenge
On the face of it, HomeRF appears to have an uphill battle. First, its 1.6-megabits-per-second bandwidth is dwarfed by 802.11b's 11-mbps capacity. And second, 802.11b PC Cards for notebooks are already widely used in corporate settings, which is why the standard was adopted by the new Wayport service for high-speed wireless Internet access in hotels and airports. These corporate users are more likely to go for a home network that will let them use hardware they already have. Finally, 802.11 has an attractive-sounding upgrade path: a new version, 802.11a, will support 54-mbps bandwidth; the first products could appear by next summer.
Given these realities, it's not surprising that vendors such as IBM and Toshiba are preparing to ship notebooks with 802.11b capability built-in via a mini-PCI card. Nearly 70 companies, including IBM, 3Com, Nokia, and Lucent, have shown support for 802.11b by joining the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA); many of them had products on display at the WECA booth and elsewhere on the Comdex show floor. Umax spin-off MaxGate, for example, was one of several companies displaying an 802.11b-compliant gateway for sharing broadband access between computers and other devices.
Other vendors are looking ahead to refinements that will make 802.11 more suitable for streaming multimedia, which requires data to arrive in a more timely manner than 802.11b can guarantee in order to avoid stuttering and other artifacts. Netgear's new Wireless 11X line incorporates Whitecap technology, a proprietary protocol from ShareWave that was designed specifically for sharing multimedia between devices.
While existing 802.11b radios won't work on a Wireless 11X network, you can use a Wireless 11X adapter on an 802.11 network. Whitecap is expected to be incorporated into a future version of the 802.11 specification, 802.11e. Prices for Wireless 11X products will be on a par with today's 802.11b products: A starter kit with a gateway to enable Internet sharing and a PCI adapter will go for $299 when it ships in the first quarter of next year. A pair of PCI adapters for peer-to-peer networking will arrive in January, also for $299.
HomeRF Strikes Back
HomeRF backers, represented by the HomeRF Working Group, aren't daunted by the 802.11 competition. They argue that their spec is better suited for the home environment because it's already multimedia-friendly and less subject to interference from microwaves and other devices. They point out that the existing capacity of HomeRF's Shared Wireless Access Protocol (SWAP) is large enough to accommodate the real-world throughput of digital subscriber line and cable for Internet sharing.
Thanks to a recent FCC ruling, SWAP 2.0 will be able to support 10 mbps, though the first products probably won't arrive before the middle or end of 2001. HomeRF proponents say 802.11's transition to 54 mbps (802.11a) will not happen as quickly as 802.11 backers hope, and may also require FCC permission. Finally, HomeRF backers say theirs is a better technology for telephone applications. For example, Siemens next year will introduce a home phone system that will allow users to manage several calls over HomeRF-compliant wireless handsets.
Products for HomeRF
At Comdex, Proxim unveiled its first CompactFlash wireless adapter, for use with devices such as Compaq's IPaq Pocket PC. Simple Devices displayed prototypes of appliance-like devices such as a MP3 player, a jacket that enables a Palm V to connect to the Internet over a HomeRF network, and an Internet radio-alarm clock. Simple Devices will not market the products, however; they will be sold by partners.
Since many of the arguments by the dueling standards depend on future directions and products that haven't yet reached the market, it's probably too early to say for sure which one will prevail. For the time being, 802.11b would appear to have the lead, but stay tuned.