ISSUE 481: The high tech office
January 12-18, 1999
Small businesses now have cheaper, easier options for
networking PCs via phone jacks and power outlets
You can get a lot done with a computer by itself.
But, sort of like sex, there are many more
possibilities when your computer is connected to others. (Probably not
a metaphor I should pursue any further in this publication.)
Large enterprises have known this for some time. Most
big business computers are connected to a network, share printers and
have access to customer, sales and pricing databases, e-mail and,
perhaps, to the Internet.
Many smaller businesses and even home offices have
multiple computers. An estimated 15 - 20 million North American homes
have more than one PC. Few of these are networked together, however.
Sometimes it's a question of perceived cost and
complexity. That's no longer as true as it used to be. Large networks
use dedicated servers, often run specialized network operating systems
such as Novell Netware or NT Server, and may have staff working
full-time as network managers.
Smaller networks, however, can often function just
fine using the networking capabilities built right into Windows 95 or
98, or even the older Windows for Workgroups. Macs, of course, have had
simple networking built in for ages.
In many cases, a bigger stumbling block turns out to
be the cables -- the wiring that connects the computers on the network.
Cabling together a couple of computers in the same area isn't hard, but
spread the computers over several rooms and it becomes a bigger issue.
And, in a home office, just try to discreetly run 100 feet of neon blue
or yellow Ethernet cable between different rooms or floors! Tearing
open the walls and ceilings to discreetly lay cable is out of the
question for most homes and offices.
Lately, at least three different technologies have
emerged aiming at letting smaller businesses and home users network
their computers while avoiding the cabling hassles.
* The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance
(HomePNA) is promoting a standard that allows existing phone wiring to
carry multiple signals at the same time. BC Tel already uses
this technology, allowing the same phone cables to carry voice messages
on the low frequencies, while getting high-speed ADSL Internet signals
over higher frequencies. A HomePNA network adds another frequency range
for networking signals, without affecting either voice phone or
To make any phone jack a networking port, you'll need
to add special adapter cards, which will work together with existing
Ethernet adapters, sending data at 1 Mb per second, which is about a
tenth of standard Ethernet speeds but adequate for basic networking.
Future generations promise full 10 Mbps speeds. Tut Systems is
licensing the technology to a number of companies; Boca Research's
Home Area Networking Kit is just starting to ship, costing about $260
to connect two PCs.
* Another option is to send the network signals
through your home or office's electrical wiring. Utah-based Interlogis
(www.interlogis.com) is selling the PassPort Plug-In Network,
which connects to a computer's parallel (printer) port and plugs into a
standard 110-volt electrical outlet. (There's a pass-through, allowing
you to continue to use your printer.) With a speed of 350 Kbps, it's
about one-third the speed of the phoneline equivalent -- about the
speed of reading and writing a floppy diskette. Interlogis is hoping to
ramp that speed up to about 1.5 Mbps next year. While slow, it's
adequate for sharing a printer or sharing datafiles between a small
number of computers.
Cost is about $300 to connect a pair of computers.
Unlike the phoneline equivalent, standard Ethernet cards and hubs are
* But who needs wires at all? Again, an industry
consortium -- in this case, the Home Radio Frequency Working Group
-- is promoting the use of the 2.4-GHz radio band for wireless
networking. Current products transmit data at speeds of 1.6 Mbps. Diamond
Multimedia's Homefree product, for example, is available locally
for about $325 to connect a pair of computers.
Because these products transmit over only a small area
(think home and backyard), there's no worry that everyone in the
neighbourhood will have access to your network's data.
Even though most laptops and handhelds, and some
printers, include infrared (IR) wireless capabilities, this technology
is not in the running -- to connect, devices need to be pointing at one
Reports out of Denmark suggest there are, however,
some innovative uses for this technology, though not what most users
want to hear! 3Com's PalmPilot is the best-selling handheld
computer; the newer PalmPilot III includes an IR port. Word is out that
they can be "trained" to learn the behaviour of other infrared devices
-- for example, TV remotes or, more ominously, to open locked car
Luckily, this is unlikely to become a favoured
technique for car thieves. Besides needing to buy a $400 - $500
PalmPilot in order to intercept the signal, the thief would have to
sneak between a car owner and the car being unlocked at the exact
moment the remote unlock signal was being sent.