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 Internet communications.

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 not needed.

* 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 another.

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 doors.

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.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan