Atheros Merges Home Wi-Fi, Powerline Networks

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Chipmaker Atheros Communications tried to simplify home networks on Monday with reference designs for combined Wi-Fi and powerline networks, even as the technologies in this field remain complex and potentially confusing for consumers.

Atheros, a major Wi-Fi silicon supplier that recently acquired powerline networking vendor Intellon, announced general availability of the first reference designs to come out of that relationship. Equipment makers can use them to design gear that bridges wireless and electrical-wiring networks.

Many consumers have already networked their homes with Wi-Fi, typically for sharing a broadband Internet connection to browse the Web. But the high-definition TV and video streams that carriers and cable operators are now delivering often require something more than wireless if members of a household want to enjoy that content in different rooms. There is already a variety of systems that use the phone lines, coaxial cable or electrical wiring inside walls.

Atheros has designed a Wi-Fi router that can send packets onto a home's electrical grid through the power cord that plugs it into the wall. To go with that router, the company has developed an adapter that can be plugged into a power socket elsewhere in the house and provide Wi-Fi in that room, linking back to the router through the powerline network. In this way, the consumer doesn't have to rely entirely on Wi-Fi to send multimedia streams throughout the house. Atheros is also introducing two powerline-to-Ethernet adapters -- a one-port and a four-port model -- for connecting some fixed gear such as DVD players with the powerline network.

The idea is to build networks that solve the problem of Wi-Fi's reach throughout walls and other obstacles in a home, which can degrade a signal so much that video can't make it across with high quality, according to Atheros. It lets consumers use the Wi-Fi and Ethernet technology they already know with the faster powerline network filling in the longer connections.

Atheros probably won't be the only vendor pursuing this strategy. Marvell, which makes a wide range of networking chips including ones for Wi-Fi gear, announced in August it would acquire the intellectual property and assets of DS2, a Spanish maker of powerline networking silicon.

While hybrid networks may be a boon to early technology adopters who want to build a high-speed network around their homes, it is also likely to benefit service providers that want to see high-capacity systems in many more homes in the coming years. The carriers want a system that subscribers can install by themselves without technical glitches, saving an engineer's house call that can cost the carrier about $400, said IDC analyst Michael Palma.

Atheros believes its router reference design can be used for a device priced below $100 and its adapter designs can be realized at a price below $50, said Todd Antes, vice president of marketing for the digital home at Atheros. Along with the designs, Atheros has developed software that allows consumers to set up and manage the whole network from a single interface.

Most consumers don't need a set of devices like those that Atheros introduced on Monday, but such products should be well suited to early adopters who are already trying to send multimedia streams over their home networks, IDC's Palma said. The greater demand today may be from service providers, but they will probably have to go through internal certification processes lasting as long as two years before they start distributing such equipment to their subscribers, he said.

What Atheros is doing is a good combination of technologies to achieve high and reliable performance, said wireless analyst Craig Mathias of Farpoint Research.

"If you can use wire, you should use wire," Mathias said, adding that, in most cases, "the only wire that runs through a house is AC power."

For home networking, the Atheros products use the HomePlugAV specification, the latest version of a technology that has been used in more than 200 certified products, according to the HomePlug Alliance. On Monday, that group announced it would begin using a newly ratified official standard, IEEE 1901, in certifying HomePlug products.

"1901 layers an official aspect to what HomePlug has already done," said HomePlug President Rob Ranck.

This new seal of approval doesn't quite settle some other standards issues. For one thing, the IEEE 1901 standard itself encompasses two different technologies that don't work together. Another emerging standard, the specification from the International Telecommunication Union, is designed to offer faster performance than HomePlug but doesn't work with existing gear. However, for most consumers those problems may not be as serious as they sound.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance contributed its own specification to the IEEE 1901 Working Group, which used the HomePlug AV MAC (medium access control) and PHY (physical layer) specifications as a baseline, according to the Alliance. But Ranck acknowledged that compromises during the standard's development required the IEEE working group to also include a powerline technology called HD-PLC (High-Definition Powerline Communication). Products that comply with the IEEE standard and are based on HD-PLC will not work with others that meet the standard and are based on HomePlug, he said.

However, the two different technologies are unlikely to appear on shelves next to each other, according to Ranck and some industry analysts. The main proponent of HD-PLC is Panasonic, which can probably make that technology dominant in Japan, while HomePlug is likely to command most markets outside Japan, said Parks Associates analyst Kurt Scherf.

The standard, which proponents expect to see in consumer products next year, is designed to work over coax, electrical wiring and phone lines. proponents say will offer between 200M bps and 400M bps of real-world throughput. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance says its current standard runs at about 90M bps. Backward compatibility with the current HomePlug and the MOCA (Multimedia Over Coax Alliance) systems is not built in to, but analysts believe that vendors will integrate the two technologies themselves.

At some point down the road, service providers and home-electronics makers may determine the winner in the home-networking sweepstakes, IDC's Palma said. "I don't think the fight will be over any time soon," he added.

Mathias of Farpoint also believes the market will shake out only gradually.

"The consumer will need to think carefully about what they're buying," Mathias said. However, most users are just diving into this area and aren't trying to mix and match products yet, he said. "In the early days, it's more of a prosumer and not a consumer market."

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