HomePlug Tries to Revive Power-Line Nets

SAN FRANCISCO (04/12/2000) - The HomePlug Powerline Alliance that was announced this week should bring a jolt of life to home power-line networking, a technology once assumed dead. But while the group claims some big-name founding sponsors, it lacks the support of a company that pioneered the technology--Inari.

Power-line networks use a home's existing electrical wiring, along with special adapters and software, to connect multiple PCs. In theory it's a great idea, because every PC is close to an electrical outlet. Unfortunately, power lines are a tough medium to master, and the technology hasn't always worked as advertised.

The alliance brings together major companies and their resources, and should drive forward research to improve the technology and dispel some skepticism about its validity, says Karuna Uppal, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group.

"If Cisco is supporting the technology, it must show promise," she says.

However, while Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., 3Com Corp., and ten others signed on as founding members, and seven more joined as members after the Monday announcement, a company named Inari is conspicuously absent from the list.

The company, formerly called Intelogis, is important because it's been working on power-line networking for years. While it now focuses solely on the technology side, its PassPort Plug-In Network retail products were among the first to hit the market.

Alberto Mantovani, president of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, says Inari was invited to join the alliance. But Todd Green, director of product marketing for Inari, says his company was not asked to be a founding sponsor. Inari submitted an application to join as a participating member, but withdrew it after taking a closer look at the alliance's goals.

The HomePlug group is taking a very PC-centric approach to the technology and the standards it hopes to develop, Green says. Inari sees the technology in broader terms and wants to develop it to fit in a wider number of products and price points.

Going up against the alliance, and the deep pockets of its members, could be tough, but Green says he's confident Inari's technology will speak for itself.

The company plans to announce its latest technology improvements in coming weeks.

Optimism Rules

Despite the obvious rift between the alliance and a company that helped pioneer the technology it champions, Mantovani has high hopes for the alliance.

The group will move fast to establish its baseline technology, he says. After that's decided, it will create a specification that offers better reliability and speeds of around 10 mbps. The group hopes to publish specifications by late September and to see products shipping by the end of the year.

That's an ambitious schedule, but it's possible, says Lubos Parobek, home networking product manager for 3Com. "They're setting aggressive dates, but it's important to have aggressive goals," he says.

Parobek says 3Com joined the alliance because it wants to round out its line of HomeConnect home-networking products with a power-line-based option. Right now the company offers a 10 mbps phone-line kit based on the HomePNA standard. In the future it will also offer a wireless home-networking kit based on the 802.11B wireless standard, he says.

It's hard to estimate the price of a power-line product, he says. But he expects the price to be comparable to that of 3Com's current phone-line products.

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