SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Let's start with two assumptions: First, you have, or hope to get, a DSL or cable modem for broadband Internet access. Second, you have more than one PC in your home or small business, and they're not in the same room.
How do you share a broadband connection between multiple, physically separated computers? You could rip up a few walls and run cable, but you (or your landlord) might prefer something a little bit less invasive.
New products from Cayman Systems Inc. and SOHOware Inc. offer a solution:
Attach the computers via a wireless network, then connect this network to the Internet with a gateway device that lets you share Net access. But don't expect that the process will be easy--or cheap.
A Gateway That's Not A PC
When you get basic DSL service, the Internet service provider expects to see one computer on your end, with which it communicates via an assigned identifier known as an Internet Protocol number. When you add computers, you have to either buy additional IP numbers from your ISP (which can increase your monthly service fee significantly), or fool the ISP into thinking it's still dealing with a single computer. A gateway does the latter. It communicates with your service provider via a cable or DSL modem, then makes sure that incoming and outgoing data goes to the right machines on your network. Windows 98 SE's Internet Sharing Software could handle the job, but that solution requires the computer with the broadband hookup to be on at all times so other computers on the network can access the Internet.
Divvying up Internet access is the just the beginning of what a gateway can do.
SOHOware's Broadband Internet Gateway (BIG for short) is also an ethernet hub, allowing you to wire four computers together.
The box has other useful features, including a firewall (which you can punch through for online gaming) and parental control tools. It is extremely easy to set up, and a shipping unit worked like a charm in our tests.
Want to go totally wireless? Proxim's $399 Symphony Cordless Ethernet Bridge transmits data directly from a modem to a Symphony wireless network. It's definitely the way to go if you already have a cable or DSL modem and do not need more than a very simple wireless setup.
But what if you already have a wired network at your small business, or at your home, and you want to add the flexibility that wireless offers?
Wired, Meet Wireless
SOHOware's $290 CableFree NetBlaster ethernet/wireless bridge allows you to connect an ethernet device, such as a hub, or the BIG, to a wireless network.
Unfortunately, it works only with SOHOware's proprietary CableFree wireless network cards.
The CableFree system is also poorly documented and hard to set up. For instance, the installation requires you to enter the last 6 digits of an 11-digit NetBlaster ID number. It's easy to misread the instructions and attempt to enter the entire number. If you do, the installation program will happily accept the first 6 digits--and your network won't work. Once it was properly set up, however, the CableFree network worked without problems in our tests.
Pricey And Powerful
In contrast, the Cayman Systems 3220HW puts everything you need into one box.
It's a DSL modem, an ethernet hub, a wireless bridge, and an Internet gateway.
The only elements not included are wireless network cards. The 3220HW supports both the new Home RF standard and Proxim's Symphony wireless networking products, but it does not support the faster 11-mbps 802.11B standard.
Because Cayman Systems' 3220HW includes a modem, it will be sold primarily by DSL service providers as an upgrade to the single-PC modem offered at installation. You probably won't want to buy it directly from Cayman, which charges an outrageous $998 and does not include adequate documentation for do-it-yourselfers.
While pricey, the 3220HW has several attractive features. It works with wired and wireless devices, and advanced users will like its configuration options.
For example, the built-in firewall lets you specify which devices on your network should be visible to the outside world--useful if you have a fixed IP address and want to run a small Web server.
We tried out the Cayman 3220HW with a Proxim Symphony network and found the setup to be fairly straightforward. Simply tweak your Windows network settings and complete the configuration (including device-specific security) using a browser.
If you've been planning to set up a wireless network, and you already have broadband service, the SOHOware and Proxim Symphony products are worth considering. Look into Cayman's 3220HW if 1) you're an advanced user and haven't already paid for a DSL modem, 2) you'd like to share broadband over a wired and wireless network, and 3) your Internet service provider offers the product at a substantial discount from its stratospheric list price. If you would like a speedier network, consider waiting for the first gateway products that support the 802.11B wireless home networking standard.
Wireless broadband-sharing technologies are unlikely to drop much further in price anytime soon, and setup can be daunting. But once you get one up and running, you'll never want to go back. And you'll put an end to all the squabbles over who gets to surf on the DSL line.
Broadband Internet Gateway; SOHOWare
Cayman Systems; 800/473-4776;
Symphony Cordless Ethernet Bridge