The biggest difference the home of the future will have from the one you live in today will be its network. The networked or connected home is about delivering what you want, wherever you want it, with the minimum of fuss. It will include a combination of cable and wireless technology, and an array of digital devices that will talk to each other as well as you, wherever you happen to be
The idea of a ‘smart home’, in which every gadget is linked together into a home
network, is easy to mock. Internet washing machines, smart air-con and kitchens that
read out recipes in camp robot voices all sound a bit too much like what we would get if Margaret Fulton wrote science fi ction.
But the reality is that home entertainment gadgets are talking to each other right now. In the future, they’ll get a whole lot more inclined to sing in tune. And the fact that setting up your home entertainment is now (generally) so easy that your gran can do it without phoning you in tears is the first twinkling of home network intelligence – gadgets recognising each other, working together, letting you put your feet up and enjoy.
Commute to your sofa
Essentially, networks fi rst appeared on the home front by following us home from the office. Once home Internet access became pervasive, the concept of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs, if you want to get chummy) was developed to make it easy for us to work from home. VPNs are slowly replacing closed networks such as LANs; the idea is that you use the Net or shared telecoms lines, plus heavy duty crypto security to ‘fence in’ a network, rather than paying for expensive exclusive lines.
This secure connectivity is shaping the way we design our homes as well as the way businesses are designing office space. Advantage to your company: buying fewer pot plants, beige carpet, office space, menial workers, etc. Advantage to you: commuting shrinks to four or five staggered steps from your bedroom through to the home office or wherever you want to set up your notebook.
As well as creating a secure network ‘tunnel’ for remote workers, VPN technology is also being used to beef up security for connections between home computers – handy if you live next to a criminally minded geek with Wi-Fi gear and an eye on your bandwidth or your bank balance.
Before we get into wireless networks, which are really driving the explosive growth in home networks, it’s worth knowing that there’s still networking life in the old copper cable. Tipped to be the next big thing in some quarters is Power Networking, which is a way of sending data around your home through its existing power cables. However convenient, Wi-Fi is really overkill for home entertainment devices that need to be permanently plugged into power anyway. Power networking also gets around one of Wi-Fi’s biggest problems – bandwidth. With speeds of over 100Mbps, power networking allows you to access all your content, including high-definition video, from wherever you want.
And when you get to the point of wanting to watch three different high-definition feeds simultaneously – not a problem. To send more than one or two HDTV streams, there is a similar technology called MoCA in the pipeline that will send even video through coaxial TV aerial sockets at over 200Mbps.
The current drawback, of course, is that it’s still illegal to decrypt DVDs, and you can’t send them around the house without decrypting them first (ie breaking the disc’s coded copy protection).
The wireless world
More and more devices are becoming wireless enabled, with security cameras, media players, printers, notebook PCs, DVD players and video projectors being sold with wireless straight out of the box.
In essence, wireless networking is the use of high frequency radio waves rather than wires to communicate data. The RF technology used for wireless networking is very similar to the technology used in cordless phones. So like any radio technology, wireless networking is subject to interference from other appliances (microwaves), crosstalk with other radiobased devices on the same frequencies (cordless phones), walls, trees, and even distance all impact on the quality and reach of the wireless signal.
This impact and the inherent design capabilities of the hardware mean that wireless is not as fast as a cabled network. Even as wireless technologies improve, there will probably always be a trade off over real life wires. However, more often than not it is easier (and cheaper) to install a wireless network rather than trying to retro-fit cables through existing walls. Oh, and cabled networks just don’t offer the added advantage of mobility pizzazz.
Tips for setting up your wireless network
Setting up a wireless network is a pretty easy task that most reasonably literate computer users can accomplish. However, there are aspects of the installation which would benefi t from a slightly more experienced installer handling the job. Here are a few of the issues.
· Each brand has its own installation and confi guration software. Some are better than others. Buy your gear from a retailer who will help in case you get bogged down in the install.
· Not all wirelss gear is created equal. Much of the hardware available is not interoperable between different standards. If you are adding to an existing network make sure you mix and match.
· Position access points to get coverage. Obstacles such as walls and trees kill performance of this radio-based gear. You may have to use boosters, antennas or multiple access points to cover the area.
· Where you are using more than one access point, overlap them so users can move from one AP to another. Remember, overlapping access points should be set to different channels (frequency bands) to avoid cross talk and signal collision.
· As a general rule, data throughput decreases as the distance between the access point and the wireless client increases. The higher frequency gear is good at getting through walls, but you’ll be sacrifi cing distance.
· WLANs are shared bandwidth. As more users share an access point, the speed available for each is lower.
Making sense of the standards
The nomenclature 802.11 refers to a family of open industry standards developed in 1997 (and since). The 802.11 standards operate on the same level as the old Token Ring standards (802.5) and the ubiquitous Ethernet (802.3)
· 802.11a – This is a physical layer standard for 54Mbps wireless networking operating in the 5.15 to 5.875 GHz frequency spectrum. It has two main advantages over the ubiquitous b. It operates in a different spectrum, so it can accommodate more non-overlapping channels, and should suffer from less interference. The downside is it doesn’t travel as far.
· 802.11b – Today’s most common fl avour of Wi-Fi is 802.11b. It operates in the 2.4GHz to 2.4835GHz frequency range, at speeds up to 11Mbps. The spectrum allows for only three non-overlapping channels at distances of up to about 100m. It’s OK for streaming audio but too sluggish for video.
802.11g – This is the biggie. You’ll hear people refer to hardware based on this standard referred to as ‘G Gear’, the offi cial cool name however, is ‘Wireless G’. Even though it only has the same amount of spectrum as 802.11b, it is faster because it uses the OFDM modulation scheme. G Gear is usually also compatible with 802.11b.
Future flavours of Wi-Fi
· 802.11e – This member of the 802.11 clan – This member of the 802.11 clan is designed specifically to deliver improved security and optimisation for Internet telephony (Voice over IP). It includes addons intended to prioritise certain streams of data and some new compression technology. A direct assault on mobile phone technology? You betcha.
· 802.11n – Custom-made for smart-home – Custom-made for smart-home needs, this should deliver data rates of up to 108Mbps, enough to deliver several crisp data streams around the home at once with no loss of quality. Certification could take time, but there’s enough demand to make a market for new kit like the Wurlitzer Digital Jukebox (see page 39).
· WiMedia WiMedia – WiMedia or 802.15.3 operates – WiMedia or 802.15.3 operates on the same 2.4 GHz frequency as Wi-Fi and supports five selectable data rates: 11, 22, 33, 44 and 55Mbps. It’s supposed to be easier to use than Wi-Fi and founding members who will support the standard include Samsung, Philips, Sharp and HP.
· UWB – 802.15.3a – UWB or Ultra Wideband – 802.15.3a – UWB or Ultra Wideband is a competitor to Bluetooth that can deliver data rates of up to 100Mbps compared to Bluetooth’s 1Mbps over the same 10-metre range. It has the backing of mobile phone giant Motorola and estimates rate the potential for third generation chips at up to 500Mbps.
· WiMAX – WiMax or 802.16 delivers shared WiMAX – WiMax or 802.16 delivers shared data speeds of 70Mbps over distances of up to 31 miles and should be just the job for linking remote hotspots or Internetenabling trains.