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An energized HomePNA touts telephony

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Three years ago HomePNA's future was bright. The alliance charged with promoting the mass deployment of a single phone line networking standard faced a field relatively free of competing standards, and was confident that products based on its 1.0 specification - affordable and relatively easy to use - would fly off store shelves.

Turned out, HPNA was ahead of its time. Mainstream consumers struggled with the concept of running data over their existing phone lines, let alone DSL. And the network savvy found Version 1.0's 1M bit/sec speeds relatively slow, and that their homes often lacked convenient phone jacks.

"I wish we could redial and go back and rename this whole technology, but we're stuck with it," laments David Thomasson, HPNA's marketing committee chairperson.

This year's success of 802.11b wireless coupled with the promise of 10M bit/sec powerline products by year-end seemed to seal HPNA's fate.

Not so, it seems. HPNA is alive and well, and determined to prove it. Last spring, the group ratified HPNA Version 2.0, which allows 10M bit/sec data rates, putting phone line infrastructure on an even footing with wired Ethernet. The Version 2.0 spec received approval by the ITU as a global standard, opening up overseas markets. In the works is an in-store customer education initiative, customer support Web site and plans to develop higher speed products (up to 32M bit/sec) for streaming video.

But the most interesting part of HPNA's rejuvenation is a new voice initiative. This fall, it plans to release an extension to the 2.0 spec (VoHPNA) that allows home phone line networks to support up to eight virtual voice lines.

Sure, the irony's a little thick. The folks who brought us data networking over phone lines are now touting telephony as the killer app. But maybe it's not as wacky as it sounds. Or at least no less wacky than Siemens' plans to manufacture HomeRF telephones. While VoHPNA is still limited by the number of phone jacks you have, since the voice signal is still traveling over the copper phone line, HPNA says it should be toll quality. And while you can put HomeRF phones anywhere within signal range, voice quality may be more in line with a wireless phone. (Of course, we'll know for sure when products actually ship.)

All agree that consumers and home office workers want and are willing to pay a bit more for additional phone lines they can activate and deactivate on the fly. Both HomeRF and HPNA are targeting service providers. But while HomeRF's plans are still a bit sketchy, HPNA has a pretty promising strategy mapped out.

Residential gateway vendor 2Wire has recently cut deals with EarthLink and SBC, which in turn are selling 2Wire's HomePortal gateway and HomePNA adapters as part of a DSL service package. When the voice protocol portion of the spec is ratified, 2Wire says it will begin providing "voice-enabled" HomePortals to its service provider partners, as well as a special HPNA phone adapter called Phone Port (essentially an analog-to-digital converter) that plugs into any phone and to connect it to the HomePNA network.

2Wire says the Phone Port and voice-ready gateways are completed now, and we'll see consumer electronics companies shipping VoHPNA phones by early next year.

A footnote: First-generation HomePNA Version 1.1 has taken root in the hospitality industry, primarily in Asia, as a way to provide guests with 300K to 400K bit/sec Internet access without running new wires. As a result, this past June Cygnet Technologies - manufacturer of edge communications systems for the multiunit/multidwelling market using HPNA, Gigabit Ethernet and VDSL technologies - recently launched a hospitality division and partnership with systems integrator Nicom Networks to tap the U.S. market. Cygnet says its gear costs hotels only $150 to $200 per room compared to the $800 per room cost to install wired Ethernet from scratch.

Need more on home networking?
Check out our resources.

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