Poof! Instant LAN (You’re already wired)

Hal Plotkin
Tuesday, November 10, 1998


When I learned that Cisco Systems’ well-respected PR ace Adam Stein had recently joined Epigram, Inc., a little-known Sunnyvale, Ca. start-up, I wanted to know why.

No one leaves Cisco. Unless, perhaps, their options have vested and they move to Kauai, or something like that.

So I tracked Stein down. Turns out he moved on to what may be even greener pastures: helping to launch a revolutionary new technology which he invited me to take a peek at in advance of its formal coming out at Comdex next week.

When I showed up at Stein’s office last week, what I found humming away in a back room was a 10 megabit per second local area network (LAN) tying together computers, televisions, and other devices via standard twisted copper telephone lines — the same kind of wires already found in nearly every home and business.

The only thing these networked devices had in common was Epigram’s cheap computer chip, pegged to retail for less than $100, which enabled them to communicate with similarly equipped devices plugged into a standard telephone wall jack.

No Ethernet cables. No Ethernet cards. No Ethernet hub. No setup drivers. No LAN system administrator. Just take your computer, or your TV, or your toaster for that matter, plug it into the phone jack and, poof: instant LAN. Technology works best when it looks like magic. This was quite a trick.

According to Dataquest, more than half of the 30 million US households using the Internet already have two or more PCs. What’s more, the number of multiple PC households is expected to double in the next two years, fueled by sub-$1000 PCs.

And yet, with current technology, tying those computers together is more than a small hassle. It usually costs about $1 per foot for the required high-bandwidth cables, not to mention the costs and difficulty of installing and hiding all those fat wires. Most large businesses already have hard-wired networks, linked together by omnipresent thick, bulky blue cables. But most homes and many small businesses, for very good reasons, do not.

People don’t want to turn their homes into high-tech spider webs. And many small businesses are too busy trying to stay afloat to spend much time thinking about putting in a state-of-the-art computer network. Even if they did, creating and maintaining a LAN — with all its attendant technical demands — is not sport for the average PC user. Until now.

Homes and small businesses are the target markets for this new networking technology, which has limitations. At present, no more than 16 devices can be linked together without significantly degrading performance.

In addition, these new plain old telephone system (POTS)-based LANS don’t work at distances greater than 1,000 feet, point to point. But those problems aren’t a hindrance for most homes — unless you’re Bill Gates or for many small businesses, which now employ more than half of all U.S. workers.

Most PC users, I suspect, will quickly see the benefits of having a LAN without having to build one. Big companies with thousands of workstations will still need Ethernet cables, at least for a while longer. But smaller businesses, and home-based workers, are going to get a big lift from this new technology.

Within a year or two, Epigram officials tell me, data transmission speeds will improve ten-fold, supporting an astonishing 100 megabits per second over twisted copper. That’s enough bandwidth to move five different HDTV signals through a house or small business while allowing people to talk on the same telephone line simultaneously.

It’s likely we’ll see an avalanche of high-tech products that take advantage of this new technology once it’s as easy to tie devices together as it is to plug in a phone. Fully networked homes, promised to us by visionaries years ago, are on their way to becoming an affordable, commonplace, everyday reality.

Say, for example, you have a network-ready TV linked through internal telephone wires to a network-ready cheap video camera outside your front door. The doorbell rings. You hit a button on your TV remote control and, voila, full-motion video of the Fuller Brush salesman standing on your porch.

Or say you are in the shower and remember you wanted to pre-heat your oven. You push a button on the same console that controls the temperature of your bath water and tell your oven how hot it should get, and then go back to rinsing the shampoo out of your hair.

Or say all three of your kids want on to the Internet at the same time. With 10Mbs pumping through your little home LAN, no problem. When I asked Epigram’s president, Jeff Thurmond, what kind of products might be created in the wake of this technology his eyes glazed over. “It’s almost too much to imagine,” he said.

Like any new technology, Epigram’s chip has some hurdles to overcome before it gains momentum in the marketplace. A consortium of different manufacturers, the Home Phone Networking Alliance, is working on creating standards to ensure interoperability of devices made by different companies. Agreement on standards is required before the technology’s promise can be fully realized.

To be sure, there have also been several other companies in recent years that promised “smart homes” but didn’t deliver. None of these other contenders, however, pushed anywhere near the amount of data through copper that Epigram will publicly demonstrate later this month.

Epigram achieved the feat, interestingly, by creating a modulation-demodulation advance rather than through data compression. Just like the old acoustic couplers we used in the early days of 300-bps networking, Epigram’s technology is analog.

Like other modulation-demodulation devices, better known as modems, the underlying technology translates data into acoustic signals and then translates the signals back into data on the other end. Epigram’s breakthrough is based on realizing that while analog signals don’t hold up very well at high speeds over long distances, they do just fine over smaller distances, like those found in a home or small business.

It’s a sure bet that if this technology catches on its impact will be felt in nearly every home and business where computers, appliances, or entertainment devices are used. Manufacturers who make “network-ready” devices that include this one chip will have a leg up on competitors who sell stand alone products. And consumers everywhere will gain a newfound respect for those old telephone jacks scattered around homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, Baby Bells, like Pacific Bell, might soon really regret the fact that consumers are now responsible for maintaining their internal telephone lines. The adage in the telecommunications industry until now has been that the most important thing is controlling the Last Mile to the customer, something the Baby Bells are doing with ferocious intensity.

What they may have missed is that the Last Ten Feet to the customer could turn out to be even more important. No problem, Pac Bell: I’ll take care of those lines myself, thank you.

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