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By Troy Wolverton

SOURCE: Mercury News

Is your home network ready for prime time?

That seemingly geeky question is becoming increasingly important to consumers with every picture, song and movie they store on their PCs. Analysts think and companies are betting that consumers are going to want to enjoy that content on their home entertainment systems. The question is how it's going to get there.

The growing number of Wi-Fi networks in American homes may be up to the task of moving pictures and music from the home office to the living room. But many analysts doubt whether those networks will be able to do a decent job with even standard definition video, not to mention the high-definition content that's beginning to show up online.

If standard Wi-Fi can't do the trick, what can?

It turns out there may be more than one answer to that question, depending on who is installing the network, the details of each consumer's home and just how much data consumers -- or service providers -- plan to send through the network.

Each of the potential solutions has different advantages and drawbacks. And the technologies aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Some homes may use more than one to get the job done.

Here's how the contenders stack up:

• Coaxial cable. This technology, which comes in two different flavors, is being used by telephone companies such as AT&T and Verizon as they roll out television services. One of the reasons is to cut costs. The vast majority of American homes already have coaxial wiring in place, so the companies don't need to install new wires. And boosters say it has the capacity -- 75 to 100 megabits per second -- to handle multiple streams of high-definition video as well as data traffic.

But at least right now, the service providers view the technology as a way to move video from a central set-top box in consumers' living rooms to TVs in other rooms of the house, not as a way to connect PCs to their home entertainment system. Verizon, for instance, is largely reserving its coaxial network for set-top video content for customers of its FiOS fiber-optics service, said Tushar Saxena, the company's director of home networking technology.

Getting video off consumers' PCs and on to their televisions would be possible over the network, but ``it is not a huge focus right now,'' he said.

• Powerline. This technology has been bandied about for years, if only because power outlets are even more ubiquitous than coaxial cables. And backers think they can offer speed that's roughly comparable to coaxial cable, from 50 to 100 megabits per second.

But some analysts question whether powerline will be able to achieve those kinds of speeds -- needed for high-def video -- in the real world where many houses have ``noisy'' wiring that's 50 or more years old.

• Ultra-Wideband. Rather than being a home networking solution, this technology is generally thought of as a wireless replacement for USB cables and the like. But Sunnyvale-based Tzero Technologies has developed a version that promises to offer UWB's fast transfer rates over distances of 30 or 50 feet, rather than just 6 feet.

That may not sound like much, but 200 megabits per second at 30 feet is far greater than what devices based on the draft version of 802.11n -- the next Wi-Fi standard -- are able to achieve, and it's plenty fast enough to move high-definition video from one room to the next, company executives and some analysts say.

But in order to get that data capacity, consumers would need to have equipment using Tzero's chips on both ends of the network. And some analysts are concerned that UWB is still a relatively new technology.

It ``has to evolve from a connectivity to a networking solution. There's a lot of uncertainty there,'' said Jonathan Gaw, home networking research manager at IDC, a market research firm.

• Next generation Wi-Fi. Equipment with the final version of this standard will probably hit store shelves in 2008, but consumers can already buy routers and networking cards based on draft versions of the technology. 802.11n promises backward compatibility with previous Wi-Fi standards and with much faster throughput -- 200 to 300 megabit -- and range. And the technology is already in nearly 20 percent of American homes, according to IDC.

But the draft has been in the works for years and the early tests of equipment based on it have been disappointing, analysts say. Indeed, some question whether throughput of Wi-Fi will ever be enough to guarantee that consumers will be able to stream high-definition video without seeing a choppy picture.

``There's no doubt about it, `n' (wireless) can't do it alone,'' said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Campbell-based Creative Strategies, a technology consulting firm.

That's why, he and other analysts say, the home network of the future is likely to be a combination of these and potentially other technologies. The base network might run on coaxial or powerline wires, but consumers will likely extend it using wireless technologies, whether UWB or Wi-Fi.

``We're going to be using multiple types of networking and connectivity solutions,'' said Gaw. ``I don't think any of the solutions we've talked about can independently do everything that we want them to do.''

Contact Troy Wolverton at (408) 920-5021 or