Home Networking Technologies Ripen

Wednesday, September 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK--The house of the future is coming fast, but the toaster and the dishwasher won't say when.

Many technologies are already available for interconnecting entertainment systems, appliances and other gadgets with computers and the Internet, as top names in all those fields hope to demonstrate this week at a once obscure trade show for home electronics dealers and installers.

And like so many other aspects of the Internet revolution, it's a maddeningly simple and expensive matter of wiring _ to the home and around the home _ that promises to delay the arrival of a truly networked, Jetsons-like existence.

Even with wireless technologies, it may take years for most people to gain access to a continuous, high-capacity Internet connection that might enable them to control their networked home from a remote location.

Inside the home, meanwhile, it's a pricey affair to have a contractor rewire an existing house or custom install network wiring in a new house.

Still, there's no denying that the movement toward outfitting homes with interactive, "intelligent" systems is gaining momentum: The titans of technology and consumer electronics are massing on the white picket border in hopes they might set a VHS- or Windows-like standard for these lucrative, uncharted waters.

For the first time, high-tech bellwethers such as Microsoft will be setting up shop at CEDIA, the annual show in Indianapolis organized by the Custom Electronics Dealers and Installers Association, hoping to impress their vision of the future on people who equip homes with multimedia systems.

Those technology companies will be competing for attention with the likes of Sony and Mitsubishi, who see their home entertainment products rather than computers as the focal point of the networked home.

The CEDIA show, which begins with courses for installers on Thursday, was launched only a decade ago, when about 500 people attended. This year, about 14,000 are expected, said Russ Herschelmann, a CEDIA board member and California-based electronics installer.

In the past, the CEDIA show was dominated by more specialized topics like providing centralized control of audio, video, lighting, temperature and security systems.

Now, with digital television recorders, game systems and all manner of appliance getting wired together, CEDIA has formed a home networking council.

Ovens can now be ordered via Internet to heat a roast or a climate control system can also draw the window shades. Still over the horizon, though, is a space-age era of talking appliances and refrigerators that can notify the grocery store when the expiration date on a milk container passes.

The main focus for now is overcoming barriers such as cost.

"Because so many large companies are getting into it, products are going to get higher in quality and lesser in price," said Jeff Hoover, who heads the CEDIA home networking council. But, for the near future, "until we can bring it down to where most people can afford it, home networking will be pretty much as it stands today _ for rich people."

Obviously, it's far easier to get high-grade wiring and network gear behind the walls when a new house or apartment is being built, and demand is clearly accelerating.

According to Leviton, a nearly century-old provider of building wiring, about 200,000 of the new homes or apartments being built this year are being outfitted with advanced wiring systems, up from 90,000 in 1999 and 30,000 in 1998.

However, 200,000 is only an eighth of the 1.59 million new homes being built this year in the United States, according to the latest estimate from the National Association of Realtors.

"My impression is that there really isn't a lot of systematic effort" among builders to pre-install advanced wiring, said Mark Calabria, senior economist at the NAR. "You see some accommodations being made that give more flexibility _ they might make it easier to reach around and get wiring behind the walls _ but the extent to which builders are actually installing it is very limited."

In terms of re-wiring an existing house or apartment building, Calabria said, any but the simplest, do-it-yourself jobs are out of reach for most people because demand is so strong at the higher end of the market, making cheaper projects unappealing for professional contractors.

"Most contractors have more work than they can do, so they're just not going to consider smaller jobs," said Calabria.

When, then, will network wiring become more commonplace?

"Within 5-to-6 years it's really going to be the norm in apartment building, and about same time you will see it become the norm among mass-produced luxury houses," Calabria said. "But it could be 10 to 15 years before we really see smaller builders do it by default."