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MIT Technology Review

Sharing the (Broadband) Wealth

Home Networking

For years, the computer industry has tried and failed to interest consumers in home networking. The major obstacles-high costs, the lack of standards, and difficult-to-use technology-have now been largely overcome, but one major sticking point remains: the lack of buyer incentive. With today’s under-$100 prices on printers and scanners, peripheral sharing is not a pressing need; files can be shared via e-mail, and few households need to share applications. There is one commodity, however, that is in high demand: Internet bandwidth.

Companies have started to ship new “gateway” devices that let housemates share bandwidth-and, in many cases, multiple phone lines-throughout their homes. Most of today’s products from vendors such as Alcatel, 2Wire and ShareGate are designed for digital subscriber line, or DSL, connections, but cable-modem gateways are on the way from Motorola and others.

Bandwidth sharing is automatic-if one user is surfing the Web, and a second logs on to another linked computer, each receives half the available bandwidth. When one user logs off, full bandwidth is restored to the other user. With most gateways, you can also activate up to four new voice lines and easily reassign them when phones are added or moved around the house. A portion of the overall bandwidth is allotted for each virtual phone line in use, but the bandwidth is usually made available for Internet access again when the phones are hung up.

While over a dozen gateways should be available by year’s end, it may take longer before the technology becomes widely used. The vendors of gateway products promise easy installations and remote configuration, theoretically eliminating the need to send a technician to the home. Even in a simplified home version, however, networking is complicated, and major broadband service providers have so far refused to offer technical support for anything beyond the modem itself. “Closer coordination with the broadband [service providers] will be key to making home networking take off,” says Joseph Laszlo, senior analyst for broadband and wireless at Jupiter Research.

Gateways may do more than help distribute voice and data. Some devices offer home automation features that let you remotely turn on the alarm or set the thermostat. Wireless gateway vendors, meanwhile, hope to link up to Web-enabled cell phones, handhelds and other smart appliances, letting them share Internet bandwidth and access to peripherals.