Not all of us are handy enough with wire cutters and crimping tools to build our own networks. Yet more and more households need to share files, printers, and Internet connections between multiple computers. So how can the nontechnical get networked? Farallon Communications offers a solution: HomeLine, a suite of products designed to use your phone lines to create a home network. HomeLine works very nicely for those with two to three computers and modest networking needs, although bandwidth-hungry users with additional computers will find themselves dissatisfied.
Farallon offers three different types of HomeLine adapters. PCI cards, which can be installed inside your computer, connect directly to any standard modular telephone jack. External Ethernet adapters, which are designed for computers already equipped with an Ethernet interface (such as your favorite iMac), link the Ethernet cable to the phone line. USB adapters function in the same manner, except they connect to your computer's USB port and don't require an Ethernet adapter. HomeLine products are unique in supporting both Macintosh and Windows 95/98 platforms. No driver software is necessary for the external Ethernet adapters, so they can be used with any Ethernet-equipped computer.
Installing HomeLine could hardly be easier. Each adapter comes with well-written documentation, clearly labeled ports, and all the necessary cabling. Converting our test computers from a standard Ethernet network to a phone-line network using the external Ethernet adapters required less than 30 seconds per computer -- and our machines never knew the difference.
We tested a variety of network applications on our HomeLine network with a combination of Macintosh and Windows computers. We connected the computers, via our home phone wiring, to 10Mbit hubs, 10Mbit switch ports, and 100Mbit switch ports. In all configurations, file and printer sharing worked without a hitch, and we were easily able to share a DSL Internet connection between several machines at once. There was no discernable impact on the network while making telephone calls, and conversely, the quality of telephone calls was not affected by network traffic.
HomeLine products implement the HomePNA 1.0 networking standard, which allows computers to transfer data over regular telephone wiring at a rate of 1Mbps, or roughly 10% the speed of standard Ethernet. During our testing, we consistently achieved transfer speeds that approached HomeLine's advertised limit of 1Mbps. For the many users who connect to the Internet at speeds of 56K to 384K using modems, ISDN, or DSL, speed limitations won't be a problem. But for an increasing number of households with broadband access, which provides connections at speeds of 1.5Mbps to 10Mbps, HomeLine will create a network bottleneck. None of the HomeLine products currently support HomePNA 2.0, which specifies data rates of 10Mbps (although Farallon has indicated that such products are in the works).
In order for multiple computers to share a single Internet connection, one machine must run gateway software that transfers data between your internal network and the Internet. For this purpose, Farallon bundles Vicom Technology's SurfDoubler software for Macintosh and Windows. We were able to share both dial-up and dedicated Internet connections on both platforms with little trouble. It should be noted, however, that the bundled version of SurfDoubler supports only two simultaneous Internet users, so those who need three or more computers on the Internet at once will either need to upgrade SurfDoubler or purchase another product, such as Vicom's SoftRouter or Sustainable Softworks' IPNetRouter.