How Custom Installers Can Still Benefit from the Home Networking Boom

When it comes to home networking, it seems that there are as many definitions as there are homes.
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When it comes to home networking, it seems that there are as many definitions as there are homes.

"It's best to define it by scenario," stated Microsoft's "Technical Evangelist for the Connected Home," Scott Manchester. "People don't go out to buy a home network; they go out to purchase something that solves a problem or for which there is a need."

Early home networks were established for those who wished to share their broadband connection among multiple PCs, Manchester noted. "More recently, the majority of people who are installing home networks are driven by the desire to distribute digital media-they want to share streaming audio, or share images on their PCs with other devices," he said.

Kurt Scherf, VP of research at Parks Associates in Dallas, Texas, noted that from a very broad technical vantage point, networking is a two-way communication between at least two devices. From an application level, however, "it's primarily PC networking, but there are other devices that can be a part of data networks," he said. " The other angle is multimedia networking, and that primarily focuses on devices that store data and stream content."

Scherf does not include some home management systems in his definition of home networking. "The signals are different; they are at a low bit rate, and you don't need Category 5. They focus on things like energy management, pool control and that sort of thing," he concluded.

Salvador Lara, marketing communications manager at Unicom, a structured cabling and networking equipment manufacturer based in City of Industry, California, puts it this way: "Home networking is having the ability to bring in different services like cable television, telephone systems and Internet services into the house and then breaking it out within the house to various locations, where everyone is able to access those individual services."

According to the CEDIA Home Networking Council, the working definition of home networking "is the technology that allows all electronic devices in the user's environment to seamlessly communicate with each other and the outside world." A home network, then, "interconnects electronic products and enables remote access to, and control of, the products and any available content such as music, video or data."

While the industry may not agree on the precise definition of home networking, there is little argument about its potential. According to Primary Perspectives: Profile of Today's Home Network Owner, a recent survey issued by Parks Associates, almost 10 million U.S. households are equipped with a PC-based network.

"There is definitely a growing need for connectivity in the home," Scherf observed. "Entertainment sells, and high entertainment in the realm of flat-panel television, home theater and those applications are on the rise. There is a national appetite for content when the homeowner wants it and where they want it, and it will certainly drive home networking."

Part of this drive also can be attributed to the residential construction boom. "With this rate of homebuilding, more people are becoming more familiar with the ability to network their homes prior to moving in," Lara said. "They want to take advantage of the construction period to integrate home networking throughout the house for future use. It seems like this is on the rise, due to the new building that is going on at this time."

Still, there exists a need for education in the field, Lara believes. "Builders may not offer this type of technology due to certain costs, or just not having a full understanding of the advantages of offering home networking to potential home buyers," he said. "It's a bit of a hurdle to overcome-having them understand it in its entirety."

For custom installers, a sticking point is the margins that home networking may or may not offer. "If all you are going to do is work in the PC environment, where you are talking about routers, switches, hubs, printers, networking interfacing cards and wireless access points, I would say that there isn't a decent margin," said Gordon van Zuiden, president of cyberManor in Los Gatos, California. "But, by not having these skills you are exposed to someone else who has them, and who also has A/V skills. Then you can lose out on large audio/video opportunities. The bottom line is that all of these systems are increasingly interwoven, and you go into it because you don't want to run the risk of losing existing business to someone who has those skills."

A number of association-sponsored training sessions are available for dealers interested in learning more. Last fall, the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and the Internet Home Alliance announced the Home Technology Integrator (HTI+) certification course. The program was developed to answer the increasing need for qualified technicians to install networked home entertainment, environment and security systems.

As important as it is to remain on the cutting edge, however, dealers that are implementing home networking technologies must place emphasis on the labor involved.

"They are not just selling hardware; it's a matter of how those hardware components and the software associated with them are installed to provide the solutions that the customer is looking for," said Bill Ablondi, director, ePanel Research at Parks Associates. "It is in that division of solutions where they are adding their value."

If you allow it to be thought of as computer-centric, however, "then your margins go away and your capacity to tie in other things that are networked are very limited," said Jeff Hoover, president of Audio Advisors, a custom installation firm based in West Palm Beach, Florida. "People doing it need to make margins on the labor, because you can't make margins on the parts."

It's this value that will facilitate sales with clients who want more than large retail chains can offer. "Many mass market retailers are offering networking solutions," Ablondi noted. "Because of this, custom installers must continue to develop solutions that fit with the business that they are already engaged in-custom installation."

The issue of labor becomes increasingly important when one considers the challenges of integrating home networking technology.

"The confusion lies in what will become the standard, that home networking has such an inconsistent definition, and what is the right way to prepare a house for home networking," Hoover said. "You have to prepare for a little bit of anything because you certainly don't know what the specific answer is going to be."

Wireless, too, presents many different options, requiring custom installers to make some challenging decisions. "Wireless is probably the most talked-about technology in home networking today, and there has been a lot of progress to address concerns with it such as data rates, security, and whether it conflicts with other devices in the home, like microwaves and cordless phones," Manchester said. "The big issue in home networking is what is the best technology to network? There are 802.11, HomePlug and Home PNA. It can be confusing in terms of what the best technology is in a given scenario."

A lack of standardization, and the issue of technical support, presents gray areas for custom installers working in this field. "Who is going to support or service the home networking system if something goes wrong? The companies in the consumer electronics sector can only support their own products," Scherf noted. "Their fear is that if they allow all of these other products from other companies connect with their devices, what happens when the network goes down and the customer calls? You have to take into account the possibility for that to happen."

The issues surrounding home networking today may be ultra-modern, but home networking itself is nothing new, Lara argues. "We have always had home networking in our homes," he said. "Way before we adopted this term, we had a telephone in every room or cable television in every room. When it comes to home networking, it's a matter of familiarizing everyone with what we have lived with in the past. Home networking is still around, it's just more sophisticated."

Carolyn Heinze works from her office in Vancouver, Canada.

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