Need Some Help Wiring Your Home?

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Nikki O'Neill, a plant pathologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is no slouch when it comes to computers. Nor does she shy away from home-improvement projects, having handled the electrical work for an addition to the house she shares with her husband and two children in Silver Spring, Md. But when O'Neill, 54, tried to set up a home network so that her family's four computers could share printers and Internet access, she met her match.

O'Neill says she spent maybe 30 hours reading online tutorials, consulting sales clerks, buying and installing equipment and running new cables--but finally had to call in an expert. He charged $300 to get her Ethernet-based system running--money that O'Neill ultimately was thrilled to pay. "We can walk around the house with our laptops," she says, "and wherever there's a jack, we can plug in and go online."

For a growing number of households with a high-speed Internet connection and everyone clamoring to use it--a son playing interactive games on his PC, a daughter downloading No Doubt tunes, a husband looking up recipes for ribs--networking is the way to go. "The No. 1 reason why home users are networking is to share broadband," says Chris Amori, the owner of Amori Network Solutions, based in North Potomac, Md., and the expert who came to O'Neill's rescue. In-Stat, a market-research firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz., expects the number of home networks in North America to jump to 9.8 million by year-end, up from 4.2 million at the end of 2000, as broadband services become more widely available and networking products get cheaper and easier to use. But home networking is still difficult for most people to accomplish on their own.

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Broadband Internet-service providers, primarily telephone and cable-TV companies, hope to nudge customers toward home networking in part to create a customer base for the broadband services they believe are their future bread and butter: video on demand, music and other services pumped in over fast pipes and distributed over a home network that connects more than just the family PCs. Plus, the isps argue, networking makes bottom-line sense for many families. "If you're trying to convince someone to buy a high-speed line for $50 or $60 a month, the idea of sharing that line makes that cost more palatable," says Kathie Hackler, an analyst for Gartner Dataquest.

But while cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) providers push broadband services and networking products and earn commissions on sales, they generally leave the heavy lifting--like customer service and support--to the product manufacturers. AT&T Broadband service reps routinely ask cable customers how many PCs they have in the house. If the answer is two or more, the rep refers them to the AT&T website, where, if they want a home network, they can buy the necessary gear from Linksys, AT&T's partner.

Linksys processes orders, ships the goods and offers follow-up support over the phone. But customers are left to install the gear themselves. According to Linksys spokeswoman Karen Sohl, in the last three months of 2001, sales revenue increased by $12 million through the company's partnerships not only with AT&T (which has 1.4 million high-speed subscribers) but also with three other broadband providers, Adelphia Cable, Verizon and British Telecom.

Time Warner Cable (part of AOL Time Warner, which also publishes this magazine) similarly suggests that its high-speed Internet customers who are interested in networking check out a website featuring products by Sohoware, a Linksys competitor. For now, the promotion is limited to a few markets, including Wilmington, N.C., and Portland, Maine.

A few DSL service providers are more aggressive. EarthLink sells 2Wire hubs to its existing broadband customers, charging $100 for the wired version, $250 for wireless. Networking cards for each PC are $50. Customers must install the gear, but for $9.95 a month they get unlimited phone-based technical support and a promise that no matter what the trouble is--poor network connection, faulty router--EarthLink won't pass the buck. Gateway, a PC manufacturer that also sells broadband services and networking equipment, goes a step further: for $399, it will send a technician to your house to install the equipment and configure each computer (often the trickiest part of the setup process). A crash course in home networking is also included. For $100 more, you get one wireless adapter for a desktop or notebook.

It's an ambitious approach but one not likely to catch on, says Hackler. For one thing, most consumers are too price sensitive to pay the full cost of a personal visit, and companies usually have to absorb some of that cost, she says. So, short of making those house calls, how do you help the customer who runs into trouble with today's complicated "do-it-yourself" equipment? Simple: keep improving the products and provide effective remote tech support. Sohoware, for one, is working to simplify the installation process, so users won't have to configure each computer.

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