Here’s the theory: More people are working at home. They and their children want high-speed Internet access (also known as “broadband”). Therefore, forecasters say the future will see millions of new signups for Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) or digital cable modem (via the cable TV company).

What does this have to do with you? The envisioned future—a vision into which consumer-oriented companies are throwing billions—is that homeowners giving themselves the gift of broadband access to the Web will network it throughout the home.

Not many years ago, projections for the number of households with broadband access in 2002 were a lot higher than the actual number is today.

When will it happen?

The federal plan for DSL access targeted “resellers” (such as XO Communications and Covad). To install DSL, they had to work with local telephone companies. A suspicious mind might look at the Mahatma-Gandhi-like “active noncooperation” by the big, incumbent phone companies and conclude they were sandbagging the DSL firms, hoping for their failure, which would leave the big telephone companies to provide DSL.

Whether this was the case or not, the DSL companies failed. XO seems en route to bankruptcy; Covad still exists, but you can buy several shares of its stock for the price of a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.

On the cable modem end, the roll-out has been gradual. Only 15 percent of the folks who could have cable modem service in 2001 did so. On one level, that’s good: Cable modem service is “shared” (one high-speed modem installed to serve a number of homes), so a higher subscriptions level would ... slow everybody down.

Homeowner’s options

Thus far, the “early adopters” have embraced home networking—but they’ve gone for nonhardwired options for distributing high-speed Internet access in the home. It is costly to retrofit Category 5 cabling into a house. Additionally, no one out there is promoting the retrofit of homes.

Alternatives to hardwiring, in contrast, are promoted on a hot-and-heavy basis. The reason: Most analysts think only one of these will “win” in the long term. Here are the alternatives:

• Wireless—signals transmit through the air (see www.homerf.org).

• Home Phoneline Networking—uses existing phone lines (see www.homepna.org).

• Powerline carrier—sends broadband via in-home electrical wiring (see www.homeplug.com).

Each has a disadvantage (as of now): They lose speed. Some options lose 11 Mbps. DSL comes into the house at its slowest at more than 10 times that rate. However, each has a tremendous advantage over hiring a contractor to cable a house: They cost almost nothing. The typical price for these “self-installed” networking options runs from $100 to under $300.

Where this leaves you

If you omit the cost factor, the “need for speed” would dictate that Category 5 cabling—hardwiring—is the best answer. This is good news for contractors. But...

Where (other than with rich customers) can one “omit the cost factor?” In a new house. The cabling cost is rolled into the price (and the mortgage).

Note that there was a “Wiring America’s Homes” initiative, sponsored by the Home Automation and Networking Association (HANA), a few years ago. (See www.hanaonline.org/about/wahA.html.) Will this promotion continue? HANA was recently “acquired” by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

It’s unclear whether the hardwired or “no new wires” or wireless approaches will matter to CEA; the organization’s goal is to promote more and more. (For more information, see www.techhome.org.)

However, the hardwired approach does matter to many homebuilders. An increasing number are building homes (even so-called “low-end” offerings) with home networking installed as standard.

I’ve visited the “Electronic House Expo” each March of the past three years. Much has changed, technologically and otherwise, but one thing remains the same: the widespread belief that builders enthused about home networking want their “electrician” (the contractor) to do it. They don’t want two wiring contractors.

Further, a British market research firm, BSRIA, recently projected that 40 percent of single-family homes built new in the United States in 2004 would be built with home networks. This would be between 300,000 and 350,000 homes.

The bottom line

Acceleration of broadband access is on the agenda in Washington. There is a push from the telecom sector to federally subsidize its expansion; Senate legislation (introduced in April) seeks to “deregulate” DSL.

For the average contractor, 350,000 U.S. homes being hardwired in 2004 probably doesn’t mean much. However, for contractors who respond to the homebuilders’ desires for an electrical-plus-networking installation firm, broadband promises to make residential work more interesting and, hopefully, more profitable. EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.