Make sure you understand how they work and what options are best for your homes. By Charles Wardell

If your structured wiring vendor offers an Internet gateway (and most plan to) quiz him on what the thing does. Is the gateway really a router (a traffic cop for data), or is it more sophisticated?

The most advanced residential gateways take incoming digital services--cable TV, phone, Internet, and other services--and translate them for use on each type of in-home network, whether Cat-5, phone line, or wireless. And that's just the beginning. Soon, gateways will give providers a beach head inside the home, letting them remotely upgrade the gateway with new software and services when requested by the homeowner.

The gateway will fulfill its promise only when all of a home's networked devices can talk with one another, and when the gateway automatically recognizes any device wanting access--a goal that will require industry standards. But while standards efforts are under way, they're complicated by the longstanding feud between Microsoft and archrival Sun Microsystems. Some gateways are compatible with the Microsoft-led Universal Plug and Play effort; others are allied with Open Standards Gateway Initiative (OSGi), relying on Sun's Java language.

There's no way to know if these standards will converge, or if not, which will dominate. Meanwhile, the best approach is to find the software applications that best fit your needs, then find the hardware that best meets those needs. In other words, ask a lot of questions.