Powerline Networking Uses What You Already Have
Powerline technology rides along existing wires to network PCs, TVs, set-top boxes and home theater components.
Powerline Networking
Clockwise, from top: GigaFast HomePlug USB adapter, Actiontec MegaPlug AV Adapter, Linksys PowerLine AV Adapter.
April 02, 2007 by Toni Kistner

Though the most popular, 802.11 wireless is not your only choice for home networking. You can network your devices over your phone lines, power lines, and even your coaxial cabling. And there’s always that old standby, wired Ethernet, which can’t be beat for reliability—if you don’t mind draping or snaking cables.

This year, HomePlug power line technology is one the most interesting wireless alternatives. HomePlug 1.0 is a standards-based technology that yields 14 Mbps data rate (about 5-7 Mbps throughput). HomePlug products are easy to use and secure. Plug a HomePlug router into a standard wall socket and follow a few configuration screens. Attach your PC or other device to a HomePlug adapter or bridge and plug that into the wall socket to “charge” your network.

The HomePlug network is password-protected and data transmissions are encrypted with at least 56-bit DES encryption. One caveat: No power strips!

HomePlug is strongly standards driven. Similar to the Wi-Fi Alliance, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance oversees specification development and testing and certifies products for interoperability. The group is also working on a broadband power line (BPL) specification that will provide last mile connectivity and eventually interoperate with “in-house” HomePlug.

Moreover, HomePlug’s next generation standard, HomePlug AV, is built to handle multiple HD streams and serve as a whole-home network backbone. With its a 200 Mbps data rate, HomePlug AV is being championed by consumer electronics vendors such as Sharp Electronics, which demonstrated a 108-inch HDTV with built-in HomePlug at the Consumer Electronics Show this past January.

Why would you want a HomePlug HDTV? The HomePlug Alliance envisions a time when you’ll take your Home Plug AV TV out of the box, plug it in and it will automatically connect to your components, including your cable box, DVD player, DVR, PC and home theater system. Realize, though that HomePlug technology is a network transport (or data pipe) only. Vendors still need to develop savvy software to run on both ends of the connection to manage operations and data.

“This is a portion of the industry that lags behind and is a great place for standards to be set,” says Jim Reeber, director of marketing at HomePlug chip maker Arkados.

Another standards group, the Digital Living Network Association (DLNA), is working to spur software development and promote interoperability. But in the meantime, setting up a HomePlug entertainment backbone alongside your existing wireless network makes good sense. After all, both HomePlug and 802.11 are Ethernet based, so devices will at least recognize each other if not share content.

Back to products. At CES this past January, 14 HomePlug products were announced from 11 different vendors. Notably, Gigafast and German vendor devolo AG showed HomePlug gear that makes it possible to stream audio from your PC to your stereo system or speakers. Pricing has not yet been announced, but the products are expected to ship by late spring.

But there’s no reason to wait for HomePlug AV gear because 100-plus megabit data streams are still overkill for most households. HomePlug 1.0 technology is built to handle at least four uncompressed simultaneous data streams, and when compressed, as many as eight.

That means today your family can download music onto one machine, stream music to a second machine, surf the Web and play an online game all at the same time. Of course, performance varies by application, but you get the idea.

HomePlug 1.0 products cost around the same or less than 802.11 products, and are available from a slew of vendors (see listing, below).

Powerline Networking Companies and Products

  • Actiontec—HomePlug adapters, hubs, extenders
  • Asoka, USA—HomePlug adapters, bridges, routers
  • devolo AG—HomePlug adapters, routers, audio devices
  • GigaFast—HomePlug adapters, bridges, routers
  • Iogear—HomePlug adapters, bridges
  • Linksys—HomePlug adapters, bridges, routers
  • Netgear—HomePlug adapters, HD adapter
  • Wilife—HomePlug home surveillance system
  • Zyxel—HomePlug adapters, bridges
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Toni Kistner - Contributing Writer
Toni Kistner is a technology writer living in Cambridge, Mass. Her main focus is networking and wireless technology.

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