Powerline: the next big thing?

How to use fast new products to connect devices through power sockets

For many moons now, PC publications have talked about ways to connect devices wirelessly. As far as wired connections went, innovations have seemed thin on the ground. However, a way of physically connecting devices using something called Powerline -- a concept that has been around for three or four years -- is now making its presence felt in the U.K.

Powerline networking plugs your ethernet-connected products into the mains cabling around your office or house. You don't need dedicated twisted-pair cabling and, in this sense, it's similar to HomePNA networking, which uses phone wiring. Both are attractive, because running new cables from room to room can be messy or difficult if you have to go through walls.

The advantage of Powerline is that phone sockets aren't as common as power sockets, which are found in all rooms. There are usually more power sockets than phone ones, so losing a power socket isn't as much of a hassle as losing one of your telephone points.

Basic Powerline networks aren't fast. HomePlug 1.0 products have a maximum data transfer rate of 14Mbps (megabits per second), with automatic fallback to slower rates (as low as 1Mbps) if there's load or interference. This makes them roughly equivalent to the 4.5Mbps or so of 802.11b Wi-Fi, which is fine for light network use and sharing a web connection.

You can hook up a maximum of 16 PCs to a Powerline network -- for home use, that's not a problem. There is also a functional limit of 1,000ft for these networks. Note that this refers to the length of the cable run and not 'as the crow flies.'

Just recently, faster HomePlug products have emerged. The standard throughput has been boosted to 85Mbps, while an even newer HomePage 2.0 is now available. This can manage up to 200Mbps (note the 'up to') and incorporates video-friendly features such as support for VQoS (video quality of service). It is ideal for streaming high-definition video throughout your home.

Install Powerline

1. I've used Netgear kit for this walkthrough. Installation of Powerline adapters is pretty simple, and the instructions supplied are minimal. However, tucked away on the CD is an animated 'install assistant' that shows complete novices how to unwire and rewire their network to include Powerline devices.

2. The first step when installing a Powerline device is to plug the network cable into Netgear's XE102 bridge, then plug the device into a mains socket close to your router or broadband connection. Plug the other end of the cable into a socket on your router. Two of the three LEDs will light up, to indicate power and a network connection.

3. Here I've plugged the WGXB102 wireless extender -- the second part of Netgear's package -- into a power outlet. Two of its three status LEDs are on (indicating that it's got power and that the Wi-Fi is switched on) but the LED in the middle isn't on. This LED is the Powerline indicator and tells us that the XE102, can't be detected.

4. Connecting a Powerline device to anything other than a wall-mounted power socket can make for an unreliable connection. This is especially true of surge protectors and uninterruptible power supplies, which contain filters. Also note that Powerline networking data signals cannot pass through electrical transformers.

5. If you're not interested in extending your Wi-Fi and merely want to extend a wired network without the hassle of lifting floorboards, simply plug a second XE102 bridge into a power socket close to your PC. There's nothing to configure: the PC thinks it is plugged into the router and is unaware of the Powerline segment.

6. Unlike earlier Powerline devices, the latest range of HomePlug hardware is entirely web-configurable; you don't have to install any device drivers, which means non-Windows platforms can use it. Accordingly the supplied CD contains mainly documentation and nonessential 'bonus' software. It also contains a setup program.

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