Technology Tuesday: Powerline Networking

I had to call my ISP last week as I was having some issues with their router. The rep dialed up my account and attempted to diagnose the problem. After a moment or two punching keys and looking at my account, I heard a deep gasp and a faint “Jesus Christ.” I figured he had looked at my bandwidth over the last thirty days and I was about to either have my account summarily terminated or at the very least severely throttled. Hesitant to say anything for fear of self incrimination, I meekly inquired, “Is there a problem?”

“Well” he said, “there looks like a problem….there are over 50 devices with IP addresses on your router….are they all yours?”

After a sigh of relief to the fact that there was no inquiry into my data use, I said indeed they were. Nowadays, everything is connected to the internet. With a house of Sonos’, Tivo’s, Chumby’s, laptops, smart phones, tablets, desktop computers, Internet connected TV’s, Boxee, Roku, Slingbox, security system, internet phones, XBox, PSP, other gaming devices and God knows what else the kids bring in the house, 50 is quickly realized. While most of the devices are wireless and WiFi does a perfectly acceptable job for most of them – what if you need a wired connection somewhere that is not currently wired for ethernet?

This week we will look at Powerline Networking: A quick, affordable and easy way to add internet access throughout your house (maybe!).

[Example of a Belkin powerline adapter]

Why would I be interested in something like this? Can’t I just get a WiFi signal from my router? Of course you can. Maybe you don’t need it. However, there may be a room or two that just can’t get a decent signal. Or, you may need a much faster data transfer speed than your WiFi is capable of giving you. In my case, I have a Boxee box that was connected to WiFi. Although I can stream standard def movies from my shared network drive just fine, no way was I able to stream BluRay or other hi-def files. A constant stutter or downright pause makes watching a movie an unpleasant experience. Likewise, in trying to stream HD video from YouTube or other websites and the Boxee struggled to keep up.

While I would have preferred another ethernet jack in my living room, I struggled for two days trying to wire it. A rat’s nest of switches, jacks, wires and un-terminated CAT-5 cables, I simply couldn’t create a wired connection. A quick call to an electrician and an exorbitant estimate ruled that out as a solution as well. There had to be a better way!

Then, I remembered Powerline Networking.

[There’s got to be an easier way!]

What is it and how does it work? Quite simply, it is a way of carrying your data over an existing wiring system. One adapter is plugged into a wall socket and has an ethernet cable inserted from an existing wired source. You can come out of your router, a switch, an existing ethernet port or another device with an output that already is wired. Then, plug the another adapter into the location that you want your new connection. Plug a network cable out of this adapter and into your device. Simple as that.

My device actually came with an installation CD…or maybe it was an instructional DVD?  Completely not sure what it was but I didn’t even bother to read the printed instruction manual. Yes, the installation is that simple. No settings. No jerking around with port forwarding or any other router settings. No headache at all. Plug. And play. Instantly.

What are the benefits over WiFi? My WiFi signal in my living room is strong as it is relatively close to the router. However, even with full bars, I typically only was able to pull down about 9 or 10 Mbps in network speed. Now take a look at my results with the Belkin Powerline adapter:

[Speed with Powerline Adapter]

I love it when I get more download speed than the package I pay my ISP for. I am supposed to get 35Mbps so it’s nice to see that the speeds I am getting are so high. Getting this speed is more than enough to stream a movie uninterrupted or play an online game without a stutter.

This speedtest.net result is of course a measure of internet speed and how well my device can upload and download from the web. The actual link rate for data transfer from local content is much higher. This particular device is rated up to 500Mbps. Other Powerline Adapters are rated for 200Mbps or as little as 85Mbps. If you are looking to stream video and other data intensive files, opt for the adapters with a higher link rate. For casual web surfing, e-mailing and light video, you’ll be fine with some of the lower rated adapters.

Anything I should be aware of? Yes. And hence the “Maybe!” at the beginning of the article. While Powerline Networking has evolved and been improved by leaps and bounds over the last several years, by no means is it equally a good solution as a traditionally wired network jack. The quality of the signal is dependent on many factors and may even render it worthless for you.

First, of course your two outlets need to be on the same circuit box. The further you are from each outlet will reduce the speed but should not be an issue in most houses as they generally work for up to about 1,000′. Your outlet needs to be a traditional wall outlet. Do not use a power strip and it can’t be a GFCI outlet or you will experience problems. Typically, GFCI outlets are found in bathrooms and kitchens, so this again shouldn’t be a problem for most people until GFCI outlets become the norm and not the exception. These adapters are also very susceptible to line noise so if there are “noisy” motors or other devices on the same circuit, performance could be degraded. Likewise, old wiring sometimes simply will not work. I bought Powerline Adapters for my previous house which was built in the 1920’s. Despite trying several outlets in different rooms, I never could get even remotely acceptable speed. It is tough to know now if it was the case of the home wiring, or the fact that the technology was in its infancy at the time several years ago, but in any event, I ended up returning it.

Bottom Line: Expect to pay about $50 for a slower speed adapter and $100 or so for the quicker ones. Buying a package of several adapters can reduce the cost per each substantially. You can get significant speed improvement over wireless with enough speed to stream high def movies but don’t expect your wired network speed. Make sure your retailer has a reasonable return policy in case your home wiring is not compatible. If you know how to plug in a light, you’ll be able to setup your adapter. Dead simple and affordable way of expanding your home network.


From last week:
We looked at a fantastic iPhone 4 recording system from Fostex called AR-4i. Congratulations to Ted R who was picked as a winner of another Hidden Track and Technology Tuesday giveaway. Please get in touch with the contact info below to arrange for shipping.

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Hidden Track Technology Tuesday
email: [email protected]
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Have an idea for an article? Product, app, or web service you are passionate about? Feel free to get in touch with me.

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