HomePlug has hit the streets and I had my first run at it with some products from Linksys and Siemens (SpeedStream). I’ve been a booster of this technology since I first heard of it at a Connections Conference a few years ago. It just make a whole lot of sense to use you existing house wiring to network electronic devices. Every room already has at least one plug so it’s a natural for existing homes as well as new ones. It also seems to me that networked appliances and consumer electronic devices of the future will still plug into an electrical outlet … so why not incorporate a network connection at the same time? Huge potential for interconnectivity!

Over the years I’ve played with several networks and devices … often devoting hours to installing, configuring, troubleshooting, removing, re-installing, re-configuring … until finally some combination works and the network is operational. I was pleasantly surprised when I set up my first powerline network … even using products from different manufacturers. Here’s how it went for me.

Step 1 – Since I already have an Ethernet router installed in the lab I wanted to use it with the powerline network. In other words … I already have a broadband internet connection and an office computer network. I want to be able to plug a laptop computer into an electrical outlet in another room and access the internet and our computer network. The device for this application is a Linksys Powerline 10/100 Bridge. Sounds complicated … but it’s not. The device just looks like a “wall wart” … you know those little black transformer boxes that you plug in the wall. On top of the box is an ethernet plug and the unit comes with an ethernet patch cable. So … I plugged the box into the wall and ran the ethernet cable to a vacant port on our router. Theoretically that means I should now have a powerline network … connected to our existing network. Now all I have to do is see if it worked. I didn’t even read the instructions for this step … which is unusual for me … but not for others.

Step 2 – Since the laptop I want to use has a USB port … and I happen to have a Linksys Powerline USB adapter … that seems to be the route to go. The instructions for setting this up on the laptop are simple and straight forward … no networking talk at all. Just run the install CD … it sets up the drivers and software and then tells you to plug the adapter (another wall wart) into the wall and the USB cable into the laptop. 2 minutes and that’s it … take the rest of the day off 🙂 I had instant internet and network access from the laptop.

Testing 1,2,3 – There is a nice configuration utility that tells you the network speed etc. I ran around the house … plugging and unplugging and testing the data rate. It varied from a low of 7 Mbps to a high of 13.5 Mbps. The low signal was only in one spot where I assume there is a lousy electrical connection in the wiring. Most outlets were above 11 Mbps. The house is 20 years old. Awesome.

What about X-10 signals and HomePlug? I plugged an X10 maxi controller into the same outlet as the homeplug adapter to see what would result. While I was streaming music from the network to the laptop I turned the light on and off with the maxi controller and scanned the network speed. There was no break in the music stream and the light went on and off on command. The network speed did drop a bit according to the homeplug configuration utility … from 12 Mbps to 10.5 Mbps … undetectable in the human world.

6dBi Wireless Indoor Directional AntennaStep 3 – Never satisfied with such an easy solution … I opened another box … this one from Siemens. A Powerline Wireless Access Point. Now that’s a mouthful … but what does it do and why do I want to do it?

This wall wart has an antenna sticking out of the top instead of a plug. The antenna is for 802.11b wireless networking. Plug it into the wall and now your wireless laptop communicates with the wall wart … and the wall wart communicates over the powerline network to access the internet etc. But why do this when you already have a wireless access point. Well … I have found that the 802.11b wireless network does not have the range that I need to get from one end of the house to the other. With this solution you can simply plug the powerline device into the wall in the room you are computing from and get full speed wireless access no matter where you are. You don’t need to buy a wireless access point at all. Just use this and carry it around … or buy a few and scatter them around the house for maximum coverage.
Nobu In Wall PCs

So … here we go … lets see if it works as advertised. Again … the Siemens instructions are clear and simple … run the CD installation program and plug the wall wart in when directed. Of course you will need an 802.11b card in your laptop (I’m using an older Compaq Ipaq card … just to see how compatible this stuff really is). A few lights flash and voila … the configuration utility tells me I have an 11 Mbps wireless connection to the wall wart. But … no internet or network connection … oh oh! Visions of DHCP / TCP/IP / Subnet masks … time to panic? OK … get a cup of coffee and sit down with the instructions. After trying several approaches … unplugging / re-plugging / renewing IP addresses etc. I come across this important statement in the documentation … “Verify that your Powerline network passwords are identical for all adapters”. A search through the instructions and I find that Siemens uses “SpeedStream” as the default password and Linksys uses “HomePlug” as the default. The configuration software lets me change the SpeedStream password to “HomePlug” and … whew … that was it. I now have a Compaq PC card in the laptop communicating wirelessly with a Siemens Powerline Access Point which communicates over the house wiring with a Linksys Powerline 10/100 Bridge and hence via CAT5 wire to the ethernet hub. A great test of compatibility and flexibility. I’m impressed. Just one bit of advice to all companies making HomePlug products. Please standardize on the default password … and “HomePlug” seems to be a good choice.

Once you have a powerline network operating in your home it’s simple to add computers and devices … no matter what network plugs they have in them. These manufactures and others make USB adapters, Wireless adapters and Ethernet adapters. These devices sell for approximately $100 each. They also make Powerline DSL/Cable Routers to connect your powerline network to a broadband internet service.

I think we can now buy and install every home networking option available … and more and more network devices (ie gaming systems, music servers etc) are arriving every day. Now the fun begins 🙂