By “Powerline Home Networks” I’m referring to high speed networks based on high voltage power line technologies, as well as two different standards initiatives that hope to leverage the ubiquity of the home power outlet to network anything with a plug (more on the standards later).
Powerline Networking vs. Phoneline and Wireless
Last year, we saw the formation of the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) and the ability to connect PCs and share resources such as telephone modems using existing phone outlets. Early products based HomePNA cost about $100 per PC and ran at speeds up to 1 million bits per second (1 Mbps). Today, HomePNA is in its second generation at 10 Mbps, and product costs have fallen to about $50 per PC. Strong customer demand and industry support drove those improvements around a single phoneline standard.
This year, we’ll see electrical powerline home networking at about 10 Mbps. That’s good news for consumers and the home networking industry since there are so many electrical outlets. Powerline networking will let us buy and network products wherever we want, without being tied to a phone outlet.
Most homes have just 2-3 phone outlets, but most electric codes require multiple power plugs per room â€“ at least one on each wall. That’s a safety requirement so you don’t have to run extension cords across doorways and then trip over them later.
In my March article on “Future Proofing Your Home”, I suggested that no matter how well we plan and how many phone jacks we install, we’ll eventually buy smart devices and want to put them where there’s no phone jack for high-speed networking. Handheld and battery operated devices cry out for wireless networking, but if an electric plug is needed for power, that same plug can be used for networking.
With powerline networking, you’ll be able to put your desktop PCs anywhere you like instead of being forced to put them by a phone outlet. It will also be easier to buy and network other devices â€“ printers, scanners, DSL and cable modems, TV set-top boxes, game consoles, screen phones and major appliances. These non-PC devices will likely use powerline networking since they all have a power plug and aren’t close to a phone outlet. Since they will tend to stay in one place, there’s no need for wireless networking at more cost. And there won’t be enough phone outlets for them all, but there are plenty of electric outlets.
What’s available today?
Today, the only powerline networking solution comes from Inari, a spin-off of Novell Networking. Inari’s $80 Passport Plug-In Network kit comes with enough adapters for two PCs and one printer. It’s good for sharing the printer or a dial-up phone line but, at only 350 Kbps, it is too slow for high-speed DSL and cable modems. Inari plans to introduce a 2 Mbps version later this year, followed by a 10 Mbps version.
Nobu In Wall PCs
That’s quite a feat when you consider the challenges of putting data onto the electrically noisy power lines which are susceptible to interference from fluorescent lights, toaster ovens, air conditioner compressors, hair dryers, power drills, and many other devices â€“ even devices your neighbor has. This is now feasible because of:
more advanced modulation techniques,
adaptive networking methods that squeak out maximum performance under ideal conditions and still offer acceptable performance with interference, and
improvements in semiconductor technologies that makes this both possible and affordable.
The home automation industry has used power lines to carry home control signals and small amounts of data for years, and HomeToys.com is filled with articles on X-10, CEBus, LonWorks, and similar technologies. The performance of these control networks is measured in Kbps, while the market demand for data networks is measured in Mbps â€“ Ethernet speeds.
Powerline Data Networking Standards
Now, there are a dozen or so powerline technology companies, each working on high-speed data networking and promising similar performance this year. Until recently, there were no standards initiative, and now there are two, each with similar objectives.
HomePlug â€“ The HomePlug Powerline Alliance (www.homeplug.org) is a non-profit industry consortium that brings together thirteen companies with a similar vision and a desire to jump-start what they describe as a traditionally slow standards process. HomePlug was announced on April 10, 2000. It’s on a fast track to introduce its first specification this summer and have products ready by year end.
Alberto Mantovani, president of the HomePlug Alliance and division director for strategic programs at Conexant, describes the general feeling of urgency among the group. “We have an opportunity to create a market for powerline, and it’s a small window of opportunity. We don’t have time to spend the next three to five years figuring out which technology is best.”
HomePlug has 13 founding members (called sponsors), and each company has one vote.
Enikia (a powerline technology company)
Intel (now owns Ambient, a powerline technology company)
Intellon (licenses its powerline technology to Microsoft and Phonex)
S3 (Diamond Multimedia)
Tandy (Radio Shack)
HomePlug also has 7 participant members, including several powerline technology companies. Most of them were asked to join “after” HomePlug was announced. They don’t have a vote and probably joined too late to have significant influence.
PolyTrax Information Technology
CEA’s R-7.3 working group â€“ Curiously, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) set up a similar working group (R-7.3) just a few months before HomePlug was formed. Some of the companies involved with R-7.3 are listed below. The ones involved with both R-7.3 and HomePlug are marked with an asterisk (*).
Adaptive Networks *
ITRAN Communications *
Thomson Consumer Electronics
Since R-7.3 had already started defining powerline data network standards, one might ask why several companies were compelled to create a parallel effort, and won’t that cause confusion in the market? â€˜Good questions.
Even though the CEA is a formal standards setting body and might be thought of as slow, it has a good track record for finalizing standards quickly â€“ usually taking just 10 weeks from first initiating work on a draft to voting to adopt an EIA standard. The R-7.3 working group plans to also announce its specification this year. So, I can’t believe HomePlug’s “sense of urgency” argument and suspect that politics are at play.
Inari, the one company shipping powerline products, was not invited to join as a founding member and is critical of the apparently secretive process of the organization. Todd Green, Inari’s director of product marketing, said the company did join HomePlug briefly as the only way to learn about the terms of submitting technologies for consideration. Inari then dropped out once it learned that it would have no vote, criticizing the process as closed.
Inari describes its own vision as less PC centric than HomePlug, with a broader range of bandwidth options for devices that could interoperate without needing bridging devices.
Mike Wolfe of Cahners In-Stat Group has also noticed that some of the powerline companies are playing politics behind the scenes. He says, “Ultimately, the big computer and consumer electronics companies are not going to put up with a bunch of competing standards.”
Still, the fact that standards work is happening at all is encouraging, as this young industry has windows of opportunity that are still wide open.
The two separate powerline standards groups share a similar vision â€“ they both want to extend beyond control and data, to also carry audio and video, and to help connect everyday devices to the Internet. They each plan to test the technologies from powerline companies and then pick the best one as the standard.
Ideally, industry consortia and standards bodies would work together, and the good news is that leaders in R-7.3 and HomePlug are exploring ways to do that. Bill Rose, a vice president of Leviton and chairman of R-7, said that R-7.3 has even defined a liaison workgroup to facilitate cooperation.
As standards emerge for powerline home networking, other technology companies focus on the electric power grid that brings power to homes. They plan to apply powerline technologies to access networks, much like DSL uses existing phone lines and cable modem service uses the coaxial cables. But that’s a topic for another article.