Web Informant #306, 21 November 2002:

Networking using home AC power lines




Since my "Home Networking Survival Guide" book came out a little more than a year ago, a lot has changed for the better for home networkers. Most notably, there is an entire new class of technologies making networks easier. And wireless gear has gotten so cheap that you can almost find it in cereal boxes. So for those of you that are contemplating what to do for your home network, here is an update.  And if you want to buy my book, here is a link to do so from Amazon:




One of the nice things for my friends and neighbors has been the lifetime support contract that they receive when I install a home network for them. Well, that is what it seems, but I find these support calls illuminating for a variety of reasons, including finding out which technologies withstand the test of time, teenagers, and tinkering. And I really don't mind all those phone calls, folks. I do recall fondly when I first began in this industry how telling people I was into computers was a surefire conversation killer.


If you want to network your home, you have four basic technologies to choose from nowadays. First is good ole wired Ethernet, which is what I try to recommend whenever possible and whenever someone is willing to invest in putting the wire in their walls. You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much cat 5 running around your home. But wire isn't cheap, and sometimes it isn't possible, especially if your spouse doesn't grant design approval to drill holes and pull wire.


Then you are faced with one of the other three alternative technologies: wireless, phoneline or powerline (also called home plug). Let's look first at wireless. It is now on parity with wired in terms of expense (about $100 a connection), and in terms of throughput (well, maybe a bit slower, but not that much slower). There are two troubles with wireless: latency and signal strength. The problem is you don't know what will happen with either until you get the gear home and hook it up.


Wireless is a wonderful technology: don't get me wrong. It is sexy to walk around your home and be connected to the Internet and send email messages from every corner of your home. But if you have teenagers who like to extract the ultimate performance out of their machines to play the latest shoot-em-up games, then your clan will not be happy with whatever wireless network you do use. And if you have thick walls or have to locate your access point in your basement (because that is where your cable modem lives), your signals might not make it upstairs, let alone down by the pool or wherever your desired wireless fantasy "hot spot" is intended. Finally, there is the whole security issue revolving around wireless: if you don't set this up properly, your neighbors can become part of your network and share your files, your Internet connection, whatever. If you don't know what you are doing, you could get yourself into a lot of trouble.


Phoneline is the technology that uses ordinary telephone wiring to transmit the Ethernet signals. When I wrote my book almost two years ago I give this stuff high praise, based on early experience with the products. But since then I have had lots of trouble with getting the phoneline technology to work in actual homes. Part of the problem has nothing to do with the technology per se but just the persnickety nature of the average home phone wiring. Even if your wiring is relatively recent vintage, I have seen homes that have every phone outlet wired correctly, except the one nearest the computer. And again, things could be working just fine for voice calls but trip up the data part of the equation, and you won't know until you get the gear home and try to make it work. Part of the problem is the crummy state of network drivers for these adapters: I can remember long afternoons re-installing them and downloading newer versions across the Internet to try to get the various phoneline products to work.


Of the three alternatives to wired Ethernet, my bet is on powerline, and this is currently the technology that I recommend. Everyone who has installed this stuff has made it work the first time, right out of the box. No matter how bizarre your home setup may be, the powerline gear just works. The idea is not quite as appealing as wireless: after all, you have to plug in your computer to the wall and can't roam around poolside as easily -- unless you have a nearby AC outlet and a long extension cord. But I like the fact that it is kid tested and delivers the goods. The speed is less than wired Ethernet but the latency is much better than wireless,


So how does it work? You connect your PC to the network via the USB or Ethernet adapter that is simplicity itself: plug one end into the computer, plug the other into the wall AC outlet. The adapter has two connectors: one is the USB or RJ45 Ethernet for your computer. The other is the power cord. There is nothing to configure (other than if you use the USB version, loading a network driver). You need another unit to complete your network on the other end -- either with a second PC or to connect up your residential gateway/firewall/hub/router box and the rest of your home network. It sounds so simple, and that is because it is.


Linksys, Dlink, Netgear, and numerous others make versions of both adapters. So far they haven't yet come out with a gateway/router that has an integrated powerline connector, although I did see a few of these at Comdex from third-tier vendors so I would expect them from the mainstream guys soon.


One of these days I will get around to revising my book and adding information in about powerline technologies. In the meantime, if you are in the market for home networks, check this stuff out.


Comdex coda


Well, I am back from the annual pilgrimage to Vegas and a dispiriting Comdex. The show is a shadow of its former glory self, with attendance and the number of booths down from the post-911 depressed last year. Cabbies and attendees alike were talking about how this could be the Last Comdex. (It is interesting how the cabbies identify with the show, and want it to be the biggest trade show in the country. Given the number of trade shows that comes through town, it no longer has that distinction, to be sure.) I don't think we've seen the last of Comdex, and think that if the show continues into 2003 it will be a very different beast. It was odd to see such a small show floor, and so little product on display. Four of my six panelists didn't come (five if you count a last minute replacement who also didn't materialize), which has to be a new conference record for all the years that I have been moderating panels and a disappointing one at that. Given that Key3Media, the show's organizers, have gone into Chapter 11 and laid off many staff (including closing the original office in Needham), it does seem like a sober time for our industry.


But I still found plenty of things to write about and new products and deals to report on, and you'll see those in the coming weeks and months from me. For those old friends that I got a chance to catch up with during the show, it was nice to see you all still around!



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Entire contents copyright 2002 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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