NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2010
Use Your Electrical Wiring for Your Home Network
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)


Several years ago I wrote about a promising new technology that offered the home computer user the ability to create a wired home network without running any cables throughout the house. Since then, many new products were introduced that offered wired home networking without running any wires, but due to performance issues and cost, they never really caught on. As wireless speeds and bandwidth increased, almost all new computers were manufactured with 802.11 compatible wireless capability, increasing in speed and capability through evolutionary change through a variety of standards, including the early "b" standard, to the faster "g" standard, to the current fast "n" standard.

Wireless generally works well as long as the distance to the wireless router is reasonably short, and the path from the transmitter to the computer or other receiver is unobstructed by radio opaque materials. Even in a frame home with sheetrock walls, there are often dead spots where the home wireless network seems weak or unobtainable. Since 802.11 wireless consists of a radio transceiver, with one or more connected components (computers, sound systems, video and TV systems) it is often sensitive to the directional orientation of the components, with some components purposely being highly directional in order to increase the signal strength. There have been published anecdotal reports, some of which have been confirmed through technical testing, that since other household items may be sharing the same frequency spectrum with the wireless network, interference or degraded performance may occur.

When 802.11 wireless was in its infancy, an alternative technology was being developed primarily for home use, which would use the existing household wiring to create a wireless network. While lacking the portability of a wireless home network, a wired network offered the potential of greater bandwidth, higher speeds, and greater security. This wired home network did not require the running of any new cable between rooms, but could safely utilize the existing home electrical wiring accessible anywhere in the home that there was a power outlet, without blind spots. By simply plugging a specialized network adapter into an existing power outlet, a wired network would be accessible anywhere in the home.

Several years ago, at the now defunct COMDEX international computer show, I obtained a sample kit that included all of the components necessary to create a home network using my household electrical wiring. One of the components simply plugged into the wall power outlet and connected via standard network cable directly to my existing router. The other component also plugged directly into any other power outlet in the house, and had a standard network jack, which also connected with a standard network cable to my notebook computer. With great trepidation, I had visions of 110 volts cursing down the network cable, and frying both my router and my notebook computer. After re-reading the literature several times, I was assured that the system was indeed safe to use, and did not present any unusual danger, so I cautiously connected everything, and nothing untoward happened except I had a very fast network connection (14 Mbps) using only these two small boxes plugged into power outlets and a pair of regular network cables. Being one who likes to experiment, I connected one of the four wired ports on my wireless router to the wall device, and then I had both wired and wireless internet throughout the house. While I never used it for connecting TVs in the house, I later read accounts of individuals who did, using newer equipment than mine, and it worked fine with standard TV, but was often inadequate to carry reliable HDTV signals.

Moving the clock forward to today, my original sample kit contains components that have long since been discontinued, and replaced by newer models with much greater speed (500 Mbps), bandwidth, and capacity. In mid-October, 2010, the IEEE Standards Association announced the approval of a new standard for home networks that use existing household electrical wiring, this standard carrying the designation " IEEE 1901 Broadband over Power Line (BPL) standard" (standards.ieee.org/announcements/2010/1901.html). According to the IEEE, " IEEE 1901 will deliver data rates in excess of 500 Mbps." In addition to carrying data, the network can carry a variety of entertainment throughout the entire house, including HDTV, whole house audio, "smart homes" power management, and games. This standard is international in scope, and will work with any household voltage, and transmission frequencies of up to 100 Mhz. The new standard is not just for home use, but has identified applications in transportation (trains, busses, ships, aircraft), offices, power transmission and monitoring (smart meters and household appliance interconnectivity), and other creative ways. While the theoretical range of the signal is up to 1500 meters (almost 5000 feet), and the wired signal can possibly be picked up outside the house, the standard incorporates sophisticated encryption technology to protect the security of household information.

While it may be great to have broadband internet, audio-visual, and gaming connections on a plane or train, my primary interest for this technology is home networking. A trade association, the Homeplug Powerline Alliance (http://www.homeplug.org) is actively promoting the technology, and represents dozens of manufacturers of compatible products. Some of the better known makers of these products include Belkin, Cisco, D-Link, Netgear, and Sharp, which implies that the compatible products should become widely available through normal distribution and retail channels (homeplug.org/certified_products). One manufacturer listing that I found interesting was one of the satellite TV companies that is offering "Homeplug" equipment under its brand name that is used to provide satellite TV access throughout the house without the need for additional wiring.

According to the Homeplug Alliance, there are four explicit technologies that are currently being targeted for home use; these are Smart Grid / Smart Energy, HDTV Networking, Whole Home Audio, and Gaming. The Smart Grid / Smart Energy application can interconnect the power meter, household appliances, thermostat, heating and air conditioning system, electric car, and car charging station to the internet, providing better control, management, software updates, monitoring, and other power saving benefits. The HDTV Networking can connect an Ethernet enabled HDTV to the internet, enabling the growing IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) as a signal source. Whole-Home Audio allows high quality internet based digital audio to be received anywhere in the house utilizing the existing household wiring and a suitable Homeplug adapter connected to the audio device. The Gaming application allows the user to have a secure online gaming experience utilizing his existing internet capable gaming system connected to his HDTV, from anywhere in the house, without the limitations of a wireless gaming connection.

This new IEEE 1901 standard promises compatibility and interconnectivity between a growing number of devices and the internet, without the need for a sophisticated new wired or wireless connection, as the entire system utilizes the existing household wiring and connecting devices that simply plug in to an existing household power outlet. Many of the Homeplug devices require no configuration, and are "plug and play"; simply plug the Homeplug adapter into a wall socket, and connect the desired device to the Homeplug adapter, and the connection is made. It was precisely that simple with my now obsolete first generation device, and it will likely be that easy with the new generation of devices. The ability to easily connect HDTV, game consoles, household appliances, and other devices to the internet creates staggering opportunities and possibilities.

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