Parks Associates Blog

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

This powerline networking stuff actually works!

We tried an experiment last night with some powerline networking equipment, and I was pleased with the results. I had two Ethernet-to-powerline bridges using the HomePlug 1.0 technology. To be honest with you, I hadn't really been able to find a good use for them. With an updated 802.11g wireless router (installed as part of our subscription to the Verizon FiOS broadband and TV service), our wireless coverage was considered "good enough" for Internet and e-mail applications.

However, I am about ready to consider a media adapter solution that can take the content (primarily recorded TV) from our Media Center system in the home office to our bedroom. We've said it for years, and our own use of the Media Center system proves it; recording TV on a PC makes very little sense until you can move that content to a television. So, knowing the vagaries associated with wireless coverage, I wanted to try the powerline nodes to see if we had a workable solution to provide a stronger and consistent signal in the bedroom.

I've got to say that the installation and the end-result were easy and pleasing. I mean, we hear terms such as "play-and-play" all the time in this space, but how many of us have experienced this kind of bliss? With the powerline nodes, setup was as easy as connecting an Ethernet cable from the router to one of the adapters and then plugging in the other adapter in the bedroom and connecting my laptop via Ethernet to it. That's it! Once I connected to the Internet, I ran a bandwidth test, and found a signal from between 1.4 and 2.2 Mbps (our FiOS service is 5 Mbps downstream on the main computer). Now, this was nowhere close to a scientific study, but the speed was decent, in my opinion.

Now, the true test came with streaming some video over the Internet. What we have right now is what I consider a "poor man's multimedia network." We've got the Orb Networks software installed on the Media Center, and I use it to log into the content from my laptop while on the road. So, we tried it last night to catch up on a couple of episodes of CSI. So, we're not talking about 1080p high-definition content, but it was very viewable on the laptop. Given the simplicity of set-up and the end result, I've got a very favorable outlook for where powerline can play a role in the home.

The market for powerline now is starting to bear out its usefulness in terms of ubiquity and performance. At last week's CONNECTIONS conference, we had representatives from the different powerline bodies (HomePlug, CEPCA, and UPA) in attendance, and we had an interesting panel discussion with several of the HomePlug members, including Intel, Texas Instruments, Arkados, Intellon, and Current Communications. The market right now is still in flux, and companies such as Panasonic and DS2, while outside of the HomePlug effort, are still making news with new partners. Panasonic representatives tell us that the HD-PLC technology has the largest volume in Japan, and DS2, which is part of the UPA, has announced large shipments of 200 Mbps powerline technology. However, given HomePlug's backing by a large contingent of companies and the volumes it it shipping (in a May 2 press release from CONNECTIONS, the organization announced that it had shipped nine million products), we view them as the leader at present.

The panel discussion itself wasn't billed as a "why HomePlug is a great technology" session, but I liked the holistic approach that each of the panelists was able to take on the overall subject of why powerline solutions are helping to create a digital home market on a global basis. Questions from the audience were largely directed to Tom Willie from Current Communications (clearly, broadband-over-powerline is a hot subject this year), and there was also an interesting question about the need to see more power strips with surge protection embracing HomePlug solutions. In addition to seeing powerline deployments for data, multimedia, communications, and entertainment networks, I thought that this was a valid point. After all, if the power strip is going to be the point where multiple electronic devices are going to be connected, then it cannot be the barrier for widespread adoption of powerline-based networking products.

I think that my own non-scientific experiment really pointed out the value of a solution like powerline in creating new markets for multimedia and entertainment applications. If the solution really is as easy as plug-and-play and provides decent performance to begin moving video and audio around the home, we are definitely looking at the beginning of solid growth for these solutions. Now, all we need to do is to ensure that all of these new powerline devices account for intuitive device discovery and easy home networking configuration! That'll be a different topic for a different post!

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