Networking 101: Pros and Cons of Powerline Networking

With the challenges of running new Ethernet cables through a house, and the Wi-Fi issues that plague many setups due to competing nearby networks, Powerline networking becomes an essential third option for residential networking. For home networking, while Powerline networking is less commonly used, it remains well suited to a variety of applications.

What Is Powerline Networking?

Wi-Fi sends data wirelessly via radio waves, while Ethernet cabling sends this data through dedicated wires. Powerline networking can send this same data via existing wires already present in a home, namely the electrical wiring. The Powerline adapters are typically sold and installed in pairs.

Basically, with the electricity already flowing in the house s wiring, the Powerline network adapter is inserted into a power outlet, and provides a transition from an Ethernet cable to the electrical wiring. At the other end, another Powerline adapter converts the data signal through the electrical wiring back to an Ethernet wire.

What Are the Benefits?

The advantage is that the challenges of running Ethernet cabling throughout the residence are obviated. This can be especially useful in a multistory residence where pulling cables can be a challenge for the novice, and labor intensive for an expert.

Powerline networking offers a useful way to get a wired connection to a location, without concern for wireless interference from neighbor s networks. Because it is a wired connection, latency times are short as well, and the connection is generally quite stable making it an ideal connection for higher bandwidth activities, such as gaming, video streaming or downloading.

Over the last several years, the speeds offered by Powerline adapters have significantly improved. Current kits boast speeds of 500 Mbps, 600 Mbps, 1000 Mbps and even 1200 Mbps. While these are theoretical maximum speeds, even if the user gets 50% of the promised speed, it still outstrips most home internet connection download speeds.

Configuring Powerline adapters is also an easy task. Typically sold as pairs, they are keyed together from the factory, and will simply work without any additional user input. Additional configuration can be done with factory reset buttons on the adapters, and/or software configuration pages that allow password changes. For initial setup, it can be as easy as plug and play.

Speaking of security, Powerline networking is inherently secure via two mechanisms. The first is that the adapters are 128 bit encrypted, so your neighbor or tenant cannot just plug into an outlet at the house and intercept the traffic. The second is that the data signal, while it will generally cross circuit breakers, will not go past the electrical service meter of the residence. This keeps the signal in the residence, and means that unlike Wi-Fi, noone on the next block can sniff out the data transmissions over the Powerline network.

Whether as a dedicated wired connection from the modem or router to a desktop, or as part of a larger network plan, Powerline networking offers advantages of ease of setup, inherent security and a stable connection.

What Are the Downsides?

With so many pros, you may wonder why Powerline networking is more common. Looking objectively, there are plenty of drawbacks as well, and it is understandable why this type of networking is not more ubiquitous.

Powerline networking is dependent on the electrical wiring of the house. In older homes, especially with older wiring with less shielding the adapters may not work to provide the connection. Furthermore, while the Powerline adapters are easy to configure with few settings, when they are not working, there is little to adjust to get them working, and the system stays dead in the water.

The wiring is also susceptible to electrical interference. There are known issues with high load devices interfering with Powerline adapters. The list includes refrigerators, microwaves and vacuums. Some older houses with less robust wiring in some cases simply do not support Powerline networking, with no easy fix.

The Powerline adapter needs to plugged directly into the outlet. If it is plugged into a surge strip, the data stream will be interrupted, and the device will not work. Powerline adapters not only have the requirement to be plugged into the outlet, but also due to their larger size block the entire power outlet from being used for anything other than Powerline networking. Be aware that this limitation can be overcome with a short extension cord to connect the adapter to the outlet, which leaves the other plug on the outlet clear, or via special Nano adapters designed to leave the other outlet free.

Older, and less robust Powerline adapters often limit the speed of the network connection via the use of 10/100 ports, rather than 10/100/1000 Gigabit ports. On top of that, they advertise speeds of 200 Mbps on up to 1200 Mbps, while the device is saddled with an Ethernet port that is only capable of a max speed of 100 Mbps. For users with slower internet connections, that 100 Mbps may be perfectly adequate, but no Powerline adapter will keep up with a Gigabit connection, and can easily become the bottleneck for throughput on a home network. There are some newer adapters with a 10/100/1000 Ethernet port, but they are still not common.

From a cost perspective, Powerline networking can get expensive as well. A set of Powerline adapters can cost from$50 to $100, but they only connect a single wired device to a modem or router. For the same cost, a budget router can be purchased that is capable of connecting multiple devices. Of course, individual results vary, but this cost barrier is a significant barrier for Powerline networking becoming more widespread.

Finally, the Powerline networking adapters both consume electricity. Older models often had issues of not going to a sleep setting when not in use, and wasting electricity. Current Powerline hardware do go into a

Uses for Powerline Networking

Powerline networking often gets thought of for connecting a single wired device, such as a desktop, to the modem or router. However, Powerline networking has considerable more value as an integral component of the larger network.

For example, more than one Powerline adapter can be keyed with the same password. This way several Powerline adapters can all communicate with others simultaneously. It is also possible to run multiple sets of Powerline adapters with different passwords to have two or more secure networks running in the same residence.

Powerline adapters are also well suited to bringing the network to an area of the residence that does not have access to the router s Wi-Fi signal. The next step is to use the Powerline adapter s Ethernet into a Wi-Fi access point. This approach has become popular, and now some Powerline adapter kits have the Wi-Fi access point integrated into one of the adapters. An example of such a kit is the Netgear Powerline Wi-Fi 1000 Essentials Editions (PLW1010-100NAS).

In other situations, there may be a need for additional wired ports at the location of the Powerline adapter. This is common with AV components of a home theater setup that require a wired connection. One option is to connect a Powerline adapter to a network switch. A simpler option is to choose a Powerline adapter, such as the Trendnet Powerline AV500 4-Port Hub (TPL-4052E) which has four ports integrated into the adapter, providing the function of a switch.

In Conclusion

While more of a niche product that Wi-Fi, Powerline networking is well suited to providing a stable connection, without dealing with the frequent interference issues that hamper Wi-Fi networking setups. With current Powerline adapters, higher speeds are possible than with previous generations of gear. In addition, integrated switches and Wi-Fi access points in the Powerline adapters provide flexibility to a networking setup.

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