We have been researching and writing about powerline networking technologies for some time. Powerline products are being developed both for metropolitan area networking providing broadband access to the home, and for local area networking in the home. HomePlug is an emerging LAN technology targeted to customers who want to connect multiple PCs to a cable or DSL modem and don't want to run new wiring.
In this article, we provide background information on the industry consortium and a few of the players that we've visited or interviewed recently. In the next issue, we'll report on our testing of HomePlug equipment we've recently received from four different companies. Our early experience has been pretty positive, and we're looking forward to sharing it with you.
Home networking over existing electrical wiring has always seemed like a great approach, since most devices are already plugged into electrical outlets and wouldn't need additional network connections. Many companies started developing technologies for powerline networking, but recognized that coming to market with mutually-incompatible proprietary technologies would only confuse consumers.
The HomePlug Powerline Alliance was formed more than two years ago to create a common specification so that products from different companies would be interoperable and so they could be marketed with a common logo. The Alliance released its HomePlug 1.0 specification in June 2001 and the consortium members have been working to develop consumer products.
Many HomePlug 1.0 products have just reached the market. Phonex showed its NeverWire 14 products at CES and has just started a worldwide marketing campaign. Asoka USA has started limited marketing prior to a full rollout. Two of the leaders in home networking, Linksys and Netgear, have introduced HomePlug products. A complete product list is on the HomePlug website.
( www.homeplug.org )
We visited Asoka USA a few weeks ago near San Francisco. We met with Elsa Chan, Director of Business Communications. Their parent company, Asoka, Inc. of Taiwan, established Asoka USA last year specifically to penetrate the US consumer market, and HomePlug powerline networking is their initial effort.
Elsa had already loaned us two of their PlugLink Ethernet Bridge units for evaluation, and she gave us one of their USB Bridges as well while we visited with her.
Elsa told us that they were working on additional HomePlug products, including a 4-port Ethernet bridge and a Wi-Fi bridge. They're also exploring different form factors for their current products.
We started our testing with Asoka's products and were impressed with how well they worked after a few problems with our initial setup.
We're looking forward to finishing testing their equipment and reporting on it to you.
( www.asokausa.com )
About a month ago, we interviewed Graham Wilson, Director of Marketing at Cogency Semiconductor, a Canadian company developing chips compatible with the HomePlug specs. The picture shows how Cogency's Piranha chipset fits on a PCI HomePlug adapter.
Cogency also sells complete "reference designs" based on its chipsets; a consumer electronics company can quickly turn a reference design into a finished product. Cogency's reference designs include a USB-HomePlug Wall Adapter - a low-cost unit with a small form factor (shown at the right) - and a slightly larger Ethernet-HomePlug Wall Adapter. Earlier this month, Cogency announced its new CS1102 Ethernet to HomePlug bridge on a chip, which should enable consumer-priced products.
Graham, who also serves as the chair of the HomePlug marketing group, told us that early consumer products were adapters - simple products to connect HomePlug to USB and Ethernet, with various form factors. HomePlug will then migrate into integrated products - built into cable modems, cable/DSL routers and gateways.
So as HomePlug products roll out, the consumer should be able to buy a cable modem with HomePlug built-in - just connect it to the cable and plug it into the wall outlet: the power plug provides the network connection. For now, each PC requires a HomePlug wall adapter for USB or Ethernet - whichever is built into the PC; later, HomePlug will be built into the PC, removing the need for wall adapters.
( www.cogency.com )
Where Does Powerline Fit?
The consumer already has a bewildering choice of home networking technologies: Ethernet, wireless (Wi-Fi) and phoneline (HomePNA). Wi-Fi is going great guns - does the consumer really need another home networking technology?
We think that HomePlug promises to be a good solution for connecting multiple PCs to a cable or DSL modem - its operating speed is a good fit to the maximum speed of most broadband modems (about 1.5 Mbps). Our initial testing indicates that HomePlug is better than today's wireless networking - it reaches more places in our house.
On the other hand, we don't think either HomePlug or Wi-Fi provides a particularly good solution for PC-to-PC networking. And neither provides enough speed for digital video distribution. Ethernet over structured wiring is a much better solution, since it operates at much higher speeds. But it does require pulling wires through walls, which scares away many customers.
We'll write more about this in the next issue.