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Are Powerline Nets Finally Ready?

Vendors regroup after the debacle of first-generation home networks.
June 21, 2001

Home powerline networks came with a powerful promise: plug some special boxes into standard electrical outlets, and you’ve got instant Ethernet. Unfortunately, they didn’t keep the promise: consumers often found setup difficult and performance poor to nonexistent.

In fact, vendors readily admit they failed the first time out.

Inari of Draper, UT, sold 50,000 units of its PassPort Plug-In Network kit that offered “about 90-percent outlet coverage,” says Ryan Ashton, vice president of marketing. “The problem was that different outlets wouldn’t work at different times.”

Now Inari and competitors are beginning to ship next-generation hardware that they claim will run reliably at near-business-class speeds approaching 10 megabits per second, with a leap to 100 megabits per second just over the horizon. They say the improved networks will give rise to new consumer-electronics gadgets, such as Internet radio alarm clocks and streaming video players that work in every room of the house.

Ignoring Electrical Noise

Powerline networking entered a new phase in May when Inari rival Intellon of Ocala, FL, began shipping a chipset based on its trademarked PowerPacket technology. The chipset can theoretically run at 14 megabits per second using a technology called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, which keeps connections alive by adjusting to changes in power lines. (In older products, electrical “noise” from vacuum cleaners and radios can easily disrupt data, according to vendors and analysts.)

Intellon’s chipset is the first to meet the standards of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance of San Ramon, CA, a consortium of more than 80 companies including heavyweights such as Cisco, Intel, Panasonic and Radio Shack.

The Alliance earlier chose PowerPacket as the baseline for a standard called HomePlug 1.0. Members will use the standard to ensure that any two products-say, PC adapters from Intel and DVD players from Panasonic-can share data. Vendors are “moving full-steam to get products out by the end of the year,” says Elliott Newcombe, Intellon’s director of marketing.

One early PowerPacket device will be the NeverWire 14 wall adapter from Alliance member Phonex Broadband of Midvale, UT. This turns any outlet into a 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet or Universal Serial Bus port, and is expected by July, says Guy Standing, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

The HomePlug Alliance conducted a 500-home field test of PowerPacket equipment from several vendors and claims the goal of operating on 98 percent of outlets was met. Newcombe says that due to network overhead, the actual performance is between six and eight megabits per second, still at least 10 times faster than with most previous products.

“From what I understand, they have done a very good job of noise reduction,” says Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks Associates, a Dallas market-research firm.

Power Struggle

Important players remain outside the Alliance, including Adaptive Networks of Newton, MA. Adaptive, an established vendor of industrial powerline chips, plans to bring its spread-spectrum transmission technology-similar to a popular wireless networking method-to multi-megabit home systems.

Another maverick is Inari, which has sold a two-megabit-per-second chipset since October. Thomson Multimedia of Paris incorporates this in its RCA home networking products, appearing in stores this month. Inari has also demonstrated a 12-megabit-per-second chipset, but it won’t reach manufacturers until early 2002.

Inari claims that its two-megabit-per-second product, which in company tests ran at around 500-700 kilobits per second on most outlets, has proved more reliable than HomePlug. In more than 15,000 outlets tested, only three have failed, Ashton says. It can better guarantee service quality because it uses a “deterministic” transmission protocol, he adds: with HomePlug’s non-deterministic, collision-sensing technology “you can’t guarantee when you’re going to get access to the wire.”

HomePlug president Antonio Montovani scoffs at these assertions, saying 20 companies were invited to the bake-off, and Inari dropped out of the Alliance because it couldn’t meet the performance standard.

Spreading Alternate Nets

Such squabbles aside, powerline networking proponents hardly have the home and small-business markets to themselves.

Similar networks can be set up on phone lines, where the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) offers standard and reliable products. (Montovani also represents his company, chipmaker Conexant Systems of Newport Beach, CA, on HomePNA.)

Several wireless standards also compete, notably Bluetooth, HomeRF and the 802.11b (“Wi-Fi”) version of Ethernet supported by Apple’s popular AirPort and many business products.

Experts agree the three technologies can coexist, with wireless offering most flexibility but also highest cost. “We think wireless will remain slightly more expensive because you’re talking about radios, and radios are expensive,” says Scherf.

While costs for powerline products haven’t yet been disclosed, they are expected to be competitive with those of phone-line rivals (typically around $75 to $100). In the long run, powerline nets may hold a price advantage via higher production volumes, since it could be integrated into so many more devices than phone-line nets. And, of course, you can’t use phone-line nets in rooms that lack phone lines.

In HomePlug’s initial phase, though, Montovani admits that some people may prefer HomePNA for PC networking. “Theoretically, over a phone line you’re always going to have a better signal-to-noise ratio,” he says.

Powering Up Video

Powerline net vendors talk as if digital video is their killer app. Families could, for example, view different video streams downloaded over broadband Internet to a multimedia server hidden away in a closet. But Montovani says such multimedia-intensive applications won’t be feasible until 100-megabit-per-second networks arrive in coming years.

Other gee-whiz products, such as download-anywhere Rio music players from Alliance member SONICblue of Santa Clara, CA, are on the way. And eventually network-ready power supplies could be built into new computers and televisions, which could make powerline networking’s future seem highly promising once again.

But for now, the industry has something to prove.

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