Powerline-based home networking faces the daunting task of overcoming its reputation as slow and unreliable, a reputation that originated from less-than-stellar initial attempts at the technology. However, advances in semiconductor chips have given the technology the boost it needs. Consumers and manufacturers should embrace the capabilities that the new generation of powerline-based networking offers.
Previous powerline-based technologies were best suited for home control-not home networking. In the early 1990s, home networking meant turning on the bedroom light from the front door. Consumers quickly lost their fascination with light switches and thermostats and began to demand the same data networking capabilities at home that they had at work. But those earlier technologies could not make the transition from control to data networking.
Today, powerline-based networking-which requires plugging two devices into a standard electrical outlet-has turned a corner. Current technologies are specifically designed for transferring data and are not retrofitted control technologies.
Initial powerline-based technologies, such as CEBus and X-10, only achieved rates of 200 kbits/second. Consumers who wanted to share Internet access and multimedia content, or distribute data, needed a minimum speed of 1 to 2 Mbits/s.
The most recent version of powerline networking performs at speeds of up to 14 Mbits/s, giving the consumer Ethernet-class performance at home-a 3,900 percent increase in speed from five years ago.
While previously, any change in the powerline conditions disrupted or terminated the network transmission, designers have compensated by basing powerline communication on orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing. Once thought to be too costly because of its level of sophistication, OFDM has seen a reduction in chip density-from 0.45 microns to 0.25 microns and smaller-making it more economical.
Older, lower-speed technologies were also plagued by the percentages: They worked in only about 50 percent of the outlets, and noise sources-such as turning on a hair dryer-would kill the network. As chip densities decreased, forward error correction was added to work in conjunction with OFDM to produce a reliable network. Those advances have enabled powerline networking to be used reliably in homes, regardless of their age, size or location.
The first attempts at powerline communications were untested and unproven, tainting an otherwise promising networking alter-native. The technology did not meet minimum consumer requirements to compete in the networking field, and as a result, consumers lost interest.
Today's powerline technologies are significantly faster, more reliable, more secure and more functional than their predecessors. They are tested and backed by an industry standards body, which has support from top market leaders.
Today's powerline networking technology deserves another look.
Elliott Newcombe is Director of Product Marketing at Intellon Corp. (Ocala, Fla.).