Home Plug Networking

by Bob Seidel

Before we start today's main topic, I do want to again suggest strongly that you all go out and get an external USB hard drive for backup. They are getting very inexpensive these days. For portability and ease of use, get one of the smaller sized units that does not require any external power - they just use their USB connection for power. But even these are huge in capacity - I have seen 320GB units on the shelves. Do yourself a favor and get one - NOW!

I had to solve a problem recently, in a way that I normally wouldn't have done. In the end I felt misgivings about perhaps not giving a technology its full due. So to settle the score, here is the story on Home Plug Networking.

If you have more than one PC in your house, it is a fairly simple matter to use a router and cables to get them online simultaneously. But if one of your PCs is a notebook or if you have a situation where running a cable is not possible, wireless networking becomes the obvious solution. But as with any technology, wireless has its drawbacks - primarily the signal range. I recently tried to run a wireless system in a large home where the cable service (and hence the cable modem and router) were at the very end of the house, and they had a second PC all the way at the other end of the house. The wireless signals barely were detectable at that distance; running a cable was impossible due to the construction of the house. What to do?

I decided to give networking via the power lines a chance and got a Netgear unit called a "Wall-Plugged Ethernet Bridge" also called a "Wall Plugged Ethernet Extender Kit". Based on prior experience with power line based technology (intercoms, X-10 controls, etc.) working with power line adapters can be a problem. They are subject to the noise on the power lines generated by appliances, and I always was a little concerned about safety.

The results were excellent. After installation (very easy, see below) the connection worked 100% and ran at full cable line speed. The technology is rated to do 14Mbps (fourteen megabits per second) which is greater than the local Road Runner speed of about 5Mbps. I need to do a longer term analysis, but for now this technology is a winner. Here are some details:

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance is an industry group of manufacturers that first issued a specification in 2001, but the technology never achieved a leading position in competition with 802.11 wireless. Very simply, the idea was to replace a network wire (a CAT-5 wire) with the wire in the home power lines. You do it by using a pair of small adapters both of which have a standard wall power plugs built-in. The plug is used to both provide power for the unit and to make the signal connection to the power lines.

To install in its basic, default mode, all you have to do is to take the twin units out of the box, plug them into power sockets at each end, and then run the supplied Ethernet cables. On the router end, the cable plugs into any socket on the router. On the other end, the cable plugs into your PC just as if you were local to the router. Without any configuration at that point, it just starts up and runs. Slick.

If you need a more complicated installation, there is utility supplied on CD that you have to run. This allows you to set up multiple connections if necessary, and also allows you to set up security settings (similar to security on a wireless network). When you plug the units in, though, make sure they are NOT plugged into a surge protection strip or UPS - this will block the signal. Try to plug them directly into a wall socket if you can.

Home Plug turned out to be a good technology that I am going to now add to my kit of tools. The cost is a little higher than 802.11 wireless, but worth it if you have to solve a range problem.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at bsc@bobseidel.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.)