Running new wires and physically extending your home network in existing construction is a hassle at best and a nightmare at worst. You don’t need to fish cable and tear up drywall to run new cable; you can use your home’s electrical wiring as a high speed home network. Read on as we show you how.
What Is Powerline Networking?
Most of us think of the electrical wiring in our homes as a one-trick pony (albeit with a very valuable trick): the wires deliver the power that makes modern life possible and very comfortable. There’s another trick those very wires are capable of, though, and when you’re dreading the thought of running network cable through your walls, punching holes in the drywall for new drops, and otherwise spending a weekend (or longer) on a network renovation it can be a real life saver.
In addition to simple power transmission the electrical wiring in your home can be used to transmit data when coupled with the right hardware. How is this possible? Think of the wiring like the radio spectrum. The electricity uses one frequency (and by our analogy is one “station” on the radio) and there is space left over for other “stations” to be inserted into the available spectrum. There’s a bunch of technical specifications, government regulations, and other matters that determine where exactly our new data-sharing station can reside on your home wiring but there’s no need to worry about that. The important detail is that it is trivially easy to turn your home’s electrical system into a dual purpose system that delivers both power and transmits high-speed data.
Once you have the terms down and you know what you need to realize the network setup you desire, the whole process is as simple as plugging in a lamp.
With today’s tutorial we’ll walk you through setting up a simple powerline networking system and simultaneously review the hardware, from the D-Link PowerLine system, we’re using to demonstrate how it all works.
Understanding Powerline Terms and Concepts
You can cut through a lot of the marketing fluff by getting a solid handle on the formal designations used by the industry. Powerline product manufacturers almost universally belong to the Homeplug Alliance group. If the device you’re looking at isn’t Homeplug certified we’d suggest steering clear.
Powerline products are clearly delineated into four primary categories. While the categories are technically known as HomePlug XXX like HomePlug AV, most companies leave that in the fine print and put only the AV designation or the like on the their product packaging and ad copy.
HomePlug 1.0: This is the first HomePlug specification that started unifying the powerline networking industry back in 2001. It maxed out at 14 Mbps and has been well superseded by newer specifications. Because of the significant changes between HomePlug 1.0 and the later iterations of the specification, backward compatibility is very rare as the manufacturer would have to include dual hardware to handle the old signal and new. That said, you can use older HomePlug 1.0 systems side-by-side with newer HomePlug systems without issue.
HomePlug AV: Introduced in 2005 and still in use, HomePlug AV is capable of 200 Mbps. There are several proprietary chipset configurations produced by various home networking vendors that have boosted the capability of HomePlug AV into the 500 Mbps range. These enhanced homeplug units are marketed with label AV500 .
HomePlug AV2: The most recent specification of the powerline networking standard, introduced in 2012, is HomePlug AV2. The new specification is the first iteration of the standard that supports gigabit class data transfer. You’ll see AV2 products marketed as simply AV2 or AV2 600 indicating that the product can sustain 600 Mbps transfer. Recent advances in the AV2 standard have introduced MIMO (multiple-in multiple-out) technology and AV2 specification products are slowly hitting the market with further enhanced speed.
For most applications AV-level speeds are more than sufficient and as long as consumers avoid purchasing significantly outdated technology (Homeplug 1.0 products or early and less efficient HomePlug AV products) there is little chance of misstep.
In theory different HomePlug devices should play nice with other HomePlug devices. In practice, yes any HomePlug certified device manufactured after 2010 or so should handle communicating with a device from another vendor just fine. At that point the standards for HomePlug devices were adopted internationally via the IEEE 1901 standard and everyone is on the same page now. However, individual vendors still tweak and optimize their own devices and if you want the maximise ease of use and network speed it’s a best practice to stick with devices from the same vendor and, when possible, from the same family (e.g. all AV2 600 devices).
One question that pops up a lot when we introduce people to the powerline networking concept is “Can my neighbors access my network?” Back in the circa-1990s infancy of home powerline networking this may have been a remote concern but today powerline networking hardware uses proper security algorithms and protocols (128-bit AES encryption) just like your Wi-Fi router, secure browser connections, and so forth. In reality a powerline network is significantly more secure than a Wi-Fi network simply because a potential attacker would need to physically connect into your electrical network using similar or identical hardware and then attempt to defeat the encryption. By comparison, someone looking to penetrate your Wi-Fi network can just scan for your wireless access point and set to work (whether they’re on the other side of your apartment wall or in a van out on the street).
You can place your powerline product just about anywhere without a problem. The only two primary considerations are that the base plug be located near the router (for ease of access to the main network) and the secondary plug(s) be located where they are not sharing an electrical outlet with a high-load appliance (like space heater or washing machine) and not plugged into a power strip or surge protector (as these devices can block the frequency used by the HomePlug standard).
Ideally, if you have the circuits in your home mapped or are willing to do so, you want to place both the base plug and the remote plug on the same circuit. Jumping from one circuit to another decreases signal strength.
What Kind of Powerline Networking Hardware Do I Need?
Powerline network hardware is pretty simple stuff in terms of setup and selection. To ensure a smooth experience you should first sit down and plan out what exactly you want to accomplish with your powerline system. Do you want to connected a desktop in a home office to your router via hardline cable? Do you want to put a new wireless access point in your garage or workshop? Do you want to switch your entire system over to a Wi-Fi/powerline hybrid because you’re do for a router upgrade anyway?
Figure out what your network upgrade goals are first and you’ll avoid purchasing equipment poorly matched for your application. Let’s take a look at the most common powerline configuration options and illustrate them with the hardware we used to conduct our field tests.
Powerline Ethernet Bridging
Ethernet bridging was the original powerline networking tool and it remains the most common and widely purchased. For our tests initial tests we used the D-Link AV2 600, a simple pair of plugs that require next to no configuration.
To use the plugs you simply insert one into an outlet near your router (as seen in the lovely basement photo above at left) and then link the unit to your router via Ethernet cable. Insert the other plug in an outlet somewhere in the same home (or nearby outbuilding on the same power system) and link the second plug to whatever Ethernet-enabled device you want to link to the router.
The entire setup process is simply plugging everything in and then pressing a little black button on the bottom of the two units to initiate a handshake. That’s it, no joke: plug in, hook up Ethernet, press little black button.
The beauty of the simple dual-module system is that it’s as device agnostic as regular Ethernet. You can put whatever you want on the other end: a single device like a computer or game console, a network switch, or even a whole Wi-Fi access point. As such it’s a great opportunity to reuse old gear by, say, throwing an old router at the other end to act as both a network switch and a new Wi-Fi access point for your garage or the like.
Powerline Wi-Fi Extension
A natural extension of the simple setup we just highlighted is to add in a Wi-Fi node at the end of the powerline system. While there are Wi-Fi only models it makes little sense to limit yourself in such a fashion. The model we tested, the D-Link PowerLine AV500+ Network and Wi-Fi Extender combines both the Ethernet-to-Ethernet setup we found in the previous model type and adds in a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The setup process is identical: plug in the units, plug in an Ethernet cable from your router to the base unit, and then on the other end you can either plug in an Ethernet device, connect to the Wi-Fi, or both. Click a button on the base of each and you’re done. If you just read the supplied SSID and randomized password off the sticker on the back, there isn’t any setup. If you want to change the SSID and password you simply log into the device using the default information and administrative URL on the back and make your changes. You can still use the Ethernet port however you want so feel free to plug a switch into it and and wire up multiple Ethernet devices as well as take advantage of the Wi-Fi.
Other Powerline Models
While most people use powerline networking with simple paired plugs (or a base plug with a handful of additional plugs throughout their home) you can go for a total powerline system if you so desire. D-Link, for example, makes more than one Powerline-enabled router wherein you can skip the whole modem-router-powerline setup and plug your modem right into a combination router-powerline unit.
You can even find 4-port switch adapters that put a whole switch on the other end of your powerline connection. Realistically though, you can buy a very highly rated switch for dirt cheap these days so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to splurge on a dedicated powerline networking switch when you can get a regular switch that’s easier to repurpose later on. Still, it’s nice such things exist for those people that really want to minimize the extra wires and clutter.
How Does Powerline Networking Perform?
The reality, and it would be disingenuous of us to say anything else, is that the performance you get out of a powerline networking system is significantly dependent on where you live, the quality of the wiring in your home, the type of home you live in (which influences the age of the wiring, style of wiring, and so on), and other factor.
With that in mind, we think our testing lab for this review offers a pretty good stress test for powerline networking hardware as it is a 2,800 square foot home with a mix of old and new wiring installed over the last century. If we can get this stuff to work traveling between a basement to a distant attic or outbuilding over wiring installed anywhere from 40 to 90 years ago, we’re confident you’ll be able to do the same.
The first thing and foremost thing we have to report in regard to performance is how pleased we were across the board in our tests. The last time we seriously used any sort of powerline networking equipment was shortly before the advent of the HomePlug standard back when quality of the products were abysmal and the speeds were so slow as to not even pose a threat to actual Ethernet cabling.
Both the AV2 system we tested (the D-Link AV2 600) and the AV system (the D-Link AV500+) performed more than satisfactorily regardless of where we placed them in our test home. Both pairs had their base units plugged into the same outlet right below our router and both units were tested with the remote plugs placed in locations on the first, second, and third floors of the test home as well as in a detached outbuilding approximately thirty feet off the main building.
When the remote plug for the AV2 600 was placed on the same circuit, we were able to easily push data through at approximately 98 Mbps. Placement on a secondary circuit within the main building decreased transmission speed to approximately 74 Mbps. Even when we placed the unit in the aforementioned outbuilding wherein the signal had to jump from one circuit to another, then to a sub-panel through a third circuit and out to the outbuilding, we were still able to transmit data at approximately 38 Mbps. That’s a big performance hit, but given how poor of a router we forced the device to use it’s still pretty impressive.
The AV500+ had, as anticipated, decreased performance simply because its an older design running the previous standard. We repeated the same tests in the same locations and found that under the idea placement on the same circuit the AV500+ was capable of approximately 71 Mbps transfer, when placed on a secondary circuit it dropped to 59 Mbps, and when placed under the very less-than-ideal conditions of running all the way to the outbuilding across multiple circuits it dropped all the way down to 19 Mpbs.
Now, while the low end of both of our tests might not be ideal for transferring your entire ripped Bluray collection from one end of the house to the other with a snap of your finger the transfer rates across the board are more than satisfactory for streaming video, transferring files, and certainly more than adequate for simple Internet access.
The Good, The Bad, and the Verdict
Although this article was a hybrid tutorial and review, we’re going to keep our typical good/bad/verdict format to break down the more salient points for your review.
- It’s inexpensive to get into powerline networking; if all you need is a simple pair your startup costs are $50-90 depending on the speed you want.
- Setup is so incredibly simple it’s hardly more difficult than plugging your computer in.
- Powerline networking has come a long way in the last 15 years and you can expect easy set up, secure connections, and high speeds without a hiccup.
- Combination units like the AV500+ give you both physical network and wireless network extension at a reasonable price.
- Poor wire quality and crossing circuits can decrease transmission quality.
- Most units don’t have electrical passthrough so you chew up a wall outlet with the unit.
- There’s no avoiding the distance-equals-signal-degradation equation; like any cable system the powerline network loses signal strength over distance.
- Although technically all compatible, interoperability between vendors isn’t perfect.
Our verdict is rather straight forward this time around. If you don’t want the hassle of running Ethernet drops through your walls (or you live in an apartment and can’t run your own drops) there is little to no reason not to pick up a powerline networking kit to link your network devices together over your home electrical system. The technology has come light years since the HomePlug standard was introduced in 2001, it’s dead easy to setup, and while the transmission speeds won’t exactly give a hardline gigabit Ethernet connection a run for its money anytime soon, they’re more than satisfactory for the vast majority of home networking scenarios.