Now You’re Playing With Power

How I found home networking nirvana with a powerline connection, a form of home networking that might be called poor man’s ethernet. No drilling involved.

Today in Tedium: Recently, I felt compelled to find a good way to upgrade my internet in my home, but I had a bit of a problem: my home is old, and that meant that trying to expand its ethernet cabling would have been a bit of a disaster. See, my desktop computer is on the second floor and my internet cabling is on the first floor, meaning that setting up ethernet would have either meant drilling or putting miles of cables around my home, and I’m not particularly handy. After looking through a few options, I stumbled upon a technology that I hadn’t thought about in a long time … and that proved my ultimate solution. Today’s Tedium is about powerline communications, along with other attempts at home networking using your existing wiring. It works better than you think these days. — Ernie @ Tedium

Side note: The world is screwed up right now and I feel like I need to take a moment to say something about all that. Long story short, I support the protesters and think this was uncalled for and very dangerous. I don’t have the tools to fix that whole mess. But what I can offer is a few minutes of solace as you start your day by reading something incredibly nerdy.

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Electrical outlet

(Brian Patrick Tagalog/Unsplash)

Why, in the absence of dedicated networking cables, manufacturers started looking to the other wires in your home to set up your home networking

As I highlighted a couple of months ago, modems were particularly ill-suited for putting internet inside of our homes. The reasons for this were myriad—the modulation and demodulation of sounds into digital signals transferred over phone lines severely degraded the overall quality of the signal; data had to play second fiddle to analog connections, which meant constant busy signals; and it was overloading phone lines intended for voice calls, which meant that the phone system itself couldn’t handle the extra load.

Modems were great first movers, but phone lines were just bad choices for transmitting data in the late 1990s and early 2000s—which was true even after phone lines became dedicated connections, thanks to the switch to ADSL technology, which is effectively always-on internet over the phone line. Coaxial cable found popularity around this time as well for bringing internet into the home. Great news—fast internet can reach your door.

But what happens after you get inside? Now, many new homes may already be wired up for home networking, but homes tend to stick around for a while, and adding new cabling is a lot harder than it sounds, especially for an old house. It has to reach through walls—thick walls—that can be hard for the layperson to drill through.

Wireless access has solved much of this problem, but even today, with mesh connections, it’s frustratingly imperfect. In my own house, for example, if I move a wireless extender from a hallway into a room, the speed drops by literally half—which means that if I’m trying to get decent internet into a far-flung part of the house, my options kind of suck.

In an ideal world, the solution to solving problems like these would be to create a home-based ethernet network with fiber optic cabling, which has the effect of future-proofing and offering a lot more flexibility.

But the problem with this strategy is that running new wiring through millions of houses is really expensive and time consuming. Think back, for example, to the massive expense needed to wire up Hong Kong for streaming video in the 1990s, in sort of an ideal situation for it—given that it’s a small, tightly packed, largely urban area. Those are three things that cannot be said about the U.S., which is very spread out and has centuries of infrastructure cruft at this time.

This leaves obvious gaps. After all, there was a reason it took an act of Congress in the 1930s to ensure that rural communities also had access to electricity.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that technology manufacturers started looking for different ways to bring wired networking into homes. The first such plan B came about in 1998, when a number of technology companies formed the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, with the goal of making the very type of home networking I’m talking about possible with traditional phone lines. In theory, it sounded like a great idea.

“By using phone lines, consumers don’t have to rewire the house, they don’t have to put in any external hubs, they don’t have to add any connections,” noted Mark A. Carpenter, Compaq’s director for internet and home networking, in a 1998 New York Times article.

So, what kind of blazing speeds were we talking about here? One megabit a second was the number bandied out at the time—which was 20 times faster than traditional dial-up lines of the era, but didn’t get anywhere near the 100-megabit lines that were common at the time at universities, nor the 1-gigabit Ethernet standard that was being introduced around the same time.

But, of course, phone lines weren’t the only kind of electrical wire that already existed around homes that could be used for networking. In the early 2000s, two other kinds of common wiring were given the same sort of coalition-based treatment: coaxial cable (via the Multimedia over Coax Alliance, founded in 2004), and powerline communication (via the Homeplug Powerline Alliance, founded in 2001).

MoCA is an interesting case, and I’ll get back to it in a bit, but powerline is fascinating because, on paper, it seems like it should be a situation not unlike modems in the 1990s—where a communication technology was shoehorned into a place where it doesn’t belong. But the truth is that it actually kind of makes sense. For example, the first major use case of power lines as a communication platform was the X10 protocol, a common method for home automation that is used even today for things such as light dimmers and garage door openers.

But given that electricity lines already fill nearly every house in the world, using the technology for networking kind of makes sense … except for one problem: power lines are notorious for line noise, or the fluctuations of stray electromagnetic signals on power lines. It’s a problem amateur radio enthusiasts, for example, are all too familiar with.

Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing graphic Network World

A graphic describing Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing. (NetworkWorld/Google Books)

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance effectively came to life in the early 2000s to try to solve the networking gap using this technology. Rather than trying to stop the noise problems, the alliance used a technology called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) to essentially work around noise problems as they occur in real time.

As Network World contributor Brian Markwalter explained in 2001:

HomePlug technology enhances OFDM’s basic functionality by comparing each individual modulated carrier with the characteristics of the power line medium. It then determines which specific carriers will experience high attenuation or noise impulses that will affect their abilities to transport data successfully. HomePlug technology automatically adapts to characteristics of the medium by determining a thresh-old in which successful communication can occur. If the attenuation or noise is too great for successful communication at a specific frequency HomePlug technology will not use carriers in that frequency.

HomePlug technology constantly monitors the powerline medium for sudden changes in communication characteristics. As the communication path’s ability to carry data changes with respect to time, the technology dynamically adapts and turns on and off carriers to ensure successful communication continues. By constantly adapting to the powerline medium, high-speed communication can be guaranteed at every outlet pair.

Essentially, powerline connections flood your electric wiring with data and then pull the best bits back, meaning that signal degradation is essentially a part of the spec.

But the early technology promised a lot, and honestly, it didn’t deliver. Frequently, the high speeds promised on the package did not live up to real world use, due to the fact that home wiring naturally has a lot of noise problems already.

Additionally, there were security concerns, due to the fact that, while most home networking systems are a “closed loop” of sorts, home electricity systems naturally have to connect to the outside world, meaning you could potentially be broadcasting your internet around the entire neighborhood. (Many powerline solutions get around this by having very strong encryption.)

Ultimately, the biggest reason powerline never became dominant had nothing to do with the technology itself, but its competition: WiFi became popular at around the same time, and it was both easier to use and enabled networking without being tethered in one place, which a lot of people found freeing.

But despite WiFi’s strengths, it has remained frustratingly inconsistent over the years, and while things like surfing the web are fine, they get dicey with solutions reliant on high bandwidth and low latency, such as streaming and solutions that actually fix those inconsistencies, such as the recent trend towards mesh networking, aren’t cheap. And while WiFi 6 likely will help with extending network capabilities within a large house, the routers cost hundreds of dollars, and your individual devices likely won’t be able to take advantage of them for years.

So, despite all of the above listed issues with relying on internet through your home’s wiring, when I found myself looking for a way to get my ethernet connection up a flight of stairs, I ended up turning to a powerline connection. Here’s why.

“Contrary to the claims by the [broadband powerline] industry, most BPL deployments have resulted in serious interference problems. Although some have been corrected, others have not, and the pattern of the initial installations having interference problems, followed by the rounds of denials and allegations that complaints are somehow ‘frivolous’ continues worldwide.”

— The Amateur Radio Relay League, in a statement on its website, discussing the problems that powerline internet created for ham radio operators. These problems emerged despite the fact that the league, the largest American organization representing amateur radio enthusiasts, worked closely with the HomePlug Alliance to try to minimize these issues. There were, ultimately, kinks that needed to be worked out.

Extollo Lan Plug 2000

This old house has decent internet. The Extollo LanPlug 2000 got me download speeds topping 500 megabits on this outlet (but not the other one I tried).

Why I found powerline networking, an also-ran networking approach, to be a good choice in 2020

I didn’t think I was going to be extolling the benefits of powerline internet in this article. Initially, there was a good chance that this was going to be an article about MoCA, which is possibly less well-known but arguably a better choice.

MoCA is actually a fairly common solution for delivering data through coaxial cables. For example, Verizon’s FiOS service sometimes gets connections to reach up to different floors by taking advantage of the technology, which convincingly can distribute speeds basically equivalent to gigabit ethernet within a household. Some of the more recent offerings can even distribute speeds as fast as 2.5 gigabits over cable wires. It has consistently improved over the years, and while it’s not a replacement for 10-gigabit ethernet, coaxial is essentially a dedicated, well-insulated line for data, making it a great choice for home-networking.

So obviously, as I wanted to plug in networking with actual wires rather than via wireless, this seemed like a desirable solution, until I actually looked around my house and realized that there were basically no coaxial ports in my house—just one for each floor, with the second floor’s in a particularly inconvenient spot.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we had carpet or rugs everywhere, making it relatively easy to hide the cables, but we’re a hardwood household.

Coaxial cable

Coaxial cable would have been faster for my use case, but it would have required a lot of careful cable placement. (Ben Watts/Flickr)

My options for MoCA—and I looked into them—were to run coaxial cables throughout my second floor, potentially creating a trip hazard, which I wanted to avoid; running a coaxial cable from the third floor, through the HVAC system, creating a potential fire hazard if I used the wrong kind of cabling; and to somehow get the coaxial cable running along the baseboards—which is not an idea I wanted to pitch to my wife, as we recently caulked the baseboards.

Sure, while you could do wild things like run cord covers over walls or run the cable outside, it felt like, if I was going to go to that extreme to avoid cable coverage, at some point pitching the idea of ethernet made more sense. (Side note: did you know that there is a kind of speaker cabling that you can buy that is designed to be really thin so you can paint over it? Me neither. Cool!)

So I decided, “Well, if I can’t get coaxial cable, I guess I’ll try Plan B,” which led me into the arms of powerline networking. I had not heard good things about powerline, but I felt like, if it didn’t work, I could always go back to the drawing board and make the case for MoCA after that point.

For my personal use case, I ended up using a device by a firm named Extollo Communications, the LanPlug 2000, to connect my second floor with my first.

Rather than relying on the same standard as HomePlug, which has effectively been abandoned by the now-dormant HomePlug Alliance, Extollo uses a slightly newer standard called G.hn for most of its devices. Created in the late 2000s, the networking standard effectively allows networking on any of the major types of wiring in the home, including power lines, coaxial cables, telephone wires, and even fiber-optics. While HomePlug has essentially remained somewhat dormant in recent years, G.hn has reached theoretical limits of above 2 gigabit, though given the noise on power lines, speeds will vary based on distance from the outlet and where you plug in.

(Unfortunately, Extollo has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and their offices remained closed due to reopening standards in the state of Washington when I last checked and as a result their products are completely out of stock right now. I literally got the last set on Amazon. I recommend their adapters if you do something like this, but as an alternative, the networking company Zyxel offers comparable speeds with its G.hn offering, though they’re more expensive.)

I didn’t know the results I was going to see from this, so I kept my expectations relatively low, but plugged the boxes into two different spots; one on the first floor, with an ethernet cable running under a rug between my router and the wall, and one in my home office, connected to my desktop. I had to try a couple of outlets before I found one on the same circuit—the first I tried was spitting out speeds similar to my existing wireless extender, but trying another sped things up considerably.

And the results, when everything did finally work, were pretty stunning. While I didn’t get full gigabit ethernet speeds, I am consistently getting between 500 and 600 megabit connections, which is faster than the speeds of FiOS that I’m currently paying for, meaning I have some headroom if I ever wanted to make the case to get a networking upgrade. And the connection is generally rock-solid, which means that my computer can do things like run a Plex server and run screen-sharing at relatively quick speeds. While I’m not getting the theoretical 2 gigabit speeds promised by the packaging, you basically never will with noisy powerline connections, because there is already too much competition.

Once Extollo starts selling its networking equipment again, I’ll likely look into getting a hold of one of their wireless adapters, the Una, to extend wireless coverage more efficiently than my wireless extender currently does.

Not bad for a type of technology that everyone slags.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, I’m reading this over WiFi in my bedroom, why should I care about these unusual wired home networking technologies?

The short answer is basically that, even as they fall into also-ran status, they will maintain a niche that could make the future a lot more manageable over time.

Example: Remember how I told you about the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, which was trying to sell folks on the power of 1-megabit connections over their telephone lines in 1998? Despite the skepticism at the time, technology has continued to improve with telephone jacks, and in 2013, the concept of G.fast was introduced, which can produce speeds of between 100 megabits and 1 gigabit over relatively short loops inside homes. Still not as fast as ethernet, but close enough for many that it could get the job done.

“It will enable operators to provide internet connection speeds that are indistinguishable from fiber-to-the-home services, a major business benefit in locations where it is not physically, economically or aesthetically viable to lay new fibre cables all the way into residences,” Alcatel-Lucent said of the technology in a 2014 BBC article.

(A second generation is on the horizon, with the potential of speeds up to 1.5 gigabits per second. But the technology is fairly uncommon.)

Panasonic HD PLC

A Panasonic HD-PLC device. (via eBay)

Likewise, powerline tech is still evolving in interesting ways. HD-PLC, a successor technology of sorts to the HomePlug Alliance’s work, aims to make it more efficient and solve the problems of the original spec. (For one thing, ham radio operators aren’t complaining of interference anymore, so that’s a plus.) The tech, driven by Panasonic these days, isn’t quite as fast as G.hn, but earns nods for its ability to hop to a lot of places—which could make it a potentially great device for internet of things use cases.

As IEEE Spectrum notes, Panasonic is not eyeing use cases where wireless tech would wipe the floor with it, such as 5G. But the world has a lot of areas with radio interference, for example in underground environments.

Some day, every home will probably have high-speed ethernet connections conveniently stuffed into the walls, and perhaps WiFi will finally find a way to turn the corner and cover every nook and cranny of a house.

But for now, it’s pretty convenient that there’s a Plan B that I can plug in.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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