For the past several weeks, ever since moving into a new apartment,
I’ve been racking my brain (and amassing a vast array of new drill
bits) trying to figure out how to wire it for data. After some bad
experiences trying to get MythTV to stream MPEG-2 video acceptably
over 802.11g, I was convinced that the only network worth having was
one built on good old UTP.
In the old apartment, I’d managed to successfully run Ethernet cabling
from floor to floor and room to room without a lot of destruction or
(almost equally importantly) visibility, by running it through the air
ducts, along the plumbing, and through carefully-bored holes in
closets and crawl-spaces. Unfortunately, none of the tricks that
worked in previous places got me anywhere in the new one. All the
ductwork has long horizontal runs and mysterious corners; the plumbing
is sealed behind walls; there’s no attic or unfinished basement to run
through … it’s just generally not friendly to guerilla networking
In desperation — more than a week of MythTV-less existence was not
winning me any friends — I started researching power-line and
phone-line networking as alternatives to actually running new cable.
Quite a lot has developed since the last time I ran a home network
over phone wires (when Farallon’s PhoneNet was high tech),
and there are quite a few options available.
The first decision to make is which medium you want to run data over:
power lines, phone lines, or coax. Each has advantages and
Cable TV coax provides a high-quality medium for data transmission,
but in many homes and apartment buildings that were constructed before
cable TV became the norm, coax may only run to one or two locations.
Also, the dominant standard for home networking over coax, HomePNA
3.0, supposedly doesn’t coexist with DOCSIS cable modems.
That was enough to scare me away, since the last thing I want to do
with my home LAN is interfere with my only Internet connection option.
The next-best option for a wired home LAN would seem to be phone
wiring. HomePNA is also the dominant standard there, although you
could probably cobble something together with VDSL equipment if you
could get the gear. Unfortunately, I didn’t find many models
available after filtering out the older HomePNA 1.0 and 2.0 devices,
which are too slow to really compete with 100BT on Cat5. Apparently
the dominant distributor of HomePNA chipsets, CopperGate, is focusing
their attention mostly on integrating the technology into IPTV STBs
and FiOS gateways. This was one of the few standalone
HomePNA-to-Ethernet bridges that I found for sale, and at $83 per unit
they’re not cheap.
The other option, and the least elegant in my opinion, is running data
over the AC power lines throughout the house. Although they can be
prone to creating RF interference, and can have widely varying
performance even between different rooms in the same house (or even
separate outlets in the same room), they do offer data communication
over a basically ubiquitous medium. They’re also some of the easiest
devices to find — I found them for sale both in the local computer
warehouse (MicroCenter) and Best Buy.
Unfortunately, not all power-line networking devices are created
equal. Over the years there have been several (mutually incompatible,
naturally) attempts at producing a dominant data-over-mains standard,
several of which are available:
The HomePlug 1.0 standard operates at 14Mb/s and was an
attempt to reduce the number of incompatible vendor-specific protocols
that were proliferating a few years ago, before WiFi took off.
HomePlug 1.0 devices are available from quite a few vendors, although
not all of them mark them as such. They have the benefit today of
being relatively cheap and easy to find, but 14Mb (under optimal
conditions) is unacceptably slow for what I needed them to do. The
Netgear XE102 was among the least-expensive and
easiest-to-find devices using HomePlug 1.0. Linksys apparently still
sells one, the PLEBR10, but I didn’t see it for sale anywhere.
“Turbo” HomePlug 1.0 devices aren’t part of the official HomePlug
standard, but exist as a sort of de facto standard because of a
feature in a particular Intellon chipset (the INT5500) that was
used in many devices. “Turbo” mode provides up to 85Mb/s under
optimal conditions, with reports putting real-world
performance down around 20-30 megabits. Theoretically,
HomePlug 1.0 Turbo devices from various vendors ought to be
compatible. As with HomePlug 1.0, not all vendors seem to be
forthcoming about labeling their products with the standard they
actually use, but as far as I know, 1.0 Turbo devices are the only
ones likely to be labeled as “85 Mbps”. Netgear labels their Turbo
devices as “85Mbps Powerline”, eschewing the HomePlug branding
As far as I can tell, Netgear’s “Powerline HD” is a proprietary
protocol used only by a handful of their power-line networking
devices. It allegedly provides up to 200Mb/s, but isn’t compatible
with 200 megabit devices from other vendors. The HDX101 seemed to
be the most common device using this scheme, although there’s also the
HDX111 which (despite being called “Powerline HD Plus”) is
apparently identical except for providing a pass-thru outlet.
The newest version of the HomePlug multi-vendor standard is the ‘AV’
variant, which provides for speeds up to 200Mb/s (150Mb/s usable,
after overhead) under optimal conditions, with QoS and AES encryption.
HomePlug AV devices are available from several vendors, and seem to
becoming the dominant power-line networking standard, displacing the
85Mb ‘Turbo’ and 200Mb proprietary devices at the top of Linksys’ and
Netgear’s lineups. Netgear offers HomePlug AV — calling it
“Powerline AV” — in the XAV101, priced at an MSRP of $80 ea. or
two for $140 as the XAVB101. Linksys matches this with the PLE200
(PLK200 for the bundle of two), priced similarly.
At this point, I think a person would be foolish to buy anything
except the newest HomePlug AV devices, since any of the earlier
revisions are likely to become obsolete and hard to find soon. In
particular, the proprietary 200Mb devices seem like they should be
avoided like the plague.