What Is…Powerline Networking?

Welcome to the inaugral 'What Is...' series post. This is going to be a series of posts providing you with informative and concise insight into some of those technological subjects that you would like to know more about.

For our first 'What Is...' post, we're going straight in at the deep end and we are going to look at Powerline networking technology.

birds on a wire, networking, power lines

What is Powerline Technology?

Do you want to install a computer network in your house, but don't want to drill holes in your walls to put in ethernet sockets, or have the knowhow to implement a fully-fledged wired network? Then powerline technology maybe the way for you to do this.

Powerline is a network technology that allows you to create a hardwired data network over your home (or business) mains power supply circuit. In basic terms, the data networking signals are modulated and 'piggy backed' on to the actual electricity supply signal.

To create a network in your home or business, you plug in powerline adapters into the power sockets on your walls.  The electrical circuits installed around the building allow you to use these adapters to connect devices in a similar manner to those in a standard hardwired local area network, as you would have in a normal office.

An example of powerline technology in the home that has been around for a while - the wired baby monitor.

Powerline adapters should not be affected by interference from power supply, as the data signals are modulated and regulated at a much higher frequency.

The technology is not as new as we might think as it has been available. Surprisingly, it has been around since the very early part of the 20th century, where US power companies wanted a cheap and easy way to monitor performance across their power distribution networks.

When Powerline adapter networking was first introduced into our homes and businesses in the early noughties, adapters could only transfer data at speeds around 14Mbps. Typically, now you can obtain adapters that support data speeds of around 500-600MBps; some are available can even achieve 1Gbps.

A practical example

An example of this would be to get a Smart television to connect to the internet via a broadband router. The majority of modern Smart TVs today will have an Ethernet port built into the back of the device. (Please ensure your TV model has one before you purchase any powerline adapters).

For this you will need to have two adapters and two Ethernet cables.

TP-Link Powerline Adapters

First, you would have to get the adapters to 'talk' to one another by having to manually synchronise them. Generally, this is quite a simple process and they should auto detect one another across the circuit quite quickly.

Once this is done,  locate one of the adapters in a plug socket in the vicinity of the router. Plug a standard RJ45 Ethernet cable into the adapter's  port, then plug the other end into one of the ports on the router.

The second adapter would need to be plugged in near the TV. Get the second Ethernet cable and plug one end into the port on the adapter and the other end into the PC's Ethernet port. In theory, you should have just created a powerline network.

How many can I use?

You can add additional adapters onto the network, but this is brand dependent and will normally average around the 20 mark at present. Dependent upon the brand and the series, potentially more nodes could be added.

Can I use different brands?

Using more than one brand of adapters on your powerline network may have a detrimental affect or not work at all.

Brands that provide Powerline adapters include Netgear, TP-Link, Asus, Devolo and D-Link, to name but a few.

What can it do for me?

You can use powerline adapters to connect your broadband router to your Smart TV, or you can use them to connect two PCs together that don't have Wi-Fi transmitters, or you can connect a laptop to a Ethernet only connection based printer.

It is ideal for linking old devices that are not Wi-Fi capable, allowing you to provide internet access without overloading your router's capabilities.

Powerline communications are an elegant small scale networking solution.

Why would you use a Powerline Adapter?

The main benefit of using powerline technology would be that it allows you to create a hardwired network without having to run a dedicated Ethernet cabling everywhere.

Another benefit is that it provides a more secure, stable and faster connection than using Wi-Fi. You are less likely to get network dropout.

If you are connecting to a broadband router, you won't need a password to connect to the internet like you have to when using Wi-Fi.

Another advantage of using powerline adapters is that you can expand your network by connecting additional network switches where appropriate.

Are there any issues in using them?

One of the downsides is that you might sometimes lose synchronicity between the adapters, but this is a very rare occurrence and you can usually re-synchronise them quite quickly. Worst case scenario is that you would need to reset them all, but I've never come across having to do this as yet.

Also, there is a slight chance you may get a little interference on the power line itself. The adapters are designed to dampen and manage any signal interference so you should not notice any effect on performance. The potential interference on a powerline adapter is nowhere near as much as you may experience with Wi-Fi.

Although Powerline technology has a better bandwidth than Wi-Fi, it is not recommended for heavy duty business networking solutions as it would consume the available bandwidth quickly and make your network extremely slow. This is when you would have to consider installing a dedicated networking solution to cope with the large amounts of data transfer.

How much do they cost and where can I get one?

From around £10 upward. There are different speeds. Different modules - i.e. passthrough, basic, Wi-Fi extender built in, multiport, dual band, USB sharing (allowing a printer to be networked or USB drive sharing).

Powerline adapters can be bought from the likes of Currys, Argos or Tesco, or from your typical online retailers, such as Amazon.

A good starter kit provided by TP-Link with two basic single plug-adapters and the necessary cables is the Nano Powerline Adapter Starter Kit. This will get you started in creating your first powerline network.

Do you use Powerline technology or do you use something else?