How Power-line Networking Works Click here to print this article.
Special thanks to Intellon for their assistance with this article.
Power-line networking is one of several ways to connect the computers in your home. It uses the electrical wiring in your house to create a network.
Please be sure to read the companion article How Home Networking Works, which provides information about configuring your computers, routers and firewalls, Ethernet networking and sharing an Internet connection. There are also companion articles about phone-line networking and wireless networking. By the time you finish this series of articles, you will be able to choose a network technology that suits your needs and then configure the whole thing!
Now, we'll talk about power-line networking and the technology used to make it happen. We'll also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using a power-line network.
It's inexpensive. (This author bought a complete Intelogis' PassPort kit to connect two computers for $50.)
It uses existing electrical wiring.
Every room of a typical house has several electrical outlets.
It's easy to install.
A printer, or any other device that doesn't need to be directly connected to a computer, doesn't have to be physically near any of the computers in the network.
It doesn't require that a card be installed in the computer (although there are companies working on PCI-based systems).
The new PowerPacket technology provides a couple of other advantages as well. It is fast, rated at 14 megabits per second (Mbps). This speed allows for new applications, such as audio and video streaming, to be available throughout the house.
There are also some disadvantages to connecting through power-lines, particularly when using the older Intelogis technology:
The connection is rather slow -- 50 Kbps to 350 Kbps.
The performance can be impacted by home power usage.
It can limit the features of your printer.
It only works with Windows-based computers.
It uses large wall devices to access an electrical outlet.
It can only use 110-V standard lines.
It requires that all data be encrypted for a secure network.
Older wiring can affect performance.
Photo courtesy Intellon New power-line networking products are based on Intellon's PowerPacket technology.
According to Intellon, PowerPacket technology eliminates many of these concerns, citing the following advantages:
It is very fast, rated at 14Mbps.
It "avoids" disruptions in the power-line, maintaining the network's connections and speeds.
It does not limit the features of your printer.
It can be compatible with other operating systems (depending on driver availability).
It may have the necessary circuitry embedded within the device, necessitating only a standard power cord to access an outlet.
It works independent of line voltage and frequency of current.
It includes encryption.
In tests, it showed no signal degradation due to older wiring.
Now let's find out how each of these technologies works.
In the case of OFDM, the available range of frequencies on the electrical subsystem (4.3 MHz to 20.9 MHz) is split into 84 separate carriers. OFDM sends packets of data simultaneously along several of the carrier frequencies, allowing for increased speed and reliability. If noise or a surge in power usage disrupts one of the frequencies, the PowerPacket chip will sense it and switch that data to another carrier. This rate-adaptive design allows PowerPacket to maintain an Ethernet-class connection throughout the power-line network without losing any data.
Photo courtesy Intellon This card plugs into a PCI slot in your computer and into a wall outlet to create a power-line network.
The latest generation of PowerPacket technology is rated at 14 Mbps, which is faster than existing phone-line and wireless solutions. However, as broadband access and Internet-based content like streaming audio and video and voice-over-IP become more commonplace, speed requirements will continue to increase. Along these lines, Intellon's OFDM approach to power-line networking is highly scalable, eventually allowing the technology to surpass 100 Mbps. Products based on the current revision of PowerPacket are expected to be available by the third quarter of 2001.
The older power-line technology used by Intelogis relies on frequency-shift keying (FSK) to send data back and forth over the electrical wires in your home. FSK uses two frequencies, one for "1"s and the other for "0"s, to send digital information between the computers on the network. (See How Bits and Bytes Work to learn more about digital data.) The frequencies used are in a narrow band just above the level where most line noise occurs. Although this method works, it is somewhat fragile. Anything that impinges on either frequency can disrupt the data flow, causing the transmitting computer to have to resend the data. This can affect performance of the network. For example, this author noticed that when he was using more electricity in the house, such as running the washer and dryer, the network slowed down. Intelogis includes line-conditioning power strips with its network kit and encourages you to insert them between the wall outlet and your computer equipment to help reduce the amount of electrical-line noise.
Because the current crop of power-line networks are designed to work on 110-volt electrical systems, the technology is not very useful to countries outside of North America that use different standards.
Image courtesy of Intellon A power-line network provides access all over your home.
How to Install a Power-line Network
The physical connection between each computer and the Intelogis power-line network uses the computer's parallel port. A wall device is plugged directly into the electrical outlet (it will not operate properly if plugged into a surge protector).
To install an Intelogis' PassPort power-line network, you plug a wall device like this into an outlet.
A parallel cable is plugged into the wall device and into the parallel port of the computer. The power-line network must be the last item connected to the parallel port. For this reason, if you have anything else connected to the parallel port, such as a scanner or Zip drive, it must have a pass-through for the parallel port. Unless you have a second parallel port on your computer, your printer must be connected to the network through a wall device of its own. Something to keep in mind is that current power-line networks do not support bidirectional printing. "Bidirectional" means that data is sent in both directions, allowing your printer to send information back to your computer, such as how much ink is left and if there is a paper jam. This will not keep your printer from working, but it is worth noting that you will lose the use of such features.
Initial PowerPacket devices will connect via a USB or Ethernet cord from the computer to a small wall adapter. Subsequent devices will have the circuitry built in, meaning the only connection needed would be the power cord.
Once the physical connections are made, installation of the software is a snap. The software automatically detects all nodes (computers and printers) on the network. Whether your Internet connection is by cable modem, DSL or normal modem, the included proxy server software allows you to share the Internet with your other computers. You can easily add computers by simply plugging a new adapter in and installing the software. Additional printers can be added using the printer plug-in adapter. File and printer sharing is done through Windows.
There are two common types of home networks: peer-to-peer and client/server. Client/server networks have a centralized administrative system that provides information to all of the other devices. Peer-to-peer means that each device can talk directly to each other device on the network without consulting a central system first. Intelogis' Passport technology uses a client/server network. The first computer that you install the software on becomes the Application Server. In essence, it is the director of the network, controlling the flow of data and telling each device on the network where to find the other devices. Intellon's PowerPacket technology uses a peer-to-peer network.