Power plan

If you are setting up a small office, connecting PCs for the first time, or looking to strengthen a struggling wireless network, there is a technology that can help, and it doesn’t involve laying down Ethernet cables. Windows talks power cable networking…

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By  Published  September 30, 2006

Powerline’ technology, as it’s often called, is not a new invention; not by any means. But its promotion and subsequent take-up stalled in the past, due largely to this being left in the hands of electricity providers.

Now however the technology is undergoing a renewed focus, and being pushed towards small business and consumer markets like never before (via the retail channel for instance), as powerline vendors take up the sales work and attempt to explain its potential usage in a clear-cut way.

The concept itself is a simple one: instead of rewiring (or, as networking specialists and cabling providers call this process when done from scratch, ‘retro-fitting’) your small firm’s building, villa or office apartment with Ethernet cabling (or running these cables along the floors), ‘powerline networking’ uses a property’s built-in power cables to move network data around. This data could take the form of files, pictures, or a ‘routed’ (shared) DSL internet signal - all the usual LAN info you might expect.

This data is plugged into the power network in the first instance using a powerline adapter, which is connected to an Ethernet cable (from your firm’s switch on the server or simply hooked from one PC). The data is then encrypted and retrieved from any other plug socket on the circuit, at which point it’s also decrypted, via a second wired or wireless adapter, which can in turn connect up one or more PCs.

In the beginning

While the concept may be sound, there were initial technical challenges with powerline technology. Netgear’s channel sales manager for the Middle East, Ahmed Zeidan, explains:

“The two original problems were noise and privacy. By noise we don’t mean noise on the data itself (with voice data for instance, when we talk about noise we might mean echoes), but noise can reduce the amount of data that is transferred because it slows down the data speed; I use the analogy of your car’s speed being slowed down by road humps. Netgear has come up with a unique solution that ‘rides’ the noise - so instead of fighting the frequency of the electricity, of the noise, we’re riding it - all the turbulence is underneath.”

The second issue was securing the data being moved around. “If you and your neighbour for instance are using the same power circuit, they might have been able to pick up the data. But we can encrypt the data, plus users can use the PC software we supply to change passwords and manage this security aspect.”

At present, as suggested, small firms can get their hands on powerline kit by simply heading to a couple of their nearest power retailers, such as Jumbo Electronics, but this retail approach is a recent move. If electricity providers had been able to sell in powerline products in the past, Zeidan asserts, the technology would now be much more prevalent. However, this wasn’t possible. “Unfortunately those companies don’t have what’s called a data license, which would effectively license them to be an ISP. Almost 99% of countries don’t allow existing providers to have these ISP licenses - that’s why the technology originally died.”

“Nowadays however, if we take the UAE as our example,” he continues, “we have companies such as Du, which are very much interested in this technology. The reason why, is that they’re an ISP, plus they’re part of the Government in the form of being related to Emaar, which is involved - literally - from A to Z in any project - from telephones to the internet, cable TV and electricity. Within a company that has all these arms, you can have this technology.”

Doing the business

So, in real life terms, what then are the potential uses of this technology and what benefits can a powerline approach bring to the small business?

Its first application is to help a firm extend a wireless LAN. Because the frequency currently designated for wireless kit - 2.4GHz - is a common one (in that devices ranging from microwaves to cordless phones use it), signals from wireless routers and access points can struggle to reach around a home or small office. This problem is exacerbated in the Middle East by the fact that most new buildings are made from concrete rather than the lighter materials often employed in Europe, meaning wireless signals struggle more to reach through such barriers.

With powerline solutions, once a signal from a router has been input (via Ethernet cable) into one powerline adapter, this internet data runs around the power circuit and a second - wireless - powerline adapter can be added at any point to give wireless output at the point nearest the users who require it. “Netgear said this:” Zeidan explains, “a property has power sockets all over the place. Why don’t we put the signal through all these cables and sockets to reach the deadspots that normal wireless routers can’t reach? We provide two ‘powerline’ adapters or sockets. One of these is hooked up to router, so the DSL internet cable from Etisalat or another ISP goes into the router, we take one port from the back switch of the router, and we hook this up to our adapter, which fits in the standard wall power socket.”

Even when a business utilises a wired router, there are limitations that powerline solutions can help overcome.

A user’s PC for example must be near a router to connect to it, or else a manager must be prepared to run wires from this device to a user’s machine. For firms that don’t fancy tripping over Ethernet cables, don’t have a cable installation budget, or simply don’t have permission to install cables in their property, this can be a problem. “Using your PC beside a router could have been be a reasonable solution a few years back, when there might have been one or two main internet users in a firm or at home, but now that’s not the case,” says Zeidan.

Therefore, a company can run their cable from the router into a first powerline adapter, which plugs it into the power circuit, and additional adapter locations, whichever rooms these are in, users can plug in either wired or wireless adapters. Most of Netgear’s customers at present are actually choosing the wired version, Zeidan claims (this is available in single or four-port versions). “However, you can have a wireless adapter in one socket and a wired in another - it’s flexible,” he adds.

Zeidan gives a relevant example: “A firm approached us that uses a two-level office, the second floor being a mezzanine. The structure of their building as such however means that they cannot lay cables (because they have an open space between these levels). So they needed to get their internet signal to the mezzanine. We put one socket on the ground floor, and they have three people on the mezzanine floor. So they bought three different adapters for the users upstairs - one of them in an office employing our wireless model.”

It’s not just about sharing the internet however, as running all of a firm’s network data over its property’s power circuit is just as possible. “As far as running a network LAN around an office home or office, let’s say first that you have a server,” Zeidan explains. “On that server you have a switch. Different users, plus a printer maybe, are connected to the switch. Even if you have the internet, this will be connected to the switch, possibly with a router in-between. We take a port from that switch, and we plug this into our adapter to give all power sockets access to the switch.”

If a wireless network needs extending then, or a wired LAN is required but without messy cables or a full under-floor or in-the-wall installation, powerline is a viable technological solution. But it’s not the ideal solution for every firm either, as it does in fact suffer from a couple of potential restrictions.

One of these comes into play in larger office environments: the larger the power circuit, in terms of the distance of cable that data must ravel over, the more ‘noise’ is created, which decreases data speeds.

Zeidan explains it like this: “If I am operating in a larger building, the distance data has to travel over the power wires affects the data speed, because there will be more noise. For example, if you plug in our fastest 200Mbps adapter as your primary input, you might get this speed in the main office space, but in a second faraway room you might get 120Mbps.”

The second no less notable restriction is that powerline networking only works within one power circuit, similar to circuit breakers. Most homes and villas for instance run one circuit. “If you’re in an office apartment in the Middle East,” Zeidan says, “your neighbour probably has a different circuit; this isn’t always the case in Europe. So you need to know is whether you have one circuit of your own.”

With many office buildings featuring one circuit per floor, the likely application of powerline technology will potentially depend upon whether your firm utilises 100% of such a power circuit. If in doubt, a quick call to your building’s manager or engineer should explain all.

“A property has power sockets all over the place.

Kit Speak

Netgear is, at present, the only firm we know of that is already offering regionally-specified and approved powerline products in the Middle East market. However, it should be joined soon by both SMC Networks (during Gitex in fact, this November) and Linksys.

In terms of Netgear’s kit, a range of powerline products are currently on offer, from its two-adapter ‘Wall-plugged Ethernet starter kit’, which features two adapters, is available in wired and wireless versions, and is priced around $90, to its single adapters, which can be either wireless again or wired, in 85Mbps and faster still 200Mbps versions.

As an example of what SMC kit could be on its way, the firm’s current ‘EZ Connect’-branded range of powerline kit comprises its 85Mbps ‘Turbo Powerline to Ethernet Desktop Adapter’, its slower throughput, 14Mbps adapter, and the 14Mbps ‘Powerline-to-USB’ adapter, which connects to the end user’s machine via - you guessed it - USB. Interestingly as far as design-focused firms are concerned, SMC claims its supplied powerline management software is the only such program to run on both PC and Mac platforms.

The home- and small business-focused division of Cisco known as Linksys has also confirmed to Windows that it is looking to develop compatible regional versions of its powerline networking products. Check out its site below for details.

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