• United States

HomePlug poised to ride WiFi’s coattails

Jan 21, 20034 mins
MobileSmall and Medium BusinessUnified Communications

* Big names are buying into power line as a wireless extension

Just a year ago, power line network technology was Greek to consumers, and considered too new, too flaky, too expensive and too slow by the tech community. It also arrived a year too late, and would likely live a short and misunderstood life, then follow HomeRF and arguably HomePNA to the grave.  

Nothing could be further from the truth. Though early on HomePlug was positioned as a competitor to wireless, the HomePlug Alliance quickly shifted gears and is now touting the technology as a wireless extension. With the addition of two pieces of HomePlug equipment – a wireless router and an Ethernet bridge or USB adapter (you need two to network-enable all the power lines in your house) – you can extend an existing 802.11b wireless network to the outer reaches of your home where the signal doesn’t reach. If everyone with a wireless network buys power line to extend it, say to the attic, basement or garage (likely candidates for a home office)…well, you do the math.

Some very big players clearly have. At my last count, I have Siemens, Motorola, Philips, Microsoft and Apple developing HomePlug products along with wireless or talking about doing so. Here are some details. 

 At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Efficient Networks, a division of Siemens, debuted the first power line wireless router, the SpeedStream 2524 ($159), which includes four switched 10/100 Ethernet ports and an 802.11b wireless access point. The SpeedStream 2510 ($99) lacks wireless. These products round out Efficient’s line of power line gear announced in October, which includes Ethernet, USB and wireless power line adapters.

When I met with Phonex Broadband, a company that makes HomePlug products, chipsets and devices that let you add phone jacks via power line, the company’s rep showed me a prototype power line router stamped with the Motorola brand. Meanwhile, Motorola unveiled a full line of 802.11b and 802.11 pre-g wireless gear; a spokesperson confirmed plans to add HomePlug in the near future. 

Microsoft said the same thing when it announced its wireless line last year – that 802.11 is simply the first, not the only, network technology it plans to sell. Because it’s common knowledge that Accton provides Microsoft with its wireless gear, it’s worth noting a recent announcement that Accton and Philips are merging their wireless divisions. The release stated the new entity would provide OEMs with wireless for PCs to phones to consumer electronics, and it expects to produce a full line of access points and gateways including a HomePlug to 802.11b bridge. Sounds like Accton plans to produce HomePlug and HomePlug/wireless gear for Philips and Microsoft, and Philips plans to market its own consumer line of wireless/HomePlug gear. 

Corinex Global, which provides point-to-point wireless services for multidwelling units then extends the broadband connection to individual apartments via power line, says it’s talking to Apple about building a HomePlug product. Although the HomePlug specification doesn’t support the Apple OS, Corinex says it built its own HomePlug-compliant reference design using an open architecture that is Apple compliant. A company spokesperson said to watch for a joint announcement from the companies in March. Considering Apple just announced 802.11g (54M bit/sec in the 2.4-GHz band) support for its new PowerBook, an Apple HomePlug product makes sense.

The embrace of wireless and HomePlug makes me wonder how Linksys, Netgear and others will continue to compete. Would your mother buy Motorola or Netgear? Microsoft or Linksys? My advice? Concentrate more on the small to midsize business market, and start building up a consumer-focused service and support business. Consumer electronics companies aren’t equipped to handle support calls because your TV and stereo never fritz.

Also, when you start connecting new devices together, things inevitably go awry. For instance, an Iogear rep told me at the show the company failed to get the XBox connected to its HomePlug network, but the PlayStation2 worked fine. Something about the network connection in the XBox being “different” from that in the PS2. Great.

Until the protocols, middleware and/or gateways are put in place to make all these devices work together seamlessly, the home IT person is going to need responsive, reliable and unlimited tech support. And he’ll be willing to pay a monthly fee for it, too.