Powerline Ethernet uses the existing electrical wiring in your home or office along with special adapters to connect your computers to the data network and Internet router.
Powerline Ethernet adapters convert and transmit the data signal by using a different frequency then the one used by the electrical current. The concept is similar to how dozens of radio stations transmit signals at the same time in the same city and yet your FM tuner can pick them out of “thin air” so you just get the one frequency you selected.
The key advantage of Powerline Ethernet is that there is usually an electrical outlet in every room and on every floor and they are all connected through the same Electrical Circuit Panel in your home or office. Many homes were built decades ago and were not hard wired for computer network connections. Older construction techniques that used Plaster have mesh in the walls that acts like a shield blocking WiFi signals between rooms. If rewiring your home or office with computer grade network cable is not an option, and the WiFi signals cannot penetrate the walls, Powerline Ethernet may just save the day.
One problem with Powerline Ethernet is the way the technology works. In the United States, homes tend to be wired in what is called “Split Phase.” Electricity enters at 240v and splits in to two 120v legs. In short, the rooms you want to connect may be on different 120v legs and therefore Powerline Ethernet speeds can be a little slower than if both outlets in the two separate rooms were on the same 120v leg. In most cases, even rooms on different 120v legs can still connect but in extreme cases, special jumpers need to be installed at the Electrical Panel to help the signals cross between the 120v legs.
Powerline Ethernet networking can achieve speeds of up to 500Mbps under perfect conditions or as low as around 50Mbps. All of these speeds are sufficient for browsing the Internet and even streaming music or videos. Realize the average broadband download speed is between 5Mbps and 30Mbps so even the slowest Powerline Ethernet connection is adequate. These slower speeds may not be optimal for local area networking for data intensive business applications on an Office File Server where the minimum acceptable speed is usually 100Mbps and the current standard is 1Gbps but it is better than no connectivity at all.
I use Powerline Ethernet as connectivity of last resort in Apartments were the WiFi signals will not penetrate the walls even between two side by side rooms or the range of the WiFi signal is significantly degraded by interference. Another issue especially in Apartment Buildings is lack of signal separation. If the twenty nearest apartments within 1500 feet all have WiFi and there are only eleven available WiFi channels, there will be overlap. The laws of physics state that two objects cannot occupy the same space and the same is true of WiFi channels.
Here is a real world example: I was in a large hi-rise Apartment building in New York City and the Time Warner UBEE combination cable modem and wireless (WiFi) Router signal could not get between the bedroom and the living room. I plugged in two Powerline Ethernet Adapters, one in each room and within five minutes I had a rock solid wired Ethernet connection using the Electrical wiring to transport the data signals. In this case, I put a Wireless Access Point (converts a wired to a wireless data signal) in the living room but I could have just as easily put a multi-port network switch for wired connections to share the Internet connection to the TV, Blu-Ray player, and Sirius Radio.
Remember, Powerline Ethernet allows you to use the electrical copper infrastructure in your walls to build out a data network of last resort when traditional wired and WiFi network solutions are not an option.
For more information on Powerline Etherner, visit:
Home Plug Alliance
Here are some Powerline Ethernet Options:
Actiontec – 500Mbps Powerline Network Adapter Kit
Belkin Powerline Solutions
D-Link Amplifi Powerline Products
Netgear Powerline Products
Paul Jolley says
An excellent and succinct article Jason, one of the best summaries I have seen in a while.
We have stretched the boundaries of Power Line Communications or Powerline Ethernet even further and deploy an industrial grade solution into Marine, Maritime and Heritage markets such as onboard Ships, Yachts, Oil Rigs and into Ports, Marinas, Museums and listed buildings all of which were never designed or built with structured cable and all share common problems:
Wi-Fi does not work through metal walls / thick walls
The electrical circuit is very noisy, often 3 phase, and often separate rings
It is uneconomical or permission won’t be granted to install structured cable
The earliest communication systems and networks used the powerline ethernet model. Only now with increased throughput requirements, data intensive applications and a congested wireless spectrums are we returning to a very practical solution.
However, in tune with your sentiment regarding “network of last resort”, we always recommend the use of structured Cat5 / Cat6 cable wherever / whenever it is practical to deploy.
Thank you for sharing this information.
Jason Palmer says
I notice your reference to the noise on the electrical circuits and the challenges of Powerline on multiphase and in multi-ring service environments.
I have seen noise as a significant issue with the available Powerline adapters that follow the Home Plug Alliance Standard.
Do your implementations follow the Standard or do you have custom devices that are tuned to the optimal available frequency range to get out of the way of the interference?
Thanks for your comments,
Delores Lyon says
Thanks for sharing this! Knowing exactly how Internet travels through different Ethernet cables and infrastructure is helping me figure out the type of cabling I want for my office building. It sounds like working with Powerline Ethernet might be a great way to get strong Internet to every single computer. I’ll definitely look more into it!
Jason Palmer says
Powerline Ethernet should be thought of as a last resort option. It has limited speed capability and there are restrictions on the number of end-point nodes (Ethernet ports) you can have in your network. It is also subject to electrical noise that can slow down the connections even further.
A more cost effective and reliable option would be to use a WiFi solution from someone like HP/Aruba networks supplemented by limited Ethernet cable runs to each Access Point.
Thank you for your question,
Grand Avenue Broadband says
The “leg” problem is very real, even with many of today’s units.
One overlooked solution is to go to the breaker panel and simply swap the position of one of the (single pole) breakers with the breaker above or below it (assuming it’s not the breaker for the partner unit, of course). This puts both units on the same leg, and can typically be done without turning off main power.