HomePlug Networking Charges Up

If you judge a home network technology's success by its retail presence, then HomePlug is dead. Linksys, Netgear, and others still sell HomePlug 1.0 LAN kits, but sales languish in the low single digits.

For a time, HomePlug seemed like a smart way to boost spotty coverage on a wireless network, and Netgear recently shipped a hybrid HomePlug/802.11g kit. But now that the new wave of g-MIMO (Super G with Multiple Input, Multiple Output) antenna technology boosts wireless coverage so well, who needs it?

We do, really. Although HomePlug began life in retail products, its future is in embedded technology--in routers, notebooks, and thermostats, and in TVs, DVRs, and music players. The upcoming DOCSIS residential gateway design calls for both HomePlug and 802.11 to be built in, for instance.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance has big names sitting on the board: Comcast, Sharp, RadioShack, and EarthLink. New board members include EchoStar Communications, Leviton, Duke Power, and Sony.

It's the Video, Stupid

So what are these guys banking on? HomePlug AV. HomePlug Broadband over Powerline. Home controls.

When the HomePlug AV specification is ratified in June, HomePlug will deliver a 200-megabits-per-second data rate, with expected throughput just shy of 100 mbps, which makes it ideal to transmit multiple streams of video throughout the home.

Intellon today has 98 percent of the HomePlug 1.0 market for silicon, but Arkados and Conexant Systems plan to build HomePlug AV chips, with others like Broadcom expected to join the market. The first HomePlug AV products should ship around October. Overall, HomePlug gear is reliable, secure (encryption is built in), and toaster-easy to set up.

Just as significant, the Alliance chose the HomePlug AV specification as the basis for its upcoming HomePlug Broadband over Powerline (BPL) standard, expected to be ratified by year-end. This means that in time you'll be able to buy broadband equipment and services from your power supplier that work seamlessly with your HomePlug LAN equipment. Moreover, BPL means increased broadband access for rural communities, and improved energy management and efficiency.

Say you have a HomePlug AV high-definition TV and get broadband service and Internet protocol TV from your power utility provider. You'd be able to access the Web from your TV and retrieve content without a set-top box, computer or any other device--straight through the power lines. Then envision adding other applications such as HVAC, security systems, and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) phones.

Competition Could Be Bad

There's only one problem. Two competing groups recently formed, each with plans to develop its own power-line network technology that will compete directly with HomePlug.

The United Powerline Association includes DS2, ILevo, Ascom, Ambient, and Corinex Communications. The other coalition is the CE-Powerline Communications Alliance, whose members include Panasonic, Mitsubishi, and Sony. (Yes, Sony joined both this group and the HomePlug Powerline Alliance.)

If you buy HomePlug AV gear for your house, but your utility provider ends up offering services based on DS2 technology, they won't work together.

In another development, the HomePlug Alliance just announced it would develop a low-power, low-speed power-line network protocol as an alternative to proprietary technologies--such as those from X10, HaVI, and Echelon LonWorks--for controlling lighting, blinds, garage door openers, and the like. Vendors should begin proposing technologies this month, with testing to begin in April. It's too early to say whether the technology will interoperate or merely coexist with HomePlug, though.

Broadband over power lines actually arrived in 2004, with more than 20 pilot and commercial deployments using proprietary technology. More than 250,000 U.S. households already have the BPL option, according to a report from the New Millennium Research Council, including parts of New York City (through Ambient) and all of Manassas, Virginia (through ComTek).

And Then There's Z-Wave

Finally, home control vendors including Leviton and Intermatic recently formed the Z-Wave Alliance, an industry consortium of companies that build wireless home control products built on the Zensys wireless mesh technology. Z-Wave lets you monitor and manage lighting, security systems, thermostats, garage door openers, entertainment systems, and other devices. More than 75 Z-Wave products have shipped already, with an additional 100 expected by summer.

In a Z-Wave home, you can program the lights to go on when the garage door opens; the blinds draw and the lights dim when the TV comes on. You can program devices remotely, turning the thermostat up on the drive home from work. Soon we'll see Z-Wave built into routers, and ethernet to Z-Wave bridges.

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