Linksys Powerline Connections: Wired Without Wires

Last week here in Gearhead I discussed my ongoing saga of trying to get decent IP DSL service from AT&T U-Verse.

The Linksys PLSK400. Image from http://homestore.cisco.com
Since that column, things have not improved and AT&T just dropped my line speed from 6M to 3Mbps. Somewhere along the way gremlins got into the system and now the latency I'm seeing has increased by roughly 10 times (att.com was averaging 45ms, now it's almost 450ms).

We'll skip any more complaints (for now) about AT&T's U-Verse and its wretched Motorola NVG510 DSL Modem other than to note that I disabled WiFi because it stopped working on the second unit they sent me and I am now using a separate access point.

This week I wanted to get back to the solution I found for streaming "Downton Abbey" to the Apple TV device connected to the TV in my bedroom without the buffering interruptions introduced by the poor WiFi connectivity I have been wrestling with (Apple TV supports both wired Ethernet and WiFi). That solution is Cisco's new Linksys PLE400 and PLS400 Powerline Network Adapters.

Powerline networks operate by sending a modulated carrier signal over your regular AC wiring. I've covered powerline products several times over the years; the last time being in 2007 when powerline technology data rates topped out at 85Mbps at the physical layer. The Linksys devices conform to the HomePlug AV specification and deliver a peak data rate of 200Mbps at the physical layer and about 80Mbps at the MAC layer.

Both of these devices are compatible with 110V/60Hz to 240V/50Hz wiring systems and are fairly compact in size: The PLE400 measures 4.0 × 2.83 × 2.06 inches while the PLS400 is 4.66 × 3.18 × 2.07 inches.

The PLE400 has a single Fast Ethernet (10/100) port while the PLS400 has four Fast Ethernet ports and they can be purchased singularly or as a kit containing one of each model.

How to use your home's power outlets to network your PCs, game consoles and other Ethernet enabled devices by Linksys. Diagram from http://homestore.cisco.com
Setup is easy: You just plug one of the devices into a power socket near your router and run a jumper from the Ethernet port to your network and then plug in the other unit next to remote devices that need network access and, voila! Instant and transparent bridging between the devices.

The data connections are secured by 128-Bit AES Link Encryption which defaults to the string "HomePlugAV". Smart peeps will change this immediately and there are two ways to do this.

The first way is much like the WPS security setup with wireless access points: You press the HomePlug Simple Connect button on the side of one of the devices and it generates a new key and, for a couple of minutes, broadcasts the key. When you press the same button on other powerline devices in that time window they acquire the key and can begin communicating.

But if you are at all paranoid and have any concerns about the privacy of your connection, you'll want to use the other way to set passwords -- a configuration utility that you can download from the Cisco Web site.

With this utility you can monitor the powerline network, check throughput between end points, enable or disable quality-of-service rules, and bulk change passwords on all connected devices.

These Linksys powerline products work extremely well, though complex power wiring, electrically noisy equipment such as HVAC plants and lighting systems, and connections between end points on different mains power busses can cause problems. That said, these products seem more robust in operation than previous powerline products I've tested. The PLEK400 kit is reasonably priced at around $90 and not only gets a rating of 5 out of 5 but also receives a highly recommended.

Gibbs is rewired in Ventura, Calif. Your connections to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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