A wireless wi-fi home network can only handle so much traffic. If you need a wired solution then you need a powerline network.

Your building, the brick walls, the bookcases; all preventing wi-fi signals from getting through easily. If you have a big house and your main computer is at the other end from the Internet socket, you have a problem. Signal degradation, loss of connectivity, interrupted downloads; maybe this is the solution for you.

What is powerline networking?

 TP Link Powerline AdaptersThe reason the system is called powerline networking is because the system uses the mains power supply to carry the data around your home. You plug an ethernet adapter into a mains socket at both ends of the network you need and the adapters do all the work for you; you really can get broadband over a power line using a powerline networking kit.

If you have a back-up server in your home then you will already know how important it is to keep your prized back-up as far away from other equipment as you can; now you can have it near any mains power point and if you get an adapter that offers a "power through" socket, you can power and network your server from the same plug!

If you don't have a back up server, why not? Have you got any important documents on your computer or laptop? Check out how easy it is to turn an old computer into a file server.

What is Wrong with Wi-Fi?

There is nothing wrong with Wi-Fi itself, I use my wireless router to connect tablet computers and laptops around the house and have used it for my XBox 360 as well. There are limitations to the technology though that you might want to think about.

Firstly the wireless speed which will vary depending on what devices you have connected. You might already know about the different wireless speeds that are already available, starting with the oldest (and slowest) we have what are called the standards[5270] of:

IECC standard Maximum data rate (theoretical) Notes
802.11 a 54Mbps @ High Frequency 5Mhz Released 1999 - Not compatible with other standards
802.11 b 11Mbps @ Low Frequency 2.4Mhz Released 1999 - Not compatible with other standards
802.11 g 54Mbps @ Low Frequency Released 2003 - Compatible with 802.11b
802.11 n 150Mbps @ 2.4Mhz and 5Mhz Released 2009 - Compatible with 802.11a/b/g

Note: There are more standards than this, but these are the usual consumer devices

Most routers will be able to connect to either 802.11b/g or 802.11b/g/n but can only connect using one standard at a time. This means that if there is a device which is running at 802.11b  this will cause 802.11g to have a notable drop in performance; it would be most obvious to users of the latest 802.11n devices on a network where 802.11g devices are prevalent. 

Lets look at a quick example. If you connect your new XBox 360 (which uses 802.11n) wirelessly to your network and then connect an old laptop with a 802.11a wireless card to that network; your XBox performance on online games will fall.

You will also find a huge number of devices that use the 2.4Mhz bandwidth. Bluetooth, wireless keyboards, even amature radio "hams" will interfere with your wi-fi network at times. This is because the low frequency broadcast is cost effective and used in huge numbers of devices; the 5Mhz frequency however is less used, but this comes at a higher financial cost.

Wireless device blocked by furnitureLastly we have already mentioned the use of walls and floors to block a signal. Take a look at the poor wireless antenna on the right. It is actually the little white stick plugged into a USB on the top of the case and is used to get access to a network. 

The wireless signal in this case actually is fighting against a big wooden dining room table, the computer user and a sofa before reaching the router; it is also fighting in a network of around five or six portable devices to get attention. Thankfully I only used this USB aerial for this experiment.

Is There Another Way?

There are two other alternatives to the powerline adapter that can improve performance. The first is to buy a dual-band wireless router, these will run better across the various wireless standards but expect to pay more cash than for two standard access points for the top dual-band routers on the market. 

The other alternative is to wire your house up with ethernet cables. This could be as simple as tacking the cable to a skirting board or more severe demolition in the home; once a cable gets 100m long then it will start to degrade. Contributors to popular and reputable discussion forums such as Tom's Hardware suggest that even longer than 100m[5274] is possible to an extent. Do you really want to be putting holes in walls to feed cables though?

The Powerline Way

A Powerline NetworkCredit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Homeplugplug.jpgSetting up a powerline network is in most cases as easy as plugging in an adapter where you need them, turning them on and giving them a minute to find each other. Most computer operating systems automatically find and configure network settings and this means that you just need to connect your computers ethernet port to the adapter (use a standard ethernet cable - most powerline adapters actually come with one!) and your computer will see the network.

If you are using a modem or router as part of your set-up then you connect that from a LAN port to get broadband over your powerline adapter and this is especially useful if your broadband provider does not offer installation to a place convenient to yourself. I currently have my powerline network integrated with a TP-Link WR1043ND Wireless Router, for the best of both worlds.

If you need wi-fi in another part of the house the powerline adapters can help there as well. Many manufacturers now make powerline adapters with built in wi-fi chips broadcasting at 802.11n. This would be perfect if you needed extended wireless capabilities in a different part of the building. You can even go as far as "spoofing" your main wi-fi hotspot details on a second channel so that your devices always connect whatever transmitter is most appropriate for your device.

Is it Secure?

The beauty of powerline networking is although everyone in the neighbourhood might share the same source of electricity, they don't share the same source of your computer network. Reputable powerline manufacturers (if not all of them) have utilities in place that allow you to create a secure connection between two or more powerline access points[5276]. Essentially the method of securing powerline adapters will be very similar whatever brand you buy and some may allow you to connect to different brands - I have heard of others that do not like to connect to other brands though.

That being said, if you do not (or can not) enable security on your powerline adapters it is perfectly plausible for a neighbour to be able to see, access and cause havoc on your home computer network. Do you trust your neighbours enough to run without security? Would you leave your wireless router unencrypted.... No I did not think so either!

So How Cheap is Powerline?

Powerline adapters come in single or twin packs from most distributors. If you are buying a starter kit of powerline adapters then you can spend from £30 and up for a Powerline Twinpack which for a quick solution to a distance problem is not that bad. To buy lengths of Cat 6 Ethernet cable and a cheap router to act as a repeater would cost just as much. I have installed powerline at a number of establishments purely as an A to B connection but I am about to build my own new network in my home.  

Have you used broadband over powerline? Do you think that a wired network is better than wireless? Discuss the pro and con of powerline networking right here!