With more people working from home, rethinking the Internet distribution at home is necessary, especially if you share lots of files. If you can adopt it, powerline technology offers more than Wi-Fi can.
As more companies give their employees the option to work from home, more people in each household need to share an Internet connection. But it is not just the bandwidth you get from your ISP that is important, you also need to think about the bandwidth shared by everyone at home. Wi-Fi is the solution many look after, but the best option, if you can use it, has a name: powerline.
Powerline communication, also known as power-line carrier or PLC, carries data on a conductor that is also used simultaneously for AC electric power transmission or electric power distribution to consumers. The technology has been around for a while, and the very first time I tried it was in 2007, when I was approached by devolo, a pioneer in the area, to try their adapters offering 85 Mbps, which was an impressive speed at the time.
The German company had recently entered the market in my country and wanted journalists and photographers to try the system. I remember I was amazed when I was able to connect three computers in different rooms using the electrical socket as the network connection. That day marked the end of cables running through the house or taking a USB flash drive from computer to computer, to share files.
From 85 Mbps to 2400 Mbps in a decade
Wi-Fi, which has been around since 1999, offers another way to connect computers, but even though it is popular, it is not the best solution available. I know it from experience, as we used Wi-Fi – with Linksys Wi-Fi repeaters and extenders – to take the signal between two floors at home, as the first wave of devolo powerline adapters offered only “wired” connection through the electrical grid.
The “Internet from the electrical socket” would definitively change in 2013, for me, as devolo introduced its dLAN 500 WiFi adapter, faster than the initial dLAN 200 Wireless N. Although I’ve still kept the dLAN 200 Wireless N running, as a means to have an Ethernet connection in one corner of the house, as well as an Wi-Fi point, my home network, serving two floors of the house, connecting 7 desktop PCs, 4 laptops, two PlayStations (3 and 4), Smart TV, smartphones and other devices works just fine, based on the electrical grid and dLAN 500 duo and dLAN 500 WiFi adapters, offering both Wi-Fi and Powerline access around the house.
Although I have kept my system based on the dLAN 500 family, devolo moved forward, introducing more new products, expanding the Wi-Fi reach and the speed of the adapters. In 2014 the company launched the first dLAN adapter with 1200 Mbps. Revealed at IFA 2018 and finally available by the end of that year, the new devolo Magic family set a new standard in terms of Wi-Fi with Powerline technologies: it offers speeds up to 2400 Mbps.
Upgrading my Internet connection
One important note for those on dLAN devolo adapters that feel the urge to adapt: the Magic 1 and 2 adapters are NOT COMPATIBLE with previous devolo products. This is an important note to remember, before deciding to adopt the new system. For those using the dLAN 1200 adapters, the move may not even be needed, but with more people working from home, and the growing need for solutions to share anything from 8K/4K to VR, thousand of files, either photos or videos, to other type of content, you may feel that the new Magic 2 adapters are the way to go.
I finally decided it was time to move my home powerline to a new generation, as we’re now facing a new reality, with my wife working from home, my younger son studying from home and me working from home, as I’ve done for more than three decades now. Until now the 130 Mbps Internet connection has been about right, but as we’re moving, this Fall, to a 500 Mbps or 1 Gbps Internet connection, it made sense to upgrade the powerline, to be able to have a better connection between the computers and distribute Internet.
Before I continue, let us look at technologies: most of the powerline adapters available today use the HomePlug AV2 standard, which now reaches speeds of up to 1800 Mbps connecting two Gigabit Ethernet ports. It is important to note that the value is the theoretical maximum channel data transfer rate according to the official HomePlug AV2 specifications. Actual data transfer rate will vary depending on a series of network environment variables, including distance, network traffic, noise on electrical wires, quality of electrical installation and other adverse conditions. Most adapters you will find on the market refer to a nominal speed of 1200 Mbps.
Devolo’s Magic is not compatible with HomePlug AV2
Devolo used the HomePlug AV2 standard in its dLAN (direct Local Area Network) family, but when moving to the Magic 1 and 2, opted to move to a different technology, which is NOT COMPATIBLE with the previous standard. G.hn is a technical standard developed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and supported by numerous organizations, including the HomeGrid Forum industrial association. With the adoption of the technology devolo opens the door to a new era of high-speed networking and new performance dimensions for the home network of the future.
The company is the first European provider of technology ever to rely on the second-generation G.hn chips and has moved its production completely to the new standard, believing that it is the right choice for the future. In practical terms it means that the speed in the Powerline backbone has been increased enormously (currently as high as 2400 Mbps). The update also features improved stability and a greater PLC range of up to 500 meters.
G.hn is a specification for home networking with data rates up to 2 Gbit/s and operation over four types of legacy wires: telephone wiring, coaxial cables, power lines and plastic optical fiber. Now, in a world where the general consensus, in the telecoms industry, has been that operators worldwide need to deploy extensive networks of optical fiber that reach every single home in order to achieve high-speed broadband services, the G.nh standard looks like the savior, allowing for lower equipment development costs and lower deployment costs for service providers (by allowing customer self-install).
Copper wiring is not dead
The thinking behind this Fiber to the Home (FTTH) deployment model assumed that existing legacy copper networks – originally built for phone services or cable television – would not be capable of delivering the high-speed data rates required for the next generation services that were yet to come. This is something that we have since come to realize is simply not true, as the industry also found that G.hn allows service providers to reduce the cost of deploying FTTx networks while still delivering Gigabit-class broadband services that are virtually indistinguishable from traditional FTTH.
In fact, each time a pundit says “copper is dead” a new technology has appeared enabling copper wires to provide up to ten times higher data rates than what was previously possible. This trend is ongoing, with new standards like G.hn providing broadband communication over copper (both coaxial cables and twisted pair) with data rates of between 1-2 Gbps, and with promises of even higher data rates in the future. According to the HomeGrid Forum “The new amendment of G.hn is being developed with inputs from multiple industry participants, including silicon vendors and will address use cases such as 10Gbps MDU broadband access and next-generation 10Gbps Wi-Fi extenders. Systems based on this amendment will be backwards compatible with existing G.hn systems.”
Yes, the standard is evolving! If you want to read more about the subject, the White Paper published in June 2020, from which I took some of the information shared here, is must-read. Titled “Using G.hn in Access Networks”, it offers an overview about the evolution of G.hn and its role in the future proof access networks.
HomePlug AV2 reached end of the road?
While writing this article I could not stop thinking about Canon when the company moved from the FD bayonet to the EF, with a larger diameter – the same as the modern mirrorless RF bayonet from the company – and electronic communication between lens and body. The company was severely criticized at the time, and many professionals moved to Nikon. Some three decades later the technology gave reason to Canon’s pioneer decision to change bayonet when they did.
Although the situation is different, it seems devolo is moving forward, while many other powerline companies keep using a standard, HomePlug AV2, that has no roadmap forward. In fact, on 18 October 2016, the HomePlug Alliance announced that all its specifications would be put into the public domain and that other organizations would be taking on future activities relating to deployment of the existing technologies. There was no mention in the announcement of any further technology development within the HomePlug community. The HomePlug website is now unreachable…
Installing the new devolo Magic adapters is easy but do read the manual and all the instructions online, before going ahead. Even if you, like me, own devolo’s dLAN adapters, these are different, and require another approach. For example, you can not add a new adapter simply by opening a window on the devolo Cockpit app in your computer and typing the adapter key number. There is a way to manually pair the Magic adapters, if needed, but the process is automatic and foolproof… if you follow the rules.
The devolo Cockpit
To be able to compare the old and new adapters, I captured screenshots of the devolo cockpit showing the status of my dLAN connections before taking the whole system down. The image shows the connection values, ranging between 117 and 488 Mbps, from the center adapter (Home) to the other four adapters being used. I also captured some more screenshots showing the kind of interface options available with the dLAN family.
The numbers do not lie, and the stable connection I’ve now, with the Magic family, shows effective gains in speed, which now ranges from 412 to 803 Mbps. During installation I saw values over 1100 Mbps, but I believe these are more inline with what I can expect from my network, which is always dependent on factors as the distance, noise on electrical wires, quality of electrical installation and other adverse conditions.
One interesting note: the adapter used upstairs reaches 538 Mb while the previous topped at 117 Mbps. Another interesting fact: the adapter used upstairs is the devolo Magic 1 WiFi, which has a maximum transmission speed of 1200 Mbps. Another fact to know: it reaches close to 45 Mbps downloading from the Internet, on a 100Mbps Ethernet port and a 130 Mbps Internet connection shared by everyone at home. I am curious to see how the numbers change when we get 500 Mbps or more on our Internet connection, especially on the Gigabit connections.
An “ethernet” connection and Mesh Wi-Fi
Besides the “Ethernet” connection powerline offers, we also have Wi-Fi across the house, thanks to the two adapters with Wi-Fi used in the network, one downstairs and the other upstairs, complementing the Wi-Fi from the ISP’s router. In fact, moving between Wi-Fi spots is seamless, as the Magic adapters offer Mesh Wi-Fi, meaning all devolo Magic adapters connect together to form an associated network and get you seamlessly onto the Internet anywhere in the home, with the strongest connection. All adapters connected share the same name and password. This means you are always automatically connected to the strongest Wi-Fi access point and can move freely around your home.
Now, while Wi-Fi is great and has changed the way we connect to the Internet, it has some disadvantages: speed, range, reliability, and bandwidth to name the most important. If you need to expand Internet access to a remote area of an home or office, a Wi-Fi extender may be the most popular idea, but the most reliable solution may be a powerline adapter with Wi-Fi included, as you get the best of both worlds: a wired connection and the option to go wireless. If you already have a powerline network, a new adapter is the best way to go, as it offers you a connection that is, usually, even when not working at its maximum speed, a whole lot faster than Wi-Fi.
The Wi-Fi present in devolo’s adapters is also packed with features as “Fast Roaming”, so smartphones and tablets are permanently connected to the most powerful Wi-Fi hotspot, or “Config Sync”, which allows the router’s Wi-Fi configuration data to be easily transferred to all Wi-Fi access points (single SSID). The new “Airtime Fairness” function also gives preference to fast Wi-Fi clients, while the integrated “band steering” also ensures that all Wi-Fi clients are automatically assigned the ideal wireless channel and optimum frequency.
Is G.hn a standard for the future?
While this all sounds great, especially as the G.hn technology used in the devolo Magic adapters points to the future, the bad news is that, if you live in North America, you probably never heard about these devices. When in 2018 I first wrote about the Magic system, here at PVC, I noted that “North American customers just have to wait for a brand offering adapters compatible with the US grid to announce that they also have moved from the 1,200 Mbps speeds now being offered to new high-end adapters able to provide data rates up to 2,400 Mbps.”
Well, it is not going to happen, it seems. Although on September 2009, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology included G.hn as one of its standards for the smart grid, in January 2010 the standard was removed the final version of the “Standards Identified for Implementation”, despite the fact that, according to the HomeGrid Forum, “as of 2018, dozens of tier-1 and tier-2 system vendors offer G.hn products for the broadband industry, addressing a wide range of form factors: from multi-port DPUs, to fiber extenders, customer premises equipment, home-networking products, Wi-Fi extenders, etc. These products also rely on chipsets sold by multiple silicon vendors.”
The path forward since 2009 seems to have been difficult, but now the HomeGrid Forum website includes a list of 38 interoperable G.hn products, manufactured by 14 different vendors, using G.hn chips from several different silicon suppliers. New vendors are constantly being added to the list, says the organization. With the HomePlug AV2 at the end of the road – no apparent development since 2016 -, and with the growing needs in terms of bandwidth, it seems only logical that G.hn takes place as the new standard to follow.
Powerline is not popular in North America
The problem is that powerline is not a popular technology in North America, for a series of reasons, starting with the material many houses are built with – wood -, which is not much of a problem for Wi-Fi. Other types of buildings, though, have problems. If you want to understand why historic homes are terrible for Wi-Fi, read the article about the subject published by the website My Move.
The article, which is recent, published August 2020, points to the general trend in North America: use Wi-Fi repeaters and extenders to distribute the signal. As an alternative, it suggests, although on a short note, that if you are renovating your house, you can use re-wiring to solve the problem. In fact, it is possible to wire the whole house with an ethernet network. The simplest way, though, is to use powerline… but nowhere in the article the technology is mentioned.
Still, the problem goes beyond the walls in your home. According to the website BroadbandNow, there have been several providers using BPL – Broadband Over Powerline – in the United States but none of them are still operating as of 2016. The report adds that “Most cases of powerline broadband were implemented by the electric companies that owned the local power lines to serve rural areas without any broadband infrastructure. Since the Broadband Initiative in 2009, these electric companies have largely opted to use the available government grants to fund new fiber optic infrastructure rather than rely on broadband over power line.”
So, despite the potential for the technology, and the fact that installed power lines can be used to service customers without needing to build a completely new broadband infrastructure, North America has opted for a more costly solution. Another problem particular to the US is its power grid, which, according to BroadbandNow, relies heavily on the use of step-down transformers – to 110 V – to provide customers with electricity. As devolo powerline adapters are designed to use 230 V, this type of connection is more prevalent in Europe, because of the type of power grid used.
In fact, most of the world population – Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand – is connected to power grids serving 230 V, which is a widespread standard so a variety of equipment can be used in most parts of the world with a simple adapter. That makes it also viable to use most of the available powerline solutions in those regions, from the multiple HomePlug adapters to the devolo Magic adapters using G.hn technology.
Despite not being popular, powerline technology is still available in North America. You just have to “google” for it and see if any of the solutions available works for you and is compatible with the power grid in your area. For ProVideo Coalition readers elsewhere in the world, this article may just be all they need to get a better solutions to take their home network to a new level.
One final note: I offered some adapters from my old devolo dLAN system to my neighbor. They’ve been using a Wi-Fi solution with repeaters, which was recommended to them by their ISP, and could never get proper signal. Once I got the devolo adapters connected, they discovered they had Internet with strong signal even in the most remote corner of their apartment, with the option to use a wired network where the adapters are, and also Wi-Fi, provided by two of them. As my neighbor told me, with a large smile on his face, “I’ve never seen such a strong signal on my smartphone all these years”. When I left, the four – the couple and two teenagers, a boy and a girl – came to the door to say goodbye. You should have seen their faces!