Power Line Communication
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It hardly seems a blink of an eye ago that Wi-Fi was being promoted as the Next Big Thing. It was supposed to be the simple and permanent answer to those strings of ugly cables that usually ended up spread all over the home of anybody who wanted one computer to accomplish the apparently simple task of talking to another. It hasn't been a panacea, but it looks like there will soon be an alternative: power line communication.
It wasn't long before every conceivable gadget was emerging from its packaging equipped for Wi-Fi. It started with laptops, moved on to printers, music systems and cameras, and now it's reached the point where no self-respecting robot, picture frame, or even bath, is without wireless capabilities. And it doesn't stop there: we're now being told that in the near future we should expect to find Wi-Fi included as standard in our washing machines, clothes and cars.
Sadly, for many people whose homes are encumbered with awkward inconveniences such as walls and staircases, the truth is that Wi-Fi is an unreliable technology. Not only does it struggle to pass through solid objects or cover large distances without significant signal degradation, but it has an annoying habit of competing with all sorts of other wireless signals that may be flying around the place, creating a kind of inaudible radio-wave racket in which every signal can quickly become swamped by noise. I for one would prefer not to wear a T-shirt that I have to switch off whenever I board a plane.
The good news about all this is that there is a simple solution. It involves wires, but not the kind you have to stretch all over your house, because they're already there in place, just waiting to be pressed into service. Power Line Communication (PLC) uses plug-and-play hardware in conjunction with a building's existing electricity cables to provide fast and reliable networking services. PLC is an increasingly popular networking solution that makes sense in environments such as the typical domestic situation, where dedicated cable-based LANs are unjustified and Wi-Fi is often unreliable.
According to industry body the Homeplug PowerLine Alliance, global PLC hardware sales doubled to 16 million units in the twelve months to March 2008, and although much of this growth has been in Europe, the US, too, has shown strong indications that the technology is being embraced.
PLC is not a new idea. Over the years, many attempts to harness electrical cabling for network services have met with varying degrees of success. What is new is the implementation of industry standards, and in particular the Homeplug 1.0 specification, based on an Intellon chipset, that has encouraged a large number of manufacturers to develop compatible and interoperable products. The Alliance was formed back in 2000 by 13 industry-leading companies with the explicit goal of developing the standards that would underpin the industry, resulting in the publishing of Homeplug 1.0 in 2001.
Since then, things have moved on a long way. Members of major corporations such as Intel, LG, Linksys and Samsung sit on the Alliance board, representing the interests of more than seventy companies, and there is a focused determination among the members to increase the market penetration of what is probably the simplest and most cost-effective of all networking technologies to set up.
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