Powerline Ethernet: Boldly Going Where Others Cannot Reach

asus-22.0.0Most people think that Wifi is awesome. It certainly is convenient, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. No matter how freaky your Wifi router looks….

Wifi Is Not Always Your friend!

The very nature of Wifi is in some ways problematic. It’s a lot like a hub in the bad old days. It’s essentially a single connection shared between all of the connected devices. As the number of Wifi devices in our lives continues to multiply, they must compete for access to bandwidth.

This contention for access is not always a problem. It doesn’t really matter if your Nest thermostat is slightly delayed in checking in with our largely benevolent overlords at Google. Nor does it matter if Outlook finds it’s access to the email server to be a bit sluggish. However, for real-time applications like streaming media, continuous, reliable bandwidth is utterly essential!

Moreover, high-bandwidth streaming media applications have become much more commonplace. Where once streaming was limited to VoIP services and music (a paltry 80 – 320 kbps) it now includes streaming video from the likes of iTunes, Netflix, Amazon & Google. These are services that demand multiple megabits/second!

Heck, lately we’ve been listening to streaming music from Tidal. Tidal’s FLAC streams, which are the native format of our Logitech Squeezeboxes, are 1.411 Mbps. That’s nearly the equivalent of an early iTunes movie stream.

Even when your ISP delivers substantial bandwidth, the local Wifi hardware may not reliably deliver continuous performance. The result can be that kids logging into an online game results in your movie stalling, or choppy voice quality for your IP-based telephone call.

Ethernet Is The Answer!

An understanding of the limits of Wifi is the foundation of my simple networking strategy. It stipulates; wherever possible, run wired Ethernet!

A dedicated Ethernet cable from our central switch to our Tivo Roamio Plus ensures that the streaming media works as fast & reliably as our 50×10 Mb Comcast Business Class service permits. In addition, our two Tivo Mini clients can stream the content from the Roamio. Everything is wired, nothing ever buffers or stalls on playback.

Netgear GS524

Most of our Logitech Squeezeboxes are connected via Ethernet. That is, any Squeezebox that is dedicated to a specific location in the house is connected by a wire. Similarly, our various Polycom & VTech SIP phones also have hard-wired connections to the switch at our network core.

Incidentally, in some cases power-over-Ethernet (802.11af) allows a device to be powered over the network cable. That makes Ethernet the one wire necessary to the device. This is the case with some of our SIP phones and security cameras.

Around here we make the effort to run the cables. Everything works. Life is good.

When Ethernet Is Not An Option

I was recently speaking with an associate who was in the process of building an office space in her back yard. She had a studio constructed, physically separate from her house. Since my home office is in what was once called a “garage apartment,” I completely appreciate her desire to keep family and work spaces at arm’s length.

She posed an interesting question about the new building. While her husband had built the new structure, they had not considered the requirement for wired network or telephone services. And yet, she definitely must provide reliable bandwidth to her desk in the new studio.

In coming to this realization they thought that perhaps she could just make use of the household Wifi in the new studio. However, that proved unreliable given the distance and equipment involved. There was also some worry about the kids online gaming could possibly render Wifi problematic at certain times of the day.

Since the studio space had electrical power taken from the main service panel in the house, this seemed like an ideal application for an Ethernet-Over-Power-line network extender. That would deliver the equivalent of a wired Ethernet connection, but without requiring the effort to trench & bury a conduit for wiring to the studio.

Devices like the TP-Link AV500 Nano Powerline Adapter Starter Kit are a sensible alternative approach to delivering bandwidth over a reliable, wired connection. That particular model, while inexpensive, is claimed to deliver up to 500 Mbps.

TL-PA411 KIT

While I was happy to recommend Ethernet-Over-Power-line as a strategy for the new studio space, I had not actually used it myself. I generally don’t recommend something unless I have some real experience with its use, so I bought a low-cost starter kit for myself.

In my case, the TP-Link AV500 starter kit would replace the Ethernet cable that has long snaked across my office floor. That wire, which has aggravated my wife for years, connects the small network switch on my desk with the 24-port switch in the main wiring rack.

In theory this means that my desk now needs only one cable run to it…AC power. That suits me fine, since I intend to put my Rebel Desk sit/stand desk on glides or casters, allowing it to be moved around the room more readily. I hope to make it easier to move the desk around the space, proximity to the air conditioner being variable with the season.

Experience To Date

When last we spoke my associate had yet to implement her network solution, so I cannot speak to her experience. However, I’ve had the TP-Link starter kit installed for a few days. It was dead simple to install. To be brief, it works more-or-less as promised.

Speedtest-TPlink-EOP-vs-Ethernet

As the two speed test results show, there is some difference in the maximum download achieved over the power-line bridge. It can’t pass all of what’s available from our Comcast connection, but it’s more than adequate for my desk at the moment.

Also, they’re tiny. This is an advantage, since it means that when plugged into a duplex receptacle, they don’t impede the use of the other outlet. Outlets are always at a premium around here.

In hindsight, I might have checked the Powerline Performance Chart at Small Net Builder, which rated the slightly more costly TP-Link AV600 markedly better than the AV500. The newest AV1200 model is even more capable, but at $99 it’s also 3x what I paid for the AV500.

From a purely practical standpoint, I can say with certainty that the AV500 kit handles my desktop voice & video requirements without a hitch.

As a matter of principle, for a device that won’t be moved around, I still prefer a wired network connection over wireless. Ethernet-over-power-line is simply a different approach to providing a wired connection. It can deliver wired reliability to places where you might have thought Wifi the only option. Wifi remains my network of last resort, reserved primarily for mobile devices.

  • Marc Abrams

    I’ve used the equivalent D-Link AV units for years. They are reliable, if not stellar performers if you want or need Ethernet in a room that does not have it in the walls.

    I really liked HPNA for this purpose but you can’t find adapters anymore. They were more reliable and provided more bandwidth.

  • David Mandery

    Thanks for the reminder that these units have gotten faster. I had some AV200 ones, that were a little bit slow at times. Got some AV1200 when they were on sale on Amazon for $55 for the set. TP-Link TL-PA801P. We moved to a new rental and the cable line went through the attic (blocked off access) for the second story of the house, so couldn’t easily run Ethernet like I was planning. They work pretty well, though I’d prefer Ethernet of course and use that on areas I could.

    • Michael Graves

      Yes, the devices that I have installed have just proved out their worth in my office. Today, for the very first time, I slid my standing desk to another position in the room. The desktop, monitors, phone, headset, USB hub, etc all connect to a large outlet strip mounted to the desk frame. It’s only wired connection is the power cord. It sits on some large carpet sliders, so the whole things can be pushed around easily.