A dispatch from the home network: Powerline communications actually work!

Recently, my parents moved out of a two-story house into a condominium. The condo is smaller, but it’s more spread out. The building is also a great deal sturdier, since it’s a 13-story high-rise, instead of a two-story detached home. In the old house, a single AP in the middle of the home on the second floor covered everything adequately. In the new condo, the wireless signal was not so great around the edges of the unit, and that expressed itself most dramatically in the speed of transferring recording programs between two TiVos.

Obviously, a second AP was needed to cover the extra horizontal distance, but I needed to link them to a single VLAN in order to get communications between clients of the two APs. The condo’s walls were already finished, and the last thing I wanted to learn to do was how to fish cable through ceilings and walls. (“It’s easy,” says a colleague with the right tools, as I tell him this after the fact. “There’s a really long drill bit, and then you just snake a pull cable over the ceiling. It works even better when you’re not on the top floor of the building!”)

It turns out the problem was pretty easy to solve with powerline networking. One of the APs acts like a firewall/router for the whole condo, and feeds the second AP over powerline. A third unit connects up a computer with only an Ethernet port. I used the new HomePlug AV equipment, which boasts speeds of up to 200 Mbps. According to the Netgear’s test tool, raw link speeds are 150-175 Mbps. (I wound up selecting the Netgear equipment because it was the best industrial design in the group, and it had the least garish display.)

I have one big worry about the equipment. It works by sending the data over the electrical wire as high-frequency modulation. Most power strips/surge suppressors will filter out high frequency noise, so the units need to be plugged directly into the wall. Without protection, I wonder how they’ll fare when the power flickers in a storm. Naturally, I worry about security as well, since there is no obvious security protocol configuration that took place during my installation.

At this point, everything seems to be working. The question is whether I am brave enough to upgrade the APs to some new firmware. I am tempted to because the third-party firmware offers multi-SSID support, with different security configurations, which would help contain some of the potential damage from the non-WPA TiVos.

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