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Powerline networks have big advantages over Wi-Fi

If you've connected your office computers into a network, chances are it's a wireless or Wi-Fi network. And chances are there are problems, such as dead spots or interference from other wireless devices including cell phones, Bluetooth-equipped laptops, and even your neighbor's wireless network. Or worse, your data aren't really secure—a particular problem if you're using older Wi-Fi equipment. It may be time for an upgrade. If so, consider powerline technology. Powerline networks have been around for years as an alternative to wireless but, except for some specialized applications, have never really caught on because they're a little more expensive and a little less flexible than Wi-Fi networks. They work by routing your data over the electrical wiring in your home or office. It's like having a hardwired network in terms of reliability and security, but without the expense of stringing cables though the walls and ceiling.

I first started using powerline networking five or six years ago. The signal from my wireless network wasn't reaching my home office, which was a floor and several plaster-and-lath walls away from my DSL modem. So I used a couple of powerline adapters to bridge the gap. I was amazed at how easy it was to set up compared with a wireless network. Even better, the network was inherently secure—my data were pretty much confined to the wiring in my house and not spewed out into the open where a malicious soul driving by with a laptop computer could intercept them. I scrapped the wireless part of my network and now rely solely on powerline connections.

The newest equipment is much improved from those days. It's based on the HomePlug AV standard from the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, an industry consortium. The MegaPlug AV 200 megabits per second (Mbps) Ethernet Adapter Kit from Actiontec Electronics, for example, costs about $170 for a kit of two adapters. Similar models are available from such companies as Linksys, Netgear (NTGR), and ZyXEL.

First off, it's faster than it used to be, with data transfer speeds of about 90 Mbps. That's nowhere near the 200 Mbps that the standard claims to achieve under ideal conditions, but it's faster than the current 54 Mbps for wireless networks. Plus, it's highly secure, using the latest encryption technology endorsed by the federal government.

Setting up the network is a snap. To share an Internet connection, for example, you plug one powerline adapter into an electrical outlet and hook up its cable to your router or modem. That immediately transmits the data throughout your offices or house. To tap into the network from any room, you plug an identical adapter into any other outlet and plug its cable into the Ethernet jack on your computer. You'll need an additional adapter, about $80, for each computer you want to add to the network.

A few caveats. You can't plug powerline adapters into surge protectors—they interfere with the data transmission—but they work with ordinary power strips or extension cords. The network can't cross the electric company's distribution transformer, so you may not be able to network from an office to a warehouse across the street. If your office is in a building shared with other enterprises, access to your data may be available through electrical outlets in other offices, or even at your neighbor's house if you work from home. That's why it's important to set up the security features correctly.

If your business uses desktop computers, powerline seems a no-brainer. On the other hand, if your employees rely mostly on laptops, you may prefer wireless to do away with cords and cables, and to get network access from hotel rooms and clients' offices. But I still suggest putting powerline in your offices to ensure that your information is secure.

Back to BWSmallBiz December 2007/January 2008 Table of Contents

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek SmallBiz. You can e-mail him at larry@larryarmstrong.net

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