TECHXNY - Power line network standard debuts

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance is releasing its first home-networking specification here Tuesday at the TechXNY computer show. The launch is nearly ten months later than scheduled, but proponents say the technology is worth the wait -- and now expect products based on the specification to roll out by year's end.

Power line networking uses existing electrical wiring to create a home network to serve both computers and consumer electronics. Since most homes have plenty of power outlets, backers suggest the technology will be easier and eventually less expensive than other types of networking.

The concept of power line networking isn't new, but the first attempts weren't very reliable--and often drew the wrath of early adopters. The new standard--with the backing of more than 90 companies--will change all that, says Alberto Mantovani, president of the alliance and a division director at Conexant Systems.

"It's done, we've reached the end," says Mantovani, who last year predicted the spec would ship by September 2000. He now calls the forecast a bit too aggressive.

"Things got complicated," he says, noting even the rapid growth of the alliance was a stumbling block. Adding many new companies lengthened the process, but in the end produced a better specification, he says.

Promising a speedy network connection

The HomePlug 1.0 specification supports file transfers at "10BaseT-like rates," according to the alliance. But what does that mean? Actual transfer rates vary--depending on whether you ask marketing guys or engineers, Mantovani jokes.

The maximum data transfer rate is theoretically 13 megabits per second, he says. However, the specification uses some of that for network protocol tasks. That means the actual maximum throughput will be about 8.2Mbps. That is, of course, the maximum; the average performance will be lower. More than 80 per cent of US homes the alliance tested saw average throughput of about 5Mbps. That's comparable to the actual throughput speed of the wireless standard 802.11b, which is branded at 11Mbps, he claims.

If most people can get 5Mbps, that should do the trick, Mantovani says.

"That's plenty of speed for today and the near future," he says.

Testing the wires

When creating the 1.0 specification, alliance members conducted extensive field tests from February through May, Mantovani says. It tested the specification in more than 500 homes in the United States and Canada. The results: the spec works as advertised in 98 per cent of all operational electrical outlets, he says.

"Ninetey-eight per cent was the target," Mantovani says. "We didn't expect it to be 100 per cent. Life is what it is, and we don't expect perfection."

By offering more than 98 per cent coverage, alliance members believe consumers should be satisfied with products based on the specification. And the solid specification should erase lingering doubts about the viability of networking through power lines.

Dave Martella, a vice president of both HomePlug and of Radio Shack, says he's not too worried about ongoing hard feelings from those early adopters burned by the first power line kits.

"Most people never got there," he says. "There are some sceptics, but we feel this will become mainstream fast and will become complimentary to other [home networking] standards fast."

Vendors will help the technology reach the mainstream fast by making it very easy to use, Martella says. For example, future products could easily include both the networking and the power cord in a single cable.

"Having one wire instead of two--people want that," Martella says. "We don't cater to early adopters. We cater to the mass market."

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Tom Mainelli

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