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Is 2011 The Year of Powerline Networking?

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Having followed the home networking market for over a decade, I’ve gleaned a few lessons along the way:

  1. A decade is probably too long to analyze any market, let alone home networking.
  2. It’s a market of a thousand turf wars — many of them over now — for physical layers, software protocols and product categories. (Fun piece of home network nostalgia for the day: While Intel no doubt helped Wi-Fi go mainstream with Centrino, the company once saw Home RF as the future of the wireless home. Luckily for them, they eventually came to their senses.)
  3. The home network has become a critical but largely invisible services platform for all things from Netflix to pay TV.
  4. As connected entertainment becomes the dominant traffic and demand driver,  the nature of the home network itself is changing.

One technology, Wi-Fi (and the spec underlying the Wi-Fi brand, 802.11x) not only won the turf wars, but effectively dropped a nuclear bomb on any competing networking technologies. In fact, it’s a pretty easy argument to make that Wi-Fi has been the single most important technology in the connected-home marketplace for the past decade.

But while Wi-Fi continues to be required on any connected entertainment device, that doesn’t mean the experience of Wi-Fi is always optimal. Anyone whose streamed Netflix over a significant range or a few walls knows the quality of the stream falls off pretty quickly, and sometimes will not work at all.

So what else is there?  In the pay-TV space, U.S. providers like Verizon have settled on MoCA (a coax-based networking technology), while many European IPTV providers have adopted powerline, in particular HomePlug, for in-home distribution.

While MoCA is almost exclusively a service provider technology, HomePlug is also available at retail, where all indications suggest the technology has started to take off. Discussions I’ve had with both home networking equipment and chip providers over the past few weeks put estimates of consumer powerline shipments at close to 10 percent of Wi-Fi unit shipments today. That may seem like a small number, but it’s one that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

This growth in powerline networking hasn’t gone unnoticed by the industry, as almost the entire powerline networking market was rolled up over the past year and a half. It started with Atheros buying Intellon, then Sigma bought Coppergate (for powerline & HPNA networking), Marvell picked up DS2, which likely spurred Broadcom to buy Gigle.

With all of this investment in HomePlug from the silicon side, there’s no doubt more integrated chipsets will make there way to market. One of the early efforts is by Atheros with their Hy-fi integrated Wi-Fi/HomePlug solution, which has been resulted in new Wi-Fi routers from both D-Link and Netgear that feature HomePlug ports.

This embrace of powerline isn’t a sign that Wi-Fi is on the decline, but instead that numerous technologies need to be embraced as entertainment distribution shifts to IP. In fact, the industry recognized that making all disparate home networking technologies work together should be the end-game, and to help reach that goal the IEEE has started efforts to create a software abstraction layer to enable seamless networking no matter what the physical layer.

See my weekly analysis at GigaOM Pro where I define three trends — one of which is alternative high-speed networking technologies — define the future digital home.

Image courtesy of flickr user viagallery

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10 Responses to “Is 2011 The Year of Powerline Networking?”

  1. Celeno Marketing

    Wi-Fi users who stream videos don’t have to settle for a less than perfect wireless experience out of their media. It is true that many consumers have been disappointed by Wi-Fi’s inability to effectively deliver multimedia and video content in the past. But today, consumers can connect wirelessly to and enjoy any type of multimedia and video content anywhere in their home at any time, regardless of the type of display device they are using. They just need to find the right Wi-Fi solutions.

    There is a new breed of Wi-Fi chips equipped with optimized radio and software for the unique low jitter and low packet error rate requirements for video applications. These chips are appearing on service provider gateways and in retail products to connect entertainment devices in the home, wirelessly.

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  3. primemover

    For those Wi-Fi users who stream Netflix, etc. and find the wireless service poor, it is time to get rid of that lame, low-end Wi-Fi router and buy something that works in every home/building I have worked/lived in.

    The Ruckus Wireless routers are the only products I buy and specify for install. Especially in homes. Once you have set one up, you will see what I mean. Wicked-fast through put because of their smart antenna.

    Note: I am merely a satisfied customer, nothing more.

  4. We (re-)tried Powerline Networking last year – bought a set of Netgear plugs. Setup was no problem and it was around 1.5x faster than Wi-Fi. What soured us on these, though, was the buggy firmware that you find in all of the mainstream networking consumer offerings. Daily reboots were soon in order. We also switched out our reliable Apple Airport Extreme for a Netgear router and that made the situation even worse. At the end, we went back to our Apple Airport Extreme, since it’s rock-solid, and Wi-Fi. In addition, we strung some Cat5e cable to the remote areas of the office and now have the best of both worlds. My recommendation: try out Powerline Networking, but buy from a place with at least a 30-day return policy, so you can return them, if they don’t work…

    • @Veit – that’s strange, because the fact most HomePlug bridges are Ethernet out, you shouldn’t need a specific HomePlug driver. I’ve been using HomePlug/Ethernet bridges for 4-5 years and never had any issue across multiple game consoles, PCs, Macs and so on.

  5. Great blog and wonderful pack of information, thanks! I’m waiting with impatience on Powerline Home Networking and meanwhile found out pretty good opportunity to all, who works with net at home:
    No this site, if you have an own blog, you need to confirm only your RSS-feed registration, and after that you can earn your extra-money without any further efforts! Personally for me, it’s an interesting offer, and with Powerline Networking I hope to improve my business. Good luck to everybody!

  6. DirecTV uses the HomePlug approach as one of their 3 recommended networking systems to bring their DVR’s onboard the home network.

    Haven’t tried it. Wireless seems to be working OK for the DVR. But, I may yet. :)

  7. Kindroid

    I run 2 dish receivers, 2 Rokus, and 2 laptops on a powerline network. Setup in 5 minutes. Works flawlessly. Wifi can’t begin to compete at my house.

  8. Jamison

    Let me make a case for MoCA, which also has Netgear, Dlink, others… beginning to sell retail products. In addition to Verizon, Comcast, TWC, and Cox installing MoCA networks for Multiroom DVR, DirecTV is also using it to support their VOD (DTV Cinema) through IP. The bottom line is that in the US, millions of households already have a MoCA network installed with many more to come. This is an advantage that WiFi enjoys everywhere, and what helps Powerline in Europe. Consumers will probably look to expanding their existing home nets rather than installing yet another networking technology for connected CE devices. Disclosure: I work for a MoCA Alliance member.

    • @Jamison – MoCA makes sense in the US and as a service provider-installed networking technology, but its growth seems to be limited to where FiOS and other payTV providers can roll a truck. HomePlug’s growth is largely being fueled by retail sales, and consumers are installing because they want to do multi-room streaming of video. To me, there’s a much bigger opportunity where retail and consumer-installed equipment is a reality.