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Sun 19 Jan 2003 04:00 AM

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The next big networking thing?

Just when you think you are up to speed with technology, along comes something that just makes you think ‘someone could make a lot of money with this.’

Just when you think you are up to speed with technology, along comes something that just makes you think ‘someone could make a lot of money with this.’

It’s one of the great things about working in IT—nothing is ever set in stone, and there is always something just around the corner.

The latest innovation to catch my eye is powerline networking—using the electricity lines in an office or home to carry data.

The idea itself is not new, in fact the electricity companies have been sending data via the power lines for decades, to provide them with alerts on line problems and so on.

Powerline networking has even been tried commercially in the past twenty or so years, without much success, but now the pundits are suggesting that the technology may be ready for the mainstream.

Elements of the technology have been standardised, and prices are being pushed down, making powerline networking a real possibility—and its target is the networking market’s current ‘big thing’—wireless.

Depending on the hardware, setting up a powerline network can be as straightforward as plugging a network cable or USB cable attached to a hub into your PC, and then plugging the powerline hub into the mains.

Data is carried along the power cables, at a different frequency from the electricity itself so interference is minimal, and is available from any power outlet on the same local power infrastructure. Like wireless, it means there is no need for expensive cabling, and also like wireless, set up is simple and quick.

Unlike wireless however, signal quality is not impeded by distance or thick walls, and there is no security risk of hackers snooping on your network from outside the building.

Of course, there are limitations, and so far no one has addressed the different power systems around the world, the technology is focused on the US. There are still questions over the quality of signal, possible interference with metering data that is already on the network and about the safety of messing about with 240 volt power cables.

Also power transformers—you would normally find one servicing every few homes or an office building—will scramble the signal, making powerline only feasible for within one location, rather than global networking. For shared office buildings or home users the system needs some sort of encryption or other security measures, because any power outlet on the same system can be used to receive data.

For home users especially though, the idea of just plugging a PC into the mains to get networked, without the configuration of wireless LAN is a hugely attractive proposition.

Whether powerline networking can be made to work as an effective alternative to existing networking options remains to be seen—as ever there are many factors that could sink the technology before it is ever launched, but, as ever, before the current ‘hot cakes’ have started selling, the IT industry is looking for a new recipe.

More information on powerline networking is available here: http://www.informationweek.com/story/IWK20030108S0003

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