Strengthen Your Wireless Network

by Joseph Moran

Sometimes your Wi-Fi connection needs a little help. If you must overcome space, physical barriers or interference, the HomePlug Ethernet Adapter lets you extend your network using ordinary power outlets.

If you run your business out of your home and plan on setting up a network for the first time — or expanding an existing one — installing inexpensive and ubiquitous Wi-Fi (802.11-based WLAN) equipment is a logical choice.

Therefore, at first glance it might be hard to see why a product like the Actiontec 14Mbps HomePlug Ethernet Adapter — which transmits data over existing electrical wiring — might be of any interest.

But in spite of Wi-Fi's undeniable appeal, there may often be instances where it's signal might need a little help. If the area you're trying to network is exceedingly large, contains a large number of physical barriers, or significant sources of RF interference, some parts of your home or property may not receive reliable wireless signals. You can often overcome this with stronger radios or high-gain or directional antennas, but this can result in a lot of extra expense and tweaking to keep the amplified signal within a desired footprint).

 Actiontec 14Mbps HomePlug Ethernet Adapter

For situations where an area can't easily receive good quality wireless signals, Actiontec's $129.99 HomePlug Ethernet Adapter lets you extend an existing Ethernet network using the power outlets found on virtually every wall of your home.

The Basics
Like all products based on the HomePlug specification, the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet Adapter provides 14Mbps of throughput. Of course, you won't see that level of performance any more than you would see 11 Mbps from 802.11b or 54Mbps from 802.11g. Like those wireless technologies, the best possible throughput from HomePlug will typically amount to roughly half of that theoretical maximum splashed across the box.

Actiontec's kit consists of two adapters — one that connects to your existing router and one for the device you want to network. Each adapter plugs directly into an AC outlet, and since they're two-pronged devices, they don't need to be plugged into grounded outlets.

The adapters connect to the Ethernet port on a router or PC's Ethernet port, so they don't require any drivers. Each adapter has two status lights — one for power and one for link — though chances are you won't be consulting them often, especially since the adapters are likely to be plugged in near the floor or behind a desk.

Setup Is a Snap
In large part due to this lack of drivers, getting the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet Adapter kit up and running out of the box was both quick and easy. Plug an adapter into a power outlet and connect it to your router via CAT5 cables (which are included), and within a few moments the adapter will obtain a DHCP address. Repeating the process with the second adapter and an Ethernet-equipped PC establishes IP communication between the two adapters and links the PC to the Internet.

After getting a HomePlug network up and running with such ease, you might be tempted to celebrate a job well done and start using the network. But as with wireless networks, you need to attend to a few performance and security matters first. You configure the settings using the included utility.

Security Is a Concern
Just like the air in a wireless network, it turns out that electrical wiring is a shared medium, which makes security an important consideration when using the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet Adapter. This is because the data signal doesn't stop at your circuit breaker — rather, it terminates only when it reaches the nearest transformer. As such, there's a good chance your data signal will travel to one or more nearby homes, (this is virtually guaranteed in an apartment building), and thus anyone similarly equipped with HomePlug devices could access your network.

To guard against this, you create a password to encrypt (with 56-bit DES) communication between all the HomePlug devices you specify. You can choose which devices to include by entering its unique 16 character alphanumeric ID (separate from its MAC address) into the configuration utility.

Actual Performance May Vary
The underlying quality of the electrical wiring affects HomePlug performance, as does EMI (electromagnetic interference) generated by devices that are either plugged into an outlet or directly wired into a circuit. For starters, plugging into a surge suppressor or UPS is not recommended since it may limit performance or prevent connectivity altogether.

Therefore, actual throughput varies depending in to which outlet you plug the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet adapter. When you launch Actiontec's configuration utility, a status bar appears to help you gauge network performance. The length and color of the bars conveys the quality of the link — green, yellow and red for excellent, fair and poor, respectively). The utility will also report a data rate analogous to that of a wireless connection (i.e., 14 Mbps when signal is at full strength and quality).

In our testing, we experienced performance variations as we moved the Actiontec HomePlug Adapter between a half-dozen locations. Using Ixia's QCheck utility to measure throughput, the best performance was about 5.5 Mbps (reflecting a 12.95 Mbps data rate). Conversely, the worst performance, in a room that was an add-on with an extension of an existing electrical circuit, was about 1 Mbps (reflecting a 2.95 Mbps data rate).

Suitable for All But The Most Demanding Tasks
With its extremely easy setup, the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet adapter is a good option for networking devices when a wireless connection isn't possible or desirable. Due to best-case performance roughly comparable to 802.11b, it won't be suitable for bandwidth-intensive tasks like streaming video and of course it can't compete with today's 802.11g WLANs. Nevertheless, most people will probably find it suitable for typical PC tasks like browsing and e-mail, as well as for devices like printers or scanners.

Price: $129.99 (includes two adapters)

Pros: Easy setup and configuration
Cons: Performance only comparable to 802.11b WLAN

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday May 3rd 2005
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