More than two years ago, we tested several HomePlug products and were impressed with the powerline networking technology. We wrote several articles on our tests and created a HomePlug section on our website. HomePlug products are selling well in Europe; they have not done nearly as well in the US marketplace, where they have been overwhelmed by Wi-Fi.
The HomePlug Powerline Alliance is nearing completion of its next-generation HomePlug AV, and recently started working on specs for broadband over powerline (BPL). Intellon--the largest producer of HomePlug chips--has announced a higher-speed version of its first-generation chips. Corinex has done very well with HomePlug in Europe. So we thought it a good time to catch up with key people at all three to get an update.
HomePlug AV and BPL
We recently interviewed three officers of the HomePlug Alliance: Oleg Logvinov is the Alliance President, and also President and CEO of Arkados, a subsidiary of CDKNet.com. Jim Reeber is Director of Marketing at Arkados and chairs the HomePlug Marketing Working Group. Brian Wenger is a Principal Research Engineer at Earthlink and chairs the HomePlug BPL group. We met with Oleg and Brian and talked several times on the phone with all three.
The Alliance has been working on HomePlug AV for a long time. Its announcement two years ago said AV would be "designed to support distribution of data and multi-stream entertainment including High Definition television (HDTV) and Standard Definition television (SDTV) throughout the home." AV would provide the "best solution for high quality video distribution, with secure connectivity at the highest quality of service possible, at a cost that is competitive with other home networking alternatives" and "will also coexist with HomePlug 1.0." The AV spec was "expected to be completed in 18 to 24 months, with integrated circuits and consumer products available thereafter."
Oleg said that the AV spec is nearing internal release and he expects public release "early in the first quarter of 2005." AV operates at 200 Mbps using OFDM (like current Wi-Fi) and "advanced FEC". It includes a mechanism for "guaranteed QoS" (see the accompanying article on DLNA) using TDMA to provide "contention free" transport for multiple streams of high-definition television.
Jim said several companies are working on AV chips, including Arkados, Conexant and Intellon, and "we'll see these chips not long after the specs." Although the specs will not have been released in time for CES (the first week of January), Jim thought we'd see some early AV products on the show floor, and we'll be watching for them.
Oleg said one of the main applications for AV will be "whole home PVR": "It's a huge driver to move the AV system from one part of the house to another, especially as the number of TVs in the home increases." MovieLink and CinemaNow already make it possible to download movies to a PC, and HomePlug AV will make it possible to move it from the PC to a TV anywhere in the house.
Next-generation wireless networking such as ultra wideband and IEEE 802.11n--the next generation of Wi-Fi--have the same goals as AV: speeds of 100 Mbps or higher, QoS, support for HDTV. We asked Oleg to compare wireless and powerline for video: "802.11n will have better security and QoS than 802.11g, but will it go through walls any better? UWB is designed for a single room. HomePlug will go throughout a house."
The Alliance recently started a new initiative to develop HomePlug specifications for BPL. This is a new direction for the Alliance, which has until now focused on powerline networking in the home--what the FCC calls "in-home BPL". Now it is seeking to establish standards for "access BPL": powerline networking used to carry broadband to the home, in competition with cable and DSL.
In our earlier articles on BPL--see Moving Forward with the "Third Wire"--we discussed several competing proprietary technologies being used today. These are based on several different chips and are mutually incompatible--devices made by one company don't work with systems made by another.
Power companies have already started deploying systems based on proprietary technologies, so we asked how HomePlug BPL could succeed in establishing a new standard. Brian said "Service providers want a low-cost CPE"--the device used in the home--and they understand that they'll only get that from interoperable standards such as those HomePlug is trying to create. He said DSL and cable had followed the same path: service providers deployed broadband on a small scale with proprietary technologies, but waited for interoperable standards--and low-cost CPE--for full-scale national rollouts.
We attended an IEEE BPL organizational meeting in July--as it happened, sitting next to Oleg and Brian--and learned about another compatibility problem: most of the access BPL technologies being deployed today will interfere with existing HomePlug systems installed in homes.
There is no electrical isolation between the "medium voltage" electrical wiring outside the home, and the electrical wiring inside. Broadband over cable and phone lines use different technologies outside and inside the home; the cable or DSL modem acts as an interface between the two, isolating them from each other. But BPL systems are designed to deliver the signal directly to electrical outlets in the home, and will interfere with HomePlug if it is installed. This is not much of a problem in the US, where HomePlug is installed in very few homes and power companies are moving rather slowly to deploy BPL. It is a serious problem in Europe, where HomePlug is in many more homes, and where power companies have started deploying access BPL systems.
Oleg and Brian made it clear that HomePlug's AV and BPL efforts are closely linked: "They're not two technologies separated by a brick wall. AV will be a good starting point for BPL, and we think that AV has the low-level ability to support BPL requirements." The HomePlug BPL effort will look at the higher-level requirements such as network management and control, which are quite different than those for AV. "AV is the lower layers and BPL will build on it."
AV and BPL will be designed to coexist with each other. Brian said that he expected that there would be "a year or two before large rollouts" and that HomePlug was "committed to ensure that BPL and AV will coexist and be interoperable."
We observed that CableLabs had succeeded in creating the DOCSIS standard for cable modems by having the cable operators--the bulk purchasers of modems--calling the shots. By contrast, HomePlug seems to be dominated by vendors, especially by semiconductor companies. Brian and Oleg said "We're trying to get the power companies more involved with BPL and we're talking with them. We'd like to see HomePlug involved with the utility applications" such as automated meter ready and plant monitoring, which many of the utilities see as very important application in justifying the expense of a BPL infrastructure. We note that Electricité de France (EDF)--one of Europe's biggest power utilities--is now a HomePLug member, and we assume we'll see more.
Intellon -- 85 Mbps HomePlug
Just as we started talking with the HomePlug folks about AV, we received a press release from Intellon--the biggest maker of HomePlug chips--announcing a "next-generation chipset" operating at 85 Mbps. This seemed odd, since the current generation of HomePlug 1.0 chips and devices operate at 14 Mbps, and HomePlug AV is specified for 200 Mbps. We talked with both the HomePlug team and Intellon about the new chipset to understand where it fits in the HomePlug evolution.
Oleg said that he views the 85 Mbps as "very positive. It's completely back compatible with HomePlug 1.0 and proves that HomePlug can operate at much higher speed."
We later talked on the phone with Andreas Melder, Senior VP of Sales and Marketing at Intellon. We asked why Intellon is bringing out a new chip that's well beyond the capabilities of HomePlug 1.0 but not compatible with HomePlug AV. Andy said "Technology is driven by the applications. Our customers are demanding more throughput. We can provide a more robust solution than HomePlug 1.0 but it's not a replacement for AV."
We asked Andy about throughput and applications. He said Intellon expects devices based on the new chip to have throughput "in the 20 to 25 Mbps range" compared with the 5 Mbps range of HomePlug 1.0. The new chip uses the HomePlug 1.0 QoS scheme which has four priority levels.
He said the main applications for the new chip would be whole home networking with standard-definition TV and VoIP telephony combined with data: "It's for media applications, not just for data. It will be simple to set up and use--plug it in and it's done. We are seeing a robust demand for this type of functionality. Our customers see the need for this--it will be a strong product offering."
Products based on the new chip should reach the market "by the end of Q1 or early Q2 next year." At CES, we may see it used to carry video from PVRs to flat-screen displays.
HomePlug AV will be the next step in the roadmap. Next-generation networks including high-definition television will require both higher speeds and more rigorous QoS--and this is the target market for AV. While Intellon's new chip operates at 85 Mbps, has four QoS priority levels and is based on CSMA multiplexing, AV will operate at 200 Mbps, has eight priority levels and uses TDMA for guaranteed access. "AV will take it down to the embedded market" and will be embedded in wall-mounted flat screen displays.
Corinex Communications -- Succeeding with HomePlug in Europe
A recent email from Brian Donnelly, Director of Strategic Accounts at Corinex Communications, led to an email exchange and a telephone interview.
Brian said "HomePlug is our bread and butter" and that Corinex is the HomePlug global leader - an In-Stat/MDR survey shows Corinex with a 48% market share. The company was started in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1989 and worldwide headquarters is now in Vancouver, Canada.
Brian said 80% of Corinex sales are in Europe. "Europe has taken to HomePlug more than the US. That's due to the structure of buildings: there's more concrete and less wood. It's hard to pull cables, and wireless doesn't go through the walls well."
He said "distribution is not a retail play. We work with integrators and distributors, and they use our Open Powerline Management software as a tool to manage their customer's networks. Corinex is not the price leader, but our products work a little better than the competitors. We have the broadest product line, with a dozen HomePlug products."
Corinex makes a complete range of HomePlug 1.0 products, including desktop and wallmount Ethernet and USB adapters. These are very similar to the products we tested and reported on in Home Networking - HomePlug Evaluation two years ago. Brian says Corinex products have performed better than others in independent tests, but we have not (yet) had a chance to evaluate them for ourselves.
Corinex makes a router combining Ethernet and HomePlug, and also makes a "Wireless to Powerline Access Point". The latter uses the home's powerline wiring to provide a "backbone" for home networking, and 802.11b wireless to reach devices that are not normally plugged in to wall outlets.
Corinex recently announced a "Wireless to Powerline Router G" combining the router and access point. It incorporates three forms of home networking: Ethernet, HomePlug and 54 Mbps 802.11g wireless. The new router is designed for managed networks, with full support for 802.1x, 802.11i and RADIUS server. It has an SPI firewall, 802.1Q VLAN support and 802.1P QoS. While this will be installed in consumer homes, it's clearly designed to be managed by a service provider.
In addition to its HomePlug products, Corinex has also started making VoIP products. It is shipping a USB phone -- a VoIP handset which includes software support for many different VoIP systems including Skype and Free World Dialup.
Many more products are in the works. Brian has promised to ship us some samples, and we're looking forward to playing with them in our home and reporting on them.