IPTV/VoD: solving the home wiring problem

PLC unplugged

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Video needs a fat, stable connection, and wireless is useless for PCs, let alone for set-top boxes. Despite innovative technologies like those offered by Ruckus (based on sectoring and directional transmission control), thick walls, connection dropping, weak security, difficult configuration, interference and instability mean that for the foreseeable future this method of communication can only be used for PCs and browsing the internet. Using it as part of a hybrid distribution model is safe enough. Disregard and distrust anyone who says otherwise, as they clearly have never rolled out an IPTV network in anyone's house other than their own. Unless your wireless access point is in the same room as your TV and PC, you will struggle.

Messy cabling is the reason that the other options are not feasible – despite being cheap, LAN cabling (either 10/100 Cat-5 or GigE Cat-6), telephone wiring or coax cabling in a house that does not already have it installed is a nightmare of proportions most service providers cannot even bear to contemplate. If you’re married, you shouldn’t expect to be if you uproot your better half’s delicate interior design balance with thick Ethernet cabling.

If you are feeling defiant and own the property you live in, pick an unimportant wall and attempt to channel a hole through for holding new wiring (also with easy maintenance in mind too), and spend an afternoon proving the rest of us wrong. It will take 10mins before you accept that there is a distinct problem in adapting your home for high-speed broadband connectivity. Not every room will allow you to gracefully add to cable to it so it's effectively invisible.

Then what is the solution to this most integral of problems? Without fiber or Cat-6 already installed it is Ethernet-over-powerline, or PLC (powerline communication) technology. PLC products create an Ethernet network over your existing electricity cabling in your home without any need for additional hackery. This is accomplished by using adaptors that require no software drivers and simply plug into normal electricity/AC sockets in any room.

Each adaptor has an Ethernet socket on it from which you attach a standard Cat-5 network cable. To enable a very simple IPTV setup, one adaptor is plugged into the same double-plug electricity socket as the router (and also connected by network wire to the broadband router/switch), which instantly creates a local area network all over the house that any other device can now access with another adaptor. PLC adaptor number two is then popped behind the TV (probably in a plug board), and connected to the IP set-top box again by Ethernet cable.

PLC technology has an unfortunate legacy reputation from its shaky history. It suffers stigma and preconception which sadly does not reflect the extraordinary effort that has gone into making it such an amazing product. Its bigger brother, wide-area broadband-over-power lines (BPL) failed to take off as a competitor to ADSL and was ditched by almost every electricity company that tried to market it. Early products suffered from reliability issues that plague all disruptive new technology. Infamous stories of network connections dropping when fridges where opened and being very unreceptive to power-surging did little to help take-up of the fledgling product.

The good news is that nowadays, huge amounts of work have been undertaken to stabilise and standardise the technology. It's simply the most graceful and effective home wiring solution currently in existence, and the greatest morphine for wiring headaches. PLC adaptors require no install, no software drivers, and when you plug them in, they just work both transparently and flawlessly. Even the smallest of children and the stupidest of customers can install it.

Once one is plugged into a wall socket, a local area connection with broadband internet connectivity is available in every room in the house. They even feature built-in military-strength encryption as standard, unlike wireless. Nothing in technology is ever perfect, but PLC is proving to be a very close match to exactly what ISPs need.

There are many flavours of PLC technology and the respective bodies that are involved in managing industry standards (IEEE, Opera, UPA, HomePlug, ETSI etc), but the two most prominent are The HomePlug Powerline Alliance and Universal Powerline Association. Both organisations have a different chipset supplier that is the main manufacturer for their published standard – HomePlug technology is mostly made by the California-based Intellon, and UPA’s by DS2, headquartered in Spain.

Both create OEM chips that make networks capable of 200Mbps access, twice the speed of a normal Ethernet LAN. DS2’s technology has recently been adopted by Netgear, primarily due to the delay in ratifying the 200Mbps HomePlug AV standard. Most products that are already known (such as those offered by Devolo, who control 85 per cent of the European market) tend to be based on the HomePlug 1.0 standard, which offers 14Mbps in normal mode and 85Mbps in "turbo" mode.

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