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The battle for the next generation

The next generation of powerline networking technology is currently the battleground of two competing standards: the IEEE's 1901 and the International Telecom Union's (ITU) G.hn.

The moans of radio hams notwithstanding, powerline networking is seen by some as a key technology for the connected home. The wiring is there, and there's none of the bother you get with wireless: crowded airwaves and low-signal spots.

Powerline is also a foundation technology for "smart grids": intelligent power supply networks able to monitor and control energy usage in the home, the better to reduce energy consumption.

Both G.hn and 1901 have their supporters, but they're all keen to avoid a format war - a universal standard would allow the technology to gain broad support from IT and CE companies.

Ironically, 1901 as originally conceived included support for G.hn, an arguably better solution because it uses a single physical interface (PHY) and a single logical layer (MAC) for all three transport systems - power lines, phone lines and coaxial cables - it and 1901 operate over, whereas 1901 has separate MACs and PHYs for all the wired technologies is incorporates.

That, however, ensures backward compatibility, not least with HomePlug AV, the most popular powerline technology so far.

1901 no longer incorporates G.hn, which is backed by the HomeGrid Forum, an organisation that numbers Intel, Panasonic, Sigma Designs and Texas Instruments among its members. The chief cheerleader for 1901 is the HomePlug Alliance, but it's becoming a battle of the chip makers.

Atheros acquired Intellon, the pre-eminent HomePlug chip maker, in September 2009. In July this year, Marvell bought up the remains of Spanish semiconductor company DS2, which was the key designer of G.hn silicon. More recently, Broadcom bought Gigle, a firm that makes non-standard Gigabit powerline chippery, as used by the likes of Belkin in its Gigabit powerline products.

All three purchasers see value in integrating powerline technology into their wireless products, and all three tout such benefits as improved network set-up and faster media streaming - which are exactly what the IEEE claims P1905.1 will enable. ®

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