Lack of interoperability stunts powerline growth

Sending data over powerlines is being hampered by competing standards

The lack of interoperability in powerline networking products used in homes is dramatically slowing down potential growth, industry leaders said during a panel discussion at the International Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas earlier this month.

“If we had interoperability the market would be a lot larger than it is,” said Kartik Gada, product manager for Netgear. Even though Netgear has a dominant position at least at the retail end of powerline networking, the company would prefer it if all powerline networking products interoperated, he told the audience. “We’d rather have 30% of a larger pie than 90% of a smaller one,” he said.

Powerline networking allows users to plug adaptors into regular power outlets in order to send data and video over existing power lines.

Around seven million powerline chips that comply with one of the standards, HomePlug, have shipped, estimates Andy Melder, senior vice president of sales, marketing and business development for Intellon, a powerline chipmaker. “That’s a trickle compared to wi-fi,” he noted.

Wi-fi also initially had multiple groups vying to create a standard but the current implementation quickly won out. “Wi-fi didn’t take off until there was awareness and it became a standard capability in laptops,” said Mark Nietubye, global marketing director for Siemens’ Home and Office Communications Devices division.

Universal Powerline Association (UPA) is another powerline specification that isn’t compatible with HomePlug.

The lack of interoperability of powerline networking products is closing the door to one important potential distributor of products: operators. IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) service providers are offering powerline adaptors to customers but they’re doing so cautiously. “If service providers aren’t satisfied that there’s interoperability they won’t be comfortable deploying powerline distribution systems,” Siemens’ Nietubye said. Operators are worried that customers will go to retail outlets to buy additional powerline adapters that don’t work with those distributed by the operator and then ask the customer service help from the operator.

The panellists were clearly frustrated with the interoperability issues, but they don’t see a way forward. While several international standards organisations are working on powerline projects, such groups are notorious for spending many years working through the process. “As time ticks [away], other technologies aren’t going to stand still,” said Nietubye.

Some companies are also involved in the Consumer Electronics Powerline Communication Alliance, a group working on ways to ensure that HomePlug and UPA can co-exist.

“Co-existence is better than clashing,” said Victor Dominguez, director of strategy and standardisation for Design of Systems on Silicon SA (DS2), a powerline chipmaker. Without a plan for co-existence, some products just won’t work at all when paired with non-compatible products. But the downside to the co-existence idea is that it degrades performance, said Melder.

Interoperability isn’t the only thing holding back the growth of powerline networking. Price and quality of service issues are also barriers to growth, said Robert Stead, vice president of marketing for SiConnect. A pair of powerline networking adaptors costs far more than most wi-fi products and about the same as wi-fi products based on 802.11n, the most recent and fastest standard.

In New Zealand, Vector called off a trial of PLC (powerline communications) technology in 2004, after it was determined that a wider rollout wouldn’t be commercially viable. A small number of Vector customers on Auckland’s North Shore were involved in the trial.

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Tags interoperabilityNetworking & Telecomms IDpowerlines

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