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Taking another stab at home networking over power lines

October 25, 2010 | 11:24 am

CG5111 High Res Photo The advent of WiFi was a boon to home computer users, but the consumer electronics industry keeps searching for a more idiot-proof and higher-performing home-network solution -- something that can transmit multiple HDTV streams throughout a home, yet doesn't require anyone to read an owner's manual. Technologies that use a home's power lines to carry Internet traffic have seemed promising in the past -- after all, every electronic device in the home has to be near an outlet -- but the public never really embraced them. They simply didn't work well enough in too many homes with complex internal wiring or (electronically) noisy appliances.

So chip makers and telecommunications companies went back to the drawing board, coming up with yet another standard for power-line networking: Today, Sigma Designs announced what it says is the first chipset for products, which boast top connection speeds of more than 1 gigabit per second. The chips will be available early next year, with products based on those chips coming by the end of 2011, said Michael Weissman, a marketing vice president for the company.

In addition to offering significantly more bandwidth than WiFi or HomePlug AV (the current version of power-line networking equipment), Sigma Designs' chips ...

... do a much better job overcoming the problems caused by interference and multiple circuits within a home, Weissman said. "We can get up to five times higher throughput" than HomePlug AV, he said.

HomeGrid, the trade group pushing, is rich in chip manufacturers -- the promoters include Intel, Sigma Designs and Texas Instruments -- but lists only one major consumer electronics company, Panasonic, among its backers. So it's not clear how much support the technology will receive from the folks whose brands populate the living room. Still, Weissman says the vision is to have the technology built directly into TV sets, Blu-ray players and other devices so that they can connect to a home network as soon as their power cord is plugged in. In other words, it's a no-new-wires solution, just like WiFi.

That's an attractive promise. One potential problem, though, is the number of Internet-ready TVs, stereos and other devices that are already in homes and on store shelves that don't have built-in They'd have to rely on adapters, just like HomePlug AV does. And in my experience with HomePlug AV, the problem hasn't been the bandwidth. It's been the complexity of connecting multiple devices to a router through an Ethernet adapter.

Like many other people with more geeky enthusiasm than sense, I've brought a series of gadgets into my living room that were designed to bring the Internet to my television or my stereo. The signal from the 802.11G router in my kitchen fades before it reaches the TV set, so I use a HomePlug AV adapter from Netgear to turn the wall outlet behind my TV into an Ethernet jack. That, in turn, is connected to an Ethernet switch that feeds my Blu-ray player, my Sezmi digital video recorder and a PC.

The switch has proved to be a nightmarish experience, incapable of working with my online music player from Logitech and many of the devices I've brought in to test. And as geeky as I may be, it's becoming mainstream behavior to have multiple devices in the living room that connect to the Web -- think game consoles, connected TVs and Roku players in addition to the devices that fill my entertainment center. Netgear makes a pricier version of the adapter with four Ethernet ports, but it's easy to imagine needing more than that.

Sigma Designs' new chips will be compatible with a variety of other networking technologies, including HomePlug AV and HomePNA. That'll help. But the main hurdle to adoption, it seems to me, is the growing crowd of connected devices in the home that don't have built in already. I'm eager to get rid of my moody Ethernet switch, but I'm not going to buy a new TV, Blu-ray player and Sezmi box in order to do so.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.