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Is Wi-Fi too unreliable? Powerline networking may be what you need

Tyler Lacoma

Wi-Fi doesn’t always work. Thankfully, Wi-Fi isn’t the only way to spread an Internet connection around your house. There’s also a thing called Powerline Ethernet, which functions as an alternative networking option that may be just what you’re looking for.

Okay, what is Powerline networking?

Powerline networking is a technology that’s used to communicate data through the electrical wiring in your house. That may sound a little strange, but the process is actually quite simple, as long as the right protocols are in place. When installed, it can provide a wired Internet connection to devices that Wi-Fi can’t reach. This is why Powerline tech is usually considered an alternative to Wi-Fi.

Related: Transform your Wi-Fi from awful to awesome by moving your router and its antennas

While Powerline setups can grow as large as the building they’re used in, most Powerline solutions start with just two small devices — the adapters. The first device plugs into an outlet (wall outlets only, Powerline adapters do not play well with surge protectors) and connects to your router. The second adapter plugs into an outlet near the device you want to connect to the Internet.

That first adapter takes the Ethernet protocol used by your router and turns it into a Powerline protocol, using electrical signals to transmit data through the wiring in your house to the second device. The second adapter takes the Powerline protocol and turns it back into an Ethernet signal. Connect an Ethernet cable to the second adapter, and you can provide a wired network connection without an Ethernet cord between the two devices.

Powerline networking works with all devices that can connect to the Internet through an Ethernet cable. There are also neat behind-the-scenes tricks that the Powerline protocols pull off. Each adapter can work with the others to create a sort of digital map of discovered stations and their connections, for example, which is useful for network management.

Currently the best Powerline protocol on the market is HomePlug AV2, a more flexible iteration of the older HomePlug standard that’s designed to increase speeds, extend coverage, and provide a sleep mode in order to reduce power, among other notable features. If you’re shopping for Powerline adapters (more on this later), always remember to look for the latest protocol, because there’s a large increase in quality between generations.

Why is it useful?

Since Wi-Fi is used across the world and throughout homes, businesses, and even street sidewalks, it obviously works. So, why do we need another way to connect to the Internet? Because there are situations where Powerline Ethernet connections are more useful. The big benefits include:

  • Saving money on installations: Suppose you have a device – say, a TV – that can connect to the Internet with a wired Ethernet connection, but it doesn’t have Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, your router is on the other side of the room. You can run Ethernet cables through your walls or under your carpet if you want to, but this takes time and you’ll have to buy a lot of cable. Purchasing a pair of Powerline adapters is a faster and often more affordable solution.
  • Solving Wi-Fi woes: There are some places that Wi-Fi cannot reach reliably. Heavy interference or extra-large houses may make it too difficult to use a wireless connection. In these cases, Powerline adapters can supplement Wi-Fi networks or help provide one-on-one solutions for devices that really need a wired connection. This may also help with other problems, like spotty streaming or slow speeds that you would like to improve.
  • Easy setup: Powerline networking is easy to install. You can do it by yourself in just a few minutes. If there’s only one or two devices in your home that need the Internet, Powerline may be the most consumer-friendly solution for you.

Relared: ‘No Wi-Fi beyond this point’: New tech could block access based on location

Is Powerline better than Wi-Fi?

Router Header 2

Piotr Adamowicz/123RF

By now, you may have stopped to think, “Wait, if Powerline has all these benefits, why do I even have Wi-Fi in my house? Is Powerline better?” That’s a good question, because it’s difficult to answer. Powerline isn’t better, however, it’s different.

Wi-Fi networks provide a lot of efficiencies, so when compared to setting up multiple adapters all around your house for every device, a Wi-Fi router is probably a less expensive option. This, and the added flexibility of a wireless signal, are major reasons why Wi-Fi is the go-to service.

However, when it comes to performance, both Powerline networking and Wi-Fi are about equal. Each struggles with interference and range problems – yes, electrical signals can degrade over time, especially with older wiring. The latest HomePlug AV2 standard operates between 30 and 86MHz and has the ability to handle Gigabit Internet speeds, which is enough for HD streaming and gaming if your Internet service is that fast to begin with. This may be faster or slower than what you are used to, depending on your Wi-Fi experiences, but it’s usually a bit slower than today’s average Wi-Fi router. Wi-Fi networks may be more susceptible to interference, but Powerline adapters take up more outlet space. There’s a similar give and take for other features.

There are also hybrid Powerline adapters that can create their own Wi-Fi hotspots to extend the range of a Wi-Fi signal. Sadly, that’s a lot of protocol switching between electrical wiring, wireless bands, and Ethernet cables, so speed and data quality may suffer using this method.

Is it secure?

Electrical signals can be hacked, just like eavesdropping on a Wi-Fi signal is possible. This is why it’s important to pick Powerline adapters with the best encryption technology available to Powerline (currently 128-bit AES). Adapters usually come with security buttons that, when activated, encrypt communications. Make sure these buttons are always on.

Top Powerline adapters

Netgear Powerline 1200 ($81)

Netgear Powerline 1200 Gall

This Powerline adapter occupies a sweet spot between price and features. It offers noise-filtered power outlets and speeds up to 1,200Mbps, which should be sufficient for nearly any internet activity. However, keep in mind that the 1,200Mbps rating is only the top speed that the adapter can reach. Real world speeds – particularly for Powerline connections – tend to be significantly lower than that. However, even with this grain of salt, the Netgear adapter has a reputation for keeping speeds as high as possible, so you probably don’t need to worry.

Like all the best Powerline adapters, this model comes as a starter kit containing two adapters. One adapter isn’t going to do you much good, is it?

Buy it now from:

Amazon Best Buy Dell Newegg

Zyxel PLA5456KIT 1800 AV2000 ($82)

Zyxel PLA5456KIT 1800 AV2000

If you like the idea of a Powerline solution but you really want to ensure the highest speeds for gaming or entertainment, then this Zyxel model may be your best bet. It’s a little pricey, but it has a max speed rating of 1,800Mbps, making it one of the faster adapters around. Note that, like the Netgear model, it also comes with two Ethernet ports per device.

Buy it now from:

Amazon  Newegg

TP-Link TL-PA4010KIT Nano ($35)

TP-Link TL-PA4010KIT Nano

Maybe you have an idea for a limited use of Powerline networking to solve a specific problem, but you really don’t want to pay much for it. This TP-Link model is popular for that very reason. It’s only rated at 500Mbps and comes with just one Ethernet port per adapter, but it offers secure encryption and the price considerably lower than other models. Keep in mind that this isn’t a great connection for HD streaming or gaming, but it will work for traditional internet use.

Buy it now from:

Amazon Best Buy Newegg Office Depot Walmart