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Home Networking: The Missing Manual by Scott Lowe

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Chapter 4. Setting Up a Powerline Network

Ethernet and WiFi tend to hog all the networking glory, but there’s a third way of linking your computers, and it’s gaining some attention in the home-networking industry. Powerline networks use the electrical wiring already in your home to link your computers together.

In this chapter, you’ll learn about Powerline’s nuts and bolts and how to install a Powerline network in your home. If you’ve already done some networking but were stymied on how to extend your network into some hard-to-reach spot—the basement or an attic office, for example—you’ll learn how to add Powerline onto your existing Ethernet or WiFi network.

Note

You might sometimes see Powerline referred to as HomePlug—that’s the name of the official networking standard all Powerline devices use. To make matters worse, some hardware makers pile on even more monikers by slapping their own names, such as HomeLink or PlugLink, on their Powerline products.

Deciding If Powerline Is Right for You

Powerline is an impressive and easy-to-use network technology, but it’s a little different from Ethernet and WiFi, the current networking champs. While Powerline devices can theoretically work all by themselves, most companies have focused their energy on developing products that work with your existing network’s Ethernet or wireless router. In practice, most people use Powerline as a supplement to the main network, sort of like adding a room over the garage to get more living space in your house. Figure 4-1 shows a typical Powerline network setup.

Now that you know what a typical Powerline setup looks like, here are a few points to consider before deciding whether Powerline’s for you:

  • Powerline’s good for extending your network to hard-to-reach spots. If your PCs are spread far and wide across your house (say, greater than 150 feet apart, which is too far for WiFi to reach, or would require an unsightly mass of Ethernet cables), Powerline’s a great alternative.

  • Powerline’s not the fastest network on the block. With a maximum speed of 14 megabits per second (Mbps)—compared to Ethernet’s current standard of 100 Mbps—Powerline networks aren’t exactly going to win the Indianapolis 500 of networking technologies. And that’s the theoretical maximum speed—in reality, a Powerline network will probably coast along at 5 to 8 Mbps. These speeds are fine for low-bandwidth tasks like surfing the Web and email, but you’ll likely get frustrated by speed lags and slow performance if you try to use your Powerline network for muscular chores like copying large files between computers or streaming digital movies.

    Note

    When your power system is hindered, Powerline automatically falls back to speeds as slow as 1 Mbps, which is probably slower than your broadband Internet connection. Surge protectors, uninterruptible power supplies, electrical interference filters for stereo equipment, drills, hairdryers, and microwave ovens can also create harsh conditions on your electrical system that results in poor Powerline network performance.

    Powerline’s great for linking two or more desktop computers that are located in different rooms of a big house. (See the section “Going Hybrid?” for more information on combining networking options.)
    Figure 4-1. Powerline’s great for linking two or more desktop computers that are located in different rooms of a big house. (See the section “Going Hybrid?” for more information on combining networking options.)
  • You can’t use more than 16 Powerline devices on your network. Powerline’s technical standard limits the number of devices you can pile on your power lines to 16. This 16-and-under restriction probably won’t affect a family home network, but could put a crimp in the plans of someone trying to set up a small office network with Powerline equipment. (In contrast, the wired Ethernet networks described in Chapter 2 have no limit on the number of computers that can connect.)

Picking Out Powerline Hardware

If you’re still game, you’re going to need to bring three things to the Powerline setup party: a Powerline network adapter, a router, and some cables.

Powerline Network Adapters

Like every type of network, Powerline requires the use of network adapters (Section 1.1)—sometimes also called bridge adapters—that let your computer to talk to the Internet and to other computers hanging out on the network. If you’ve been reading this book from the beginning, you know that Powerline adapters (Figure 4-2) look a bit different than those used by Ethernet and WiFi networks.

At the top back of this Powerline network adapter are the prongs that you plug into an electrical outlet. You plug a cable into the Ethernet port (which is not visible in this photo), which then lets you connect the adapter to a PC or a router.
Figure 4-2. At the top back of this Powerline network adapter are the prongs that you plug into an electrical outlet. You plug a cable into the Ethernet port (which is not visible in this photo), which then lets you connect the adapter to a PC or a router.

Powerline network adapters come in two varieties: Ethernet and USB. Both versions use their respective cable types to plug into the appropriate port on your computer. (If your computer doesn’t have an Ethernet port, check out Section 2.1.3, which tells you how to open up your system and install one.) Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a Powerline adapter that you can install inside your computer. You always have to use a Powerline-to-Ethernet or Powerline-to-USB adapter. If you do have an Ethernet port on your PC, you’ll want to use the Ethernet Powerline adapter, because it’s speedier than its USB counterpart.

Note

Most Powerline equipment is Windows-only. While this factoid is not much of a problem for 95 percent of the world, it tends to depress Mac people. Luckily for them, though, a company called SMC Networks (www.smc.com) is now making Powerline networking equipment that works with all-Macintosh networks. Macwireless.com also has some Mac-friendly Powerline devices (search under “Powerline”).

You always need to have at least two Powerline network adapters on your network. You need one for each computer you want to connect to the network, and you also need a Powerline adapter to connect to the Ethernet port on your router. The Powerline adapter you connect to your router has to be of the Ethernet persuasion, but it doesn’t matter whether the router you’re plugging into is wireless (Chapter 3) or plain-old Ethernet (Chapter 2)—either way, both work with Powerline.

Note

Powerline adapters don’t work well with electrical power strips, uninterruptible power supplies, and most surge protectors, because this equipment sometimes filters out the high-end frequencies on your electrical network—which is the range Powerline uses to transmit your network’s data. Always connect Powerline equipment directly to an electrical outlet for best results.

Sockets with surge protection right on the outlet (look for the little colored button marked Reset if you’re not sure if you have a protected outlet) render your Powerline device useless. Belkin (www.belkin.com), however, does make a Powerline-friendly surge protector that you may want to check out.

Powerline network adapter shopping list

Remember, you’ll need at least two Powerline adapters—one for your router and one for every computer you plan to connect to the Powerline network. Here are a few models from some popular manufacturers.

Note

Mac mavens, listen up: in the list below, only the SMC EZ Powerline adapter includes encryption software that you can turn on directly from a Mac. The encryption software that comes with other adapters works on a Mac, but you’ve got to activate it from a Windows machine (Section 4.4 tells you everything you need to know about securing your Powerline network). Bottom line: if you’re living in a Mac-only household, buy your gear from SMC. If you’ve got a mix of Macs and PCs, then you can buy from any Powerline manufacturer.

  • SMC EZ Connect Powerline-to-Ethernet (or USB) adapter (Windows and Mac friendly): $50 each

  • Linksys PLUSB10 USB Powerline adapter (Windows only): $65

  • Linksys PLEBR10 Ethernet Powerline adapter (Windows only): $65

  • Netgear XE102 Ethernet Powerline adapter (Windows only): $50

  • D-Link DHP100 Ethernet Powerline adapter (Windows only): $50

A Router with a Built-in Ethernet Switch

Routers (Section 1.1) are the traffic cops of every home network. They help distribute your Internet connection among all the computers on your network. As you learned earlier in this chapter, Powerline device manufacturers have pretty much decided that it doesn’t make sense to make a Powerline-only router. Instead, if you’ve decided to use Powerline, you need to first get yourself an Ethernet or a WiFi router (make sure whichever you get comes with a built-in switch, which most do nowadays). Ethernet router details await you on Section 2.1; check out page Section 2.4 for a quick primer on WiFi routers.

Cables

You need two different kinds of cables when using Powerline:

  • The electrical power lines behind your walls, which you can’t really change without potentially electrocuting yourself. Powerline network adapters use the electrical wires in your walls to communicate with the router and the computers on your network.

  • A USB or USB cable that connects the Powerline network adapter to your computer or router. If you buy an Ethernet Powerline adapter, make sure you have a standard Ethernet cable (Section 2.1.3.1) to connect the network adapter to the computer’s Ethernet port. If you’ve got a USB Powerline adapter—you guessed it—you need a USB cable.

Cable shopping list

You can find USB cables in just about any computer shop or office-supply store, in varying lengths (prices vary by how long the cable is, but expect to pay between $10 and $20). You can even find them at Wal-Mart, which is one of the few places in America where you can buy frozen waffles, a bathrobe, Turtle Wax, and computer-networking supplies all under one roof.

Ethernet cable pricing also depends on the length of the cable. Big-chain computer stores may charge you $25 to $35 for a measly 10 feet of cable, but you can find the same length of cord for anywhere from $3 to $7 if you carefully scout the Web, Wal-Mart, or smaller, independent computer shops. Ethernet cable comes in several grades or categories (Section 2.1.4.1). Buy the cables marked Category 6 if you can; if you can’t Category 5 or 5e work, too.

Setting Up a Basic Powerline Network

Now that you know what goes into a Powerline network, you’re ready to learn how to set one up. By the end of this section, you’ll be able to jump on the Internet from any of the Powerline-connected computers in the house.

To get a simple Powerline network up and running so all your computers can browse the Internet at once, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure you’ve got an Ethernet or WiFi router up and running.

    Pop back to Section 2.3 for information on how to set up an Ethernet router. Section 3.4.2 tells you everything you need to know to set up a WiFi router.

  2. Buy your Powerline equipment.

    Remember that you need at least two Powerline adapters and that at least one of them has to be an Ethernet Powerline adapter for the connection to your router.

  3. In the room with the router, plug the Ethernet Powerline adapter into the electrical outlet on wall.

    Try to use an outlet close to the router to keep the amount of cables snaking through the room to a minimum.

  4. Connect the Powerline adapter to the router.

    Plug one end of an Ethernet cable into the Ethernet port on the Powerline adapter and the other end into a free Ethernet port on the router. Make sure both ends of the cable click into place to ensure a good connection.

  5. Plug a Powerline adapter into the wall next to each computer and then connect the adapter to the computer.

    In each room where there’s a computer, plug a Powerline adapter into an available electrical outlet. Connect the appropriate cable (USB or Ethernet) between the Powerline adapter and either the computer’s USB or Ethernet port.

  6. Go!

    At this point, all of your computers should be able to get to the Internet. Not too hard, eh?

Although your computers are on the Internet at this point, the data moving around your network isn’t safe from nosy neighbors. That’s because the Powerline signal could possibly “leak” out of your house via the electrical lines you share with the rest of the neighborhood (Section 4.4). This can be a big problem, especially if you live in close quarters with your neighbors, as in an apartment building. The next section shows you what you need to do to make sure you’re secure.

Securing Your Powerline Network

If you don’t want your neighbors to potentially pop onto your network, you’ll want to install the encryption software that comes with every Powerline adapter. Encryption protects your network by wrapping up all your traveling data into a package, and only you and the Powerline hardware have the key to unlock it.

Note

Without encryption, a neighbor or another tenant in your apartment building could plug a Powerline adapter into one of their own electrical outlets and be able to see everything on your network. A Powerline signal can travel more than 1,500 feet over electrical lines before becoming unusable, so people living in apartment complexes, townhouse condo communities, and neighborhoods where single family homes are shoved up against each other are particularly at risk for signal leakage.

Turning on your adapters’ encryption involves a few steps. You activate the first adapter’s encryption from any one of the PCs that you’ve just hooked up. Then, from that PC, you can activate the encryption on all the other Powerline adapters. All the Powerline adapters will use the same password, and you’ll just have to set this encryption up one time; from then on, you’ll be Powerlining with full encryption protection. Here’s how it works.

Note

The following instructions explain how to install the encryption software included with the D-Link DHP100 Ethernet-to-Powerline bridge. But if you’ve got a Powerline adapter from Netgear, IOGear, or Belkin, you’ll be going through almost exactly the same setup, because each device uses the same program to activate encryption. If you’re using a different brand, these instructions will probably work, but if not, check out the manual that came with your device.

  1. Insert the CD that came with your Powerline adapter and start the installation wizard.

    You can perform this installation from any computer on your network that’s plugged into a Powerline adapter.

  2. From the CD’s main menu, choose Install Encryption Software.

  3. Click the Next button on the next three screens.

    The first screen welcomes you to the installation process; the second screen asks you to accept the license agreement; and the third screen asks you to enter an optional user name and organization name (and lets you pick whether the software can be used just by you or by all users on your PC).

  4. Click Install to install the software.

  5. Click Finish on the next screen.

  6. Restart your PC.

    Your PC and the attached adapter are now using encryption, albeit using a standard password that anyone can get by going to D-Link’s Web site. Therefore, you’ll learn how to change the password in the next few steps. And that’s also where you’ll activate the encryption on any other PCs you’ve got that are using Powerline adapters (as well as the adapter attached to your router).

  7. Start the D-Link Configuration Utility.

    Double-click the D-Link Configuration Utility (Figure 4-3) on your desktop, or go to Start Program D-Link PLC D-Link Configuration Utility.

    Double-click the D-Link Configuration icon to start the D-Link Powerline utilities. Obviously, if you’re not using a D-Link device, you’re going to see a different icon, but you get the idea.
    Figure 4-3. Double-click the D-Link Configuration icon to start the D-Link Powerline utilities. Obviously, if you’re not using a D-Link device, you’re going to see a different icon, but you get the idea.
  8. Click the Security tab (Figure 4-4).

    Here’s where you’re going to set the password for the Powerline adapter that’s connected to your PC (as opposed to any of the other Powerline adapters out there on your network). This password is the same one that you’re going to eventually use on any other Powerline adapters that you’ve got, so make sure you write it down. Enter your new password in the box below where it says Network Password. Then click Apply, and then click OK.

  9. Click the Advanced tab.

    This is where you’re going to set the passwords for any other Powerline adapters you’ve got on your network.

    Tip

    The Advanced tab is also useful if you have a Macintosh on your network and are not using the Macfriendly SMC EZ Powerline adapter. By changing the password from a Windows computer and doing so for all your adapters at once, the adapter connected to your Mac is also updated with the new password.

  10. Write down the factory-assigned password that came with each additional Powerline adapter on your network (that is, each adapter that’s not connected to the computer you’re using right now).

    You’ll find the password on the Powerline adapter itself, and it should look something like this: MX96-DHEE-U9Y3-BXJB.

    The factory setting for the D-Link’s password is HomePlug. It’s case-sensitive, meaning that Homeplug and HomePlug are different passwords as far as the computer is concerned.
    Figure 4-4. The factory setting for the D-Link’s password is HomePlug. It’s case-sensitive, meaning that Homeplug and HomePlug are different passwords as far as the computer is concerned.
  11. Enter the device password in the Device Password text box.

    Click Add. The password appears in the Remote Password list box. Continue entering the device password for all the Powerline adapters on your network.

  12. In the Remote Password list box, select all the device passwords.

  13. In the Network Password text box, enter the password you created back in step 8. Click Set All. Then click OK, and you’re done.

Now that you’ve got your Powerline network set up and secure, surely you’re ready to do more than simply surf the Internet? Those of you with Windows machines may want to continue on to Chapter 5 for more detailed information about networking between individual PCs, while Mac readers will find Chapter 6 more illuminating. If you’ve got a houseful of both systems, Chapter 7 is your next stop. But before you move on, you may be interested in learning about other ways that Powerline can work with Ethernet and WiFi networks.

Going Hybrid?

The basic Powerline setup you learned about in this chapter is not the only way you can use Powerline in conjunction with other types of networks. You might, for example, want to set up a WiFi zone (Section 1.4) in a far, far corner of your house.

This challenge is especially common for people who’ve got basement or attic offices or playrooms that they want to blanket with WiFi coverage. The problem these people face is that their WiFi router’s stuck back in some other part of the house and the far corner is, well, too far away to be reached by a standard WiFi antenna.

Powerline can help you out. The procedure can take a little bit of time, but it involves performing steps you’ve already learned, or will soon learn, if you’re willing to read Chapter 2 (on Ethernet) and Chapter 3 (on WiFi). The basic steps are pretty straightforward: you set up a network that uses Powerline to link your broadband modem to your far-off room. Then, with the Powerline adapter in the far-off room, rather than plugging it into a PC, you plug in a wireless access point (Section 3.3.1), whose sole purpose in life is to broadcast a wireless Internet connection. Figure 4-5 shows how it all comes together.

Using Powerline in conjunction with WiFi can help you spread connectivity throughout even really sprawling homes.
Figure 4-5. Using Powerline in conjunction with WiFi can help you spread connectivity throughout even really sprawling homes.

If you do something along these lines, you’re actually using all three of the network types discussed so far and have officially won the Triple Crown of home-networking. Congratulations!

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