When it comes to extending a network, you should always use network cables. Connecting an access point to an existing router via cable, for example, is the best way to extend your Wi-Fi network without losing performance.
But getting our home wired can be challenging, sometimes not even possible. And that’s where Powerline networking comes into play.
This is an easy alternative to running network cables, suitable for those needing only a moderately-performing network.
What is Powerline networking?
In a nutshell, Powerline networking turns existing electrical wiring into that of a computer network.
In other words, apart from bringing electricity from one wall socket to another, the wiring behind the wall now also carries network signals.
As a result, you can quickly extend your network to wherever there’s a wall outlet. It’s quite smart if you think about it! The electrical wiring is already there in every house, so why not take advantage of that, right?
Pros and Cons of Powerline networking
Like everything else, Powerline has its pros and cons. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t work in every situation.
Pros of using Powerline: It’s the convenience
The primary advantage of Powerline, clearly, is convenience. You can extend your wired network in a matter of minutes without running any cables. It’s as easy as plugging a couple of adapters into wall sockets.
For example, if you have a basement with thick concrete walls that Wi-Fi signals can’t reach, Powerline is so much easier than digging and drilling to run an actual network cable there.
Cons of using Powerline: It’s a long list
Unfortunately, this list is rather long:
Not available in all homes
In my experience, though rare, Powerline doesn’t work in some old houses, those built decades ago. It’s likely because of the type of electrical wiring used at the time.
The distance between the two adapters needs to be less than 900 feet (300 meters). However, keep in mind that this is the length of the wiring behind the wall. Electrical wiring tends to snake around the house and can easily be longer than the actual distance between the sockets.
Also, the sockets have to belong to one continuous power wiring set. And sometimes, it’s hard to determine if they are since you don’t see the actual wiring.
Direct plugging required
Powerline adapters don’t work well, if at all, with surge protectors or power strips. They need to plug directly into a wall receptacle to work, and therefore, you lose one power socket for each Powerline adapter you use.
Since most adapters are rather bulky, you might have to sacrifice the adjacent outlets, too, unless you get adapters with a pass-through socket, but this means the adapter itself will be extra bulky.
Sluggish and unreliable speed is one of the most significant shortcomings of Powerline compared to using network cables.
You’ll find plenty of adapters with the claimed speeds of 1200 Mbps, 2000 Mbps, or even faster rates.
However, keep in mind that no matter how fast the Powerline standard is, an adapter’s actual ceiling speed depends on its network port on the adapter, which currently caps at 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps).
And in real-world usage, generally, in ideal conditions, you’ll get somewhere between a third to a half of the Gigabit standard.
The fastest Powerline connection I’ve seen is around 500Mbps, just half of a real Gigabit connection. And I could only get that at a relatively short length. At a farther cross-room distance, the throughput now reduced to just a third of that.
Another the thing to keep in mind that all Powerline connection is half-duplex, as opposed to full-duplex of network cables. With data following in one direction at a time, a half-duplex connection is a lot less efficient than a full-duplex one.
So, Powerline is slow, especially when you compare it to Wi-Fi 6 (or later).
But for the most part, you can expect a Powerline link to deliver a modest (sub-100Mbps) Internet connection in full. However, if you have Gigabit Internet, or plan on taking advantage of Wi-Fi 6 speeds locally, definitely consider running network cables.
Susceptible to Interferences
A Powerline connection is susceptible to interferences from appliances such as washers, dryers, ceiling fans, refrigerators, and so on.
When these devices are in operation, your Powerline connection’s speed might suffer. Furthermore, circuit breakers and lousy wiring can also adversely affect Powerline’s performance.
Adapters of the same Powerline standard are supposed to work with one another.
In reality, though, getting adapters of different vendors to inter-operate, though possible, can be challenging. You’re better off getting all the adapters you need from the same vendor.
How to use Powerline adapters
Now that you know what you’re getting into let’s find out how you can set up a Powerline network. This process is generally the same for all makes and models of Powerline adapters.
Most Powerline adapters take the shape of a wall plug and have at least one network port to connect to a router (or switch) or a wired device. Generally, you’ll need a pair of adapters for the first connection.
However, a few routers, such as the ARRIS SURFboard SBR-AC3200P, have built-in Powerline support, in which case you can skip the primary adapter.
The general Powerline setup process
Though powerline adapters come in different shapes and standards, you can use the following steps to set up any of them.
- Connect the first adapter to the router (or switch) using a network cable and plug it into a wall socket. (Skip this if you have a Powerline-enabled router). After this, all other outlets in the house are Powerline-ready.
- Plug the second adapter into a wall socket at the far corner of the room you’ll be using it in, and that’s it! The two adapters will turn the electrical wiring in between them into a network cable.
- Connect a wired device, like a printer or a desktop computer, into the second adapter’s network port, also using a network cable — that device will now be part of the network. By the way, each device that connects to the network via a Powerline connection is called a node.
- After the first connection, you need another adapter for each additional node, repeating step #2 but at a different wall socket. That said, the rule is: you need three adapters to connect two wired devices, four adapters to connect three, and so on. You can generally add from 6 to 64 nodes in a Powerline network, depending on the Powerline standards.
By itself, Powerline doesn’t include Wi-Fi. That said, to bring Wi-Fi to the far corner, connect a Wi-Fi access point to the Powerline adapter at that location.
Alternatively, you can also get a Powerline adapter with a built-in Wi-Fi access point, like the Netgear PLPW1000-100NAS.
Powerline networking: Privacy concerns
Since Powerline uses the electrical wiring to deliver a network signal, will your neighbors be able to tap into your network by using an adapter of their own? The answer is: this depends.
If you live in a residential single-family home, there’s no need to worry since Powerline signals can’t cross a transformer, separating the power connections of different houses on the same street.
However, if you live in a condo, there’s a chance of exposing your home network to other condos when using Powerline adapters.
That said, though, most adapters have encryption you need to configure — via pressing a button — before they can work together. If you buy a kit of two adapters, chances are the two adapters are already set up to work only with each other.
So make sure your network is secure: always use Powerline adapters with encryption turned on.