When 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. It’s an easy alternative to running network cables, suitable for those needing only a moderately-performing network.
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What is Powerline networking?
In a nutshell, Powerline networking turns existing electrical wiring into that of a computer network. Specifically, 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?
Pros and Cons of Powerline networking
But like all things, Powerline networking is not all fine and dandy as it might sound. It does come with pros and cons — it’s not for everyone as it doesn’t work well, if at all, in every situation.
The pros of using Powerline networking
The primary and only advantage of Powerline is convenience.
You can extend your wired network in minutes without running any cables. It’s as easy as plugging a couple of adapters — a.k.a power-line carrier or PLC — into wall sockets.
For example, if you have a basement with thick concrete walls that Wi-Fi signals can’t reach, Powerline is much easier than digging and drilling to run an actual network cable there.
Cons of using Powerline: It’s a long list
Unfortunately, the Powerline has a long list when it comes to cons.
Not available in all homes
In my experience, though relatively rare, Powerline doesn’t work in some old houses, those built decades ago. It’s likely because of the type of electrical wiring used.
Speaking of wiring, the distance between two Powerline adapters needs to be less than 900 feet (300 meters) — that’s on the paper. In reality, the longer the length, the worse and more susceptible to interference the signal gets.
In my experience, you don’t want to stretch more than 50 feet — almost one-tenth of the theoretical distance — or so if you want to have a good performance.
Keep in mind that this is the wiring length behind the wall. Electrical wires tend to snake around the house and can easily be longer than the actual distance between the sockets.
On top of that, the sockets have to belong to one continuous power wiring set. And sometimes, it’s hard to determine if they are since we don’t see the actual wires.
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 bulky, you might have to sacrifice the adjacent outlets, too, unless you get adapters with a pass-through socket, which means the adapter itself will be extra bulky.
This one is the biggest shortcoming of Powerline compared to network cables.
You’ll find plenty of adapters with the claimed speeds of 1200 Mbps, 2000 Mbps, or even faster rates. They are all way exaggerated.
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. And you have to be lucky.
The fastest Powerline connection I’ve experienced topped at around 500Mbps, just half of a real Gigabit connection. And I could only get that at a relatively short length, like 10 feet. The throughput is reduced to just a third of that at a farther cross-room distance.
Another thing to keep in mind is that all Powerline connection is half-duplex, as opposed to full-duplex in network cables. With data following in one direction at a time, a half-duplex link is a lot less efficient than a full-duplex one.
Susceptible to interference
A Powerline connection is susceptible to interferences from appliances such as washers, dryers, ceiling fans, refrigerators, etc.
Your Powerline connection’s speed might suffer when these devices are in operation. Furthermore, circuit breakers and lousy wiring can 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. Better yet, of the same model.
How to set up a Powerline network
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). This adapter will now work as the master (or primary) unit (or node), allowing all subsequent units to connect to it. Consequently, now all other outlets in the house are Powerline-ready.
- Plug the second adapter into a wall socket somewhere in the house, and that’s it! The two adapters will turn the electrical wiring between them into a network cable — the second adapter is now a secondary Powerline node. You can use its network port to host a wired device, like a printer or a desktop computer.
- 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 that you need three adapters to connect two wired devices, four adapters to connect three, etc. Depending on the Powerline standards, you can generally have from 6 to 64 nodes in a Powerline network.
By itself, Powerline doesn’t include Wi-Fi. 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. Powerline signals can’t cross a transformer that separates 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.
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, 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.
No matter how much you want to work, keep in mind that Powerline, at best, is slow and unreliable.
It might work when you test it but not during the other time your microwave is running. And generally, we don’t know what and when among the myriad of things we plug into our sockets start running and for how long.
In short, the environment of the power wiring network is just too unpredictable and unstable. As a result, Powerline is quite terrible compared to the latest Wi-Fi standards, namely Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi 6. And it can’t hold a cable to network cables.
But, generally, if you don’t need a connection speed faster than 100Mbps, Powerline can be a viable solution. On the other hand, if you have Gigabit-class Internet, or want to enjoy fast Wi-Fi speed locally, do yourself a favor and get your home wired — you’ll save yourself a lot of frustrations.