HomePlug networks that use the electrical wires in your home to transfer data are distributed by some of the world's biggest broadband providers and available at major retail stores, but even HomePlug's cheerleader in chief calls it a "niche" technology, at least compared to Wi-Fi.
The future lies in products that have HomePlug connectivity built in, as opposed to requiring an adapter that dangles from the power socket. There are some products with the technology built in on the market already, and some new ones are being shown at CES, such as a TV from Hisense and a music extender from Netgear.
HomePlug is one of the main wired technologies being used to link appliances and consumer electronics throughout homes. Shipped in more than 100 million chipsets in its history, it uses electrical wire as a backbone, while another home technology, MOCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance), uses coaxial cable. Both are also-rans compared with Wi-Fi, which has shipped in more than 1 billion products and is the form of home network that most consumers are familiar with.
The wired networks are often just backbones between Wi-Fi routers and repeaters. But while consumers rely on Wi-Fi to keep their tablets, phones and laptops online, HomePlug can be more reliable than wireless and is appropriate for "anything you plug in," said Rob Ranck, president of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance.
At HomePlug's small booth at CES, Ranck showed off a handful of consumer electronics products with built-in HomePlug. They included a media player from French manufacturer Lea, which can encode video from various sources and stream it to a TV via HDMI, and a music extender from Netgear that takes in digital audio and sends it as an analog signal to stereo systems. There was also a D-Link Wi-Fi router with built-in HomePlug.
A flashier example is the Hisense XT880 smart TV, on display in the Chinese TV maker's CES booth. It can stream online content from Pandora, Hulu, Netflix and other sources directly through its power cord using HomePlug technology, which Hisense labels as PLC (Power Line Communication). Consumers in the U.S. should be able to get the XT880 in May, Hisense said. No price has been disclosed.
In a crucial move for mainstream adoption, HomePlug is also getting faster. The HomePlug AV2 standard, completed last year, should start to show up in products late this year, Ranck said. It will deliver between 80M bps (bits per second) and 200M bps with a two-prong power plug and 200M bps to 500M bps with a three-prong plug. HomePlug AV2 uses the third "ground" prong, where sockets are available, for an extra stream of data. HomePlug AV2's throughput is two to five times the performance of the current version, HomePlug AV, Ranck said.
HomePlug is also getting wider support from chip makers, overcoming its association with a single supplier, the former Intellon business that is now part of Qualcomm. That company still makes more than half of all HomePlug chips, but others are jumping in, including Broadcom and Sigma Designs Ranck said. At CES, the Alliance networked together gear made with different vendors' chips to show they are interoperable.