CES 2010: Powerline Networking Updates And Prognostications
Brian Dipert - January 13, 2010
One of a series of planned posts from the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show…
After meetings with various companies and alliances involved in powerline networking last week at CES, I have some thoughts:
- Powerline networking is here to stay. It’s not problem-free; believe me, I know this intimately, after many years’ worth of experimentation and frustration. But it works well often enough to be a credible alternative to stringing CAT5 or coax cable around the house, to (slowly) leveraging oft-inconveniently located phone jacks, or to relying solely on a wireless topology that’s prone to RF interference from other ISM band signal sources, along with chicken wire-and-other attenuation. And it’s so darn convenient; plug two adapters into outlets to form a powerline spur, and you’re (theoretically, at least) ready to go.
- Atheros made a smart acquisition last year. Back in September, the company announced that it was paying roughly $250M USD for Intellon, the leading powerline networking technology supplier. Keep in mind that Atheros got not only products but also engineers and years’ worth of accumulated expertise, along with (perhaps most importantly) a robust patent portfolio. The deal closed in December, and at CES Atheros announced the first fruits of the purchase, the AR7400 chipset, and its first customer, Monster Cable (no, Gizmodo, AMD didn’t make the chip). The AR7400 is IEEE 1901 Draft v2-compliant (albeit single-PHY, i.e. OFDM-only) and HomePlug AV backwards compatible. I didn’t realize until reading Atheros’ press release that IEEE 1901 specifies a wider operating frequency range (2 MHz to 50 MHz) than the current HomePlug AV standard (2MHz to 30 MHz), while of course still supporting band notching to avoid interference with ham radio and other broadcast sources. Also, akin to what Intellon did with proprietary ‘85 Mbps’ HomePlug 1.0 Turbo versus industry-standard ‘12 Mbps’ HomePlug 1.0, the AR7400 optionally supports operation up to 75 MHz, along with an advanced high density 4096 QAM scheme, enables an all-A7400 topology to potentially run at greater-than-500 Mbps PHY rates.
- Speaking of high-speed powerline networking, Gigle strives on. I received confirmation at CES that my earlier suspicion was correct; the HomePlug AV and Mediaxtreme modes of the Belkin adapters I tested were constantly ‘fighting’ with each other to be the protocol in use on my network, which is why I ended up with sub-HomePlug AV transfer rates. I should have new firmware to test within a month. Gigle also admitted that the company had been pushed by Belkin to prematurely release the technology to market, driven by Belkin’s desires to hit the Christmas shopping season in a sole-sourced position.
- Speaking of Gigle, the company is confident that the aggressive pricing of its GGL301 HomePlug AV-only IC, enabled by a leading-edge fabrication lithography and other cost-slimming measures, will finally put the final nail in the coffin of surprisingly long-lingering HomePlug 1.0 Turbo. Ironically, this prediction was made by Andy Melder, now of Gigle and formerly of HomePlug 1.0 Turbo developer Intellon. Andy dodged my question of whether or not the GGL301 and fuller-featured GGL541 were sourced from the same die; I suspect the answer is ‘yes’, at least currently.
- And speaking of HomePlug AV, it’s quickly becoming the dominant ‘200 Mbps’ powerline approach in use worldwide. I forecasted this outcome a while back. While Panasonic continues to sell HD-PLC adapters in Japan, the company’s wavelet-based approach has not achieved broad adoption outside of that country. As such, I doubt there’ll be many (if any) costly dual-PHY IEEE 1901-compliant adapters made…an outcome which I daresay the HomePlug camp suspected back when they did the deal with HD-PLC in the first place. And both Gigle (Spain) and SPiDCOM (France) blunt any European momentum that competitor DS2 might otherwise be able to muster.
- Speaking of DS2, it appears to be on life support (or worse). Widespread rumor at the show indicated that company Vice President Chano Gómez left the company several weeks ago, and that DS2 has run out of money (reflected in the fact that the company didn’t even have a booth at CES this year, far from the expensive pervasive promotional banners of years’ past). With DS2’s demise. if the rumors are correct, seemingly also go the powerline portions of the ITU’s G.hn standards group. That is, unless G.hn faces up to de facto standardization reality and incorporates HomePlug AV into its specifications instead.
- And speaking of silicon sourcing evolutions, you should expect more acquisitions (as well as, perhaps, culls) in this particular technology space over the coming year. Along with the earlier-mentioned purchase of Intellon by Atheros, Sigma Designs bought CopperGate Communications last November (PDF). Who’s left to snap up in the HomePlug AV space? Arkados, Gigle, and SPiDCOM come to mind. And who might their acquirers be? Broadcom and Marvell are the most likely candidates. Broadcom’s Stephen Palm was extremely evasive and nebulous when I tried to press him on this topic during our Saturday lunch meeting. But Broadcom has a track record of waiting until a given networking technology has become sufficiently mature before investing in it; look at the company’s purchase of Octalica in mid-2007, along with its longstanding avoidance of UWB (UltraWideBand). 2010 may be the year that Broadcom and a competitor-or-few finally take the powerline networking purchase plunge.