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Powerline Ethernet Adapters Are Everyday Magic

We live in an era of everyday miracles, though we don’t always appreciate that fact. As comedian Louis C.K. puts it, “Everything is amazing, and nobody is happy.” Not only is broadband Internet nearly ubiquitous, you seldom even need to plug into a network, thanks to the penetration of Wi-Fi throughout the developed world. And heck, you might not even need broadband or Wi-Fi, since 4G LTE cellular Internet access is also widely available.

None of these mundane miracles would be possible without the even less remarkable miracle of the electrical grid. But did you know that you can combine these two to turn your home’s electrical outlets into Ethernet connections? It’s the chocolate and peanut butter of networking.

Running Ethernet over electrical wires isn’t a new technology by any stretch. I remember reading about powerline broadband regularly on Slashdot in the early 2000s, as well as Kevin van Haaren’s overview here a decade ago (see “Trading In-Home Wi-Fi for Powerline Networking,” 9 July 2007). It was once touted as the solution for last-mile broadband connectivity, while simultaneously being derided by ham radio operators who claimed that its RF interference would kill the hobby.

Ultimately, both claims were overstated. Powerline networking evolved quietly but was overshadowed by Wi-Fi, cellular broadband, and fiber-optic networks. Although powerline networking never made it to the big time, it didn’t vanish. Rather, it has become reliable, readily available, and shockingly cheap.

When Wi-Fi Fails -- As I wrote in “How to Ensure High-speed Internet Access When Buying a New Home” (18 May 2017), our home’s TV service works via IPTV. So instead of the traditional coaxial connection, our “cable box” uses an Ethernet port for the TV signal.

The problem is that our fiber-optic connection comes in upstairs, and running Ethernet cable to the below-grade TV room would be a pricey proposition. So I didn’t have to pull wire, the ISP’s installers leased me a pair of AirSonics Wi-Fi bridges designed specifically for IPTV.

In my initial testing, everything seemed to work fine — cue the miracle music. But at night, the TV signal would freeze every few minutes. Watching a live baseball game became increasingly frustrating.

After I missed a game-winning home run one night, I went to work troubleshooting the issue. First, I ran Speedtest on my iPhone repeatedly. Whenever the TV connection flaked out, I noticed that the Internet connection had slowed to a crawl, which was distressing.

I initially thought that the AirSonics Wi-Fi bridge boxes could be the problem, but it was something my wife said that caused a light bulb to flash in my head: “This only happens when you’re in the room.” It turned out that she was right.

Most routers on the market today offer two Wi-Fi networks: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. 5 GHz is faster and is less prone to interference, but 2.4 GHz has greater range.

I knew the AirSonics boxes communicated via a 5 GHz Wi-Fi signal. As a test, I forced every iOS device in our TV room to connect to the 2.4 GHz network on our router. The interruptions stopped almost instantly! I waited 30 minutes and then connected my iPhone 7 Plus to the 5 GHz network. Almost immediately, the TV signal started acting up again. Bingo.

The common-sense approach would have been to just leave all devices in the TV room on 2.4 GHz. But given that iOS seems to connect to networks at random, that’s a tough solution to manage. Nor does it account for other devices entering the room, like when we have guests. “Hi, thanks for coming over to watch the big game. Can you please set your iPhone to connect to the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi network?”

In a vain attempt to work around the problem, I changed the channels on the router to reduce the interference. That may have helped, but only a little, and the TV dropouts continued.

I decided that a hardwired connection was our best bet.

Enter the TP-Link AV200 -- I wanted to avoid drilling through the ceiling if at all possible, so I checked to see if powerline Ethernet is still an option — it is! A quick search on Amazon pointed me toward the best-selling TP-Link AV200 — a $25 kit consisting of a pair of 200 Mbps powerline Ethernet adapters.

If you need more speed, you can pay modest amounts more for the AV500 ($35), AV600 ($50), AV1000 ($40), or the AV1200 ($60). The model numbers correspond to their top throughput, so the AV1200 provides up to 1200 Mbps, which should be enough for gigabit Ethernet. But for my IPTV purposes, the 200 Mbps AV200 is more than sufficient, given that my Internet connection is only 100 Mbps at the moment.

When you get these adapters, it is absolutely crucial that you install them correctly. Pay careful attention to these highly technical instructions:

  1. Plug one adapter into a wall outlet.
  2. Plug the other adapter into another wall outlet.
  3. Connect an Ethernet cable from your router or network peripheral to each adapter.

It is literally plug and play.

There are three minor caveats:

  • TP-Link instructs you to plug the adapter directly into the wall outlet, not into a surge protector or uninterruptible power supply.

  • Both outlets must be connected to the same breaker box; in most homes, this shouldn’t be an issue.

  • The ham radio operators weren’t wrong — powerline networking does produce RF interference, so if you use a shortwave radio, be aware of that.

You can also pair the adapters to encrypt the data link with 128-bit AES. I didn’t see any need to use this feature given that I’m just transferring TV, but it’s as easy as pressing a button on one adapter and then pressing a button on another.

If you need additional Ethernet drops around your house, you can buy more adapters and plug them in wherever you need them. If you use the optional pairing feature, you’ll have to pair them to the existing adapters, but otherwise installation remains plug and play.

Overall, I’m happy with using the TP-Link AV200 adapters to create an Ethernet network. It’s far more reliable than the AirSonics boxes, and it will be a lot cheaper than leasing them from my ISP for $6 per month.

But it’s not perfect. My TV signal still freezes occasionally, though for far less time than before. I haven’t yet been able to determine why, but it may not be the AV200’s fault. Plus, about once a week I have to reset both adapters by unplugging them and plugging them back in. Annoying, but not much more so than having to power cycle a Wi-Fi router to work around Internet problems, which I’ve also had to do over the years.

As much as Wi-Fi is truly magical when it works — and it does most of the time! — it’s still not as reliable as a direct Ethernet connection between devices. But where pulling wire through walls and floors is difficult or expensive, it’s worth trying a powerline Ethernet adapter like those from TP-Link.


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Comments about Powerline Ethernet Adapters Are Everyday Magic
(Comments are closed.)

Nik Friedman TeBockhorst  2017-07-21 10:07
I've been using power line adapters in my home for years and they've neatly solved issues with wifi congestion and getting wireless into poorly covered areas in the house (using a cheap bridge - which is substantially more efficient and less expensive than mesh networking gear) . My one tip is that bandwidth is grossly overstated - I have gigabit adapters but realistically get about 200 - 300 mbit at the end of the day. Buy the highest speed if you can afford it, I'm very glad I did.
Travis Butler  2017-07-21 11:56
Couple of points:

Other appliances on the same power circuit can kill some powerline adapters. When I replaced my washing machine, the TP-Link adapters stopped working whenever I washed clothes; I had to replace them with a pair of Netgear adapters, which worked.

For encryption: It doesn't necessarily matter if you're just connecting a TV set. You can have multiple powerline adapters active on the same circuit, if you don't explicitly pair two of them; this isn't a problem in a stand-alone home, but might be in a shared building like an apartment complex. There it's the same as leaving your WiFi router unsecured.
AFIK- Most homes use 220 volt power centers splt into 2 110 volt circuits- A and B . My guess is that best reults may be obtained when adaptors are on same A or same B circuit. which circuits go to which rooms may not be obvious depending on the power center configuration and labeling. Its a good bet living room and bedroom circuits are on A or B and kitchen and bathroom on other circuit. I'm sure there is a way to check this out and where possible use same circuit for adaptors.
An alternative I'm using (over a year now) with rock solid reliability, is a MoCA (multimedia over cable) network by using a pair of Actiontec ECB6200 MoCA Adapters. Creating a MoCA puts one's LAN over the home, coax cable wiring network. My Comcast service provides 200 Mbps download, and I reliably get 230+ Mbps over my MoCA LAN. Where my MBP15 is connected to my LAN via a 1GB Switch, I also have a 24" 720p TV. I get rock solid HDTV through the ECB6200 adapter's splitter. One caveat related to HDTV is Comcast can install smart cable boxes, creating its own MoCA for robust feature sync to other smart cables boxes. My office HDTV has a smart box connected, but uses a backflow filter which limits features it could provide. When the TV MoCA is set up as described, the 2 MoCAs co-exist reliably & do not interfere. (My MBP streams Home Sharing to my living room ATV4.) The compromise limiting HDTV sync features between room locations, is overridden by a reliable hardwired LAN.
Openreels  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-07-24 22:13
I second the effectiveness of MOCA bridging to move ethernet over existing coax. I added this when I wanted to provide wired ethernet to our new smart TV because wifi was not good enough. Rather than run CAT cable to the TV from the router, the ethernet "rides on" the coax feeding the set-top-box for FiOS TV.

One thing you have to watch is getting the correct MOCA devices (and coax splitters) for the TV signal used by different providers.
Nancy Howard  2017-07-24 22:44
I add another vote for a moca network. We have ours set up to our Tivo which is connected to a smart TV, AV Receiver, Play station 3, and an Apple TV. We lso have Actiontec adapters to do this. The Tivo is then able to put out a strong wick signal to a far end of the house
Garry Margolis  2017-07-24 23:17
Another vote for MoCA here. I replaced a pair of Zyxel Powerline adapters, which needed periodic rebooting, with Actiontec MoCA adapters. I now get the same speed (approx. 50 Mb/sec down, 5 up) at the remote location as I do at the cable modem output, and it's been dead reliable. I haven't measured its absolute speed on my gigabit network. In addition to the Comcast caveats, MoCA is not compatible with DirecTV coaxial installations, and an inexpensive filter should be installed in the cable run at the service entry to prevent the network from being accessed by outsiders.
Michael Lever  2017-07-23 04:54
I find your set up speed test amusing!

I get about 5MBS download and about 1 upload if I'm lucky. A combination of ethernet and TP router wifi. The telephone line has been tested and IT people have done what they can. I could get fibre which is apparently at least 10 times faster but would have to pay more.

I've asked myself what's the hurry. For my needs, there isn't any. My websites publish ok, even the >500 pages site: just takes a few minutes.
In my experience the TP-Link powerline adapters have been an EXCEPTIONAL solution to my networking needs.

My internet is delivered across a 4 mile wireless link from my business and it is capable of 30 to 40 mbps across that link. From the entry point I go underground to my house via a cat 5 wire and unfortunately one of the pairs in that wire developed a fault. I thought about pulling a new wire but then I decided to try a pair of the TP-Link devices and have never looked back. It has been one of the most reliable pieces of networking equipment I have ever used and the speed has been as good as my wireless link can provide. For my situation, it just works and works VERY well. I have been using this solution for several years.
ecc77sd  2017-07-25 03:05
I've been using "Home Plugs" for years, ever since the Internet became available in France where I lived for 20 years.

Here in the US I have Netgear XAVB101 Powerline AV adapters all over my house, which work perfectly from the computer in my office upstairs to the Apple TV in the kitchen downstairs, and everything else in between. In fact, I don't even "do" wifi because this setup is far superior. This particular model also comes with a security button right on the unit, if additional security is desired.

The one thing I do miss from the French setup is that their surge protectors include a dedicated outlet for CPL ("courant porteur en ligne" or PLC/Power Line Communication), into which you simply plug your... Home Plug and voilà, your Home Plug is protected!

Finally, until such surge protectors become available in the US (if ever), a good way to protect Home Plugs (and other electric/electronic investments) is a whole-house surge protector – which I also had in France.
pwrmacbob  2017-07-25 12:01
I'm not sure I understand something in this article. maybe I'm misreading it.
You state: "But where pulling wire through walls and floors is difficult or expensive, it’s worth trying a powerline Ethernet adapter like those from TP-Link."
While also saying that you need to connect ethernet cable from router to adapters. So you have wires running all around the floors or stapled to the walls? Am I misunderstanding?
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-07-25 12:17
No, I just have one short cable running from an adapter to the modem and another running from the other adapter to the IPTV box. The adapters carry the network signal through the electrical lines so I don't have to run cable from the upstairs modem to the downstairs TV room.
Meyerson  2017-07-30 21:20
Some (most) AC outlets in my home don't seem to carry the Powerline signal from the outlet closest to my router. Some do, most don't—even though they all run through the same circuit box.

Any suggestions for getting the signal to the right outlet? The electricians so far have been baffled.
Willem wijnberg  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2017-08-20 13:21
I remember reading, quite a few years ago, that the outlets must be connected to the same power line coming into the breaker box. Here, in my neighborhood, we get 220 and a neutral coming into the breaker box. The 220 V consists of two wires with the neutral being at 110 V from either 'hot' line. I assume that the distribution transformer has a center tapped winding to provide 2 lines at 110 V that, when using both 'hot' lines produce 220 V for AC and oven and stove -the high power devices.
When you connect your devices to the two different lines, you get very poor or no service since there is no connection other than the transformer winding. In my house, the upstairs is on one side and the downstairs is on the other so I have never tried to use the power lines for ethernet distribution.