TL;DR; Homeplug devices can be a great way to network your house, but they may not all interoperate smoothly.

Like many people I live in a house that was built before networks were an essential part of family life. A common solution is WiFi, but that comes with its own drawbacks, not least the flakey nature of the connection with many household configurations.

Never mind. Clever engineers came up with HomePlug. The idea is that you send your network traffic down the mains cable that runs through your house. HomePlug devices simply plug into the wall and offer a standard RJ45 socket to plug your network cable into. You can plug as many HomePlug devices into your ring mains as you like, and the whole thing just behaves like a network. There’s the Homeplug Powerline Alliance that certifies compliance to the standard, and everything should just work.

The original standard, Homeplug 1.0, was released back in 2001. This was followed by Homeplug AV in 2005. These two standards were never meant to be compatible, and aren’t. However, all Homeplug 1.0 devices should interoperate, and all Homeplug AV devices should interoperate too.

I’ve been running 4 HomePlug AV devices in my house for the past 5 years. The ADSL router plugs into one, making internet connectivity possible throughout the house. The Squeezebox player uses another to access my music collection. There’s one in the office for the PC and another in my daughter’s room for important things like Facebook. No problems until the arrival of my son’s Xbox 360.

Rather than buying another simple HomePlug device I looked around and found a Netgear XAV 1004 4 port HomePlug switch. Great idea, but on plugging it in it failed to work in a fairly conclusive way.

I logged a ticket with Netgear’s customer support. Each response from them began “After reviewing the information you provided, I have a better understanding of your issue,” which was odd, because in the end (after several e-mails) they clearly hadn’t understood, and ended up by saying “we apologize for the inconvenience caused due to this product as it is not compatible with your setup.” Ho hum – send it back to Amazon for a refund.

I then took it up with the Powerline Alliance, the industry body who certify Homeplug devices. They did eventually respond to my enquiry, and (again after several e-mails) they ended up by saying:

“There are many reasons why a device may not operate on your network, such as the length/quality of the wire, or the presence of other non-PLC devices. Therefore, there is no way for us to ‘guarantee’ that a device will work on your network. However, HomePlug certified devices have been tested to interoperate. If you purchase a product, and still have issues, the best course of action is to contact the manufacturer or retailer.”

This may be quite true, but is of little use to the end user!

Meanwhile, some web searching turned up this very interesting web page. There’s a lot of information on this page, and it’s not particularly easy to consume, but the bottom line seems to be:

  • All commercially available Homeplug devices are based on chips manufactured by Intellon
  • There have been several major revisions of the chips and the firmware
  • The tools for updating the firmware (and the firmware updates themselves) are not advertised to end users or known about by first line support staff
  • The tools for updating the firmware are intended for specific firmware versions.
  • It’s not clear which chipsets can be updated to which firmware versions. Do it wrong and you may end up with a brick.

My take away from this is that Homeplug is fine if you buy all the adapters you need from the same manufacturer at the same time. Expanding your network later may not go as smoothly as you’d like.