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By Claus Hetting, Wi-Fi NOW CEO & Chairman
It is the Holy Grail of residential Wi-Fi: Guaranteed service levels. It is also a daunting technical challenge into which hundreds of millions of development dollars are being poured for AI, 5 GHz radio mesh, and massive MIMO, to name a few. So could PLC-backed Wi-Fi for home networking – now relaunched with a new G.hn standard – be the alternative right answer?
Power line communications (PLC): It is possibly one of the most underrated and least reported technologies within the Wi-Fi world right now. But as every Wi-Fi person knows: No Wi-Fi is better than the backhaul network it runs on. And although PLC has been around for more than a decade, its relevance to the burgeoning billion-dollar business of residential Wi-Fi has recently struck a new high. One reason is the increasing prevalence of the vastly improved PLC standard called G.hn.
Coverage: Forget blasting through walls – and floors
PLC has one big benefit compared to any other home Wi-Fi tech at this time: This kind of Wi-Fi does not need to blast through walls. It also does not rely on 5 GHz radio mesh. Instead you save precious 5 GHz bandwidth for your applications. All you really need to kit out your home with end-to-end Wi-Fi are power sockets in the walls and a couple (or perhaps a handful) of Wi-Fi-equipped PLC units.
And unless you are dealing with an unusually large and awkwardly shaped room, you can be fairly confident that one or at the most two Wi-Fi APs will be enough to deliver Wi-Fi coverage (and for the most part capacity, too) for that room. So although ISPs may be reluctant to guarantee home Wi-Fi service levels today, taking thick walls and steel-reinforced floor separations out of the Wi-Fi equation arguably simplifies the home Wi-Fi delivery proposition.
Walls are not the only things keeping Wi-Fi signals out of the right places. In some countries ISP cabling enters homes at the basement level. Particularly in Europe, older homes are often constructed in slabs of stone or layers of heavy bricks. Floor separation structures and steel beams can be major radio propagation obstacles. In short: Many homes are simply not Wi-Fi propagation friendly – and no amount of AI-powered software will ever change the physics of fortified walls and floors.
The new G.hn standard delivers 2+ Gbps – yes, for real
So the question is whether a non-radio-based home network or ‘backbone’ might actually be a good idea – and of course the answer to that is definitely yes – provided that the technology delivers the speed and functions that consumers want. And that breakthrough for PLC may have come a few weeks ago when the first second-generation G.hn products were released by devolo.
The new PLC chipsets – developed and produced by MaxLinear and incorporated into devolo’s Magic Wi-Fi products – now support more than 2 Gbps of theoretical peak backbone data rate, which is many times (if not an order of magnitude) more than the ISP bandwidth available in the vast majority of households. Here is some perspective: In Germany, for example, the average Internet speed is – surprisingly – just above 15 Mbps, according to this reputable source. But even if you do have access to broadband by fibre or DOCSIS 3.1, new G.hn-powered backbones should still deliver plenty of speedy Wi-Fi connectivity around the house.
Recent test results by leading PLC vendor devolo have confirmed net data rates (on TCP) of more than 840 Mbps on the new G.hn systems. But what may be even more important is the relative improvement: “We’ve seen on the whole twice the data rate on G.hn systems compared to on the previous HomePlug AV technology,” says Joachim Thelen, VP of Product Management at devolo.
A cable giant joins the HomeGrid Forum
PLC-backed Wi-Fi based on G.hn could well be poised to grab consumer market share – but will ISPs be interested in embracing it? A recent news report gives some indication: Cable industry giant Liberty Global just last week joined the HomeGrid Forum, the non-profit industry body representing the G.hn-standard for home networking.
Liberty Global’s opinion on G.hn relates to Wi-Fi coverage far from the router: “The G.hn standard provides a reliable wired backhaul for Wi-Fi extenders and delivers improved Wi-Fi speeds in rooms far away from the residential gateway,” says the company in this press release. And of course they are right. But also do not forget that state-of-the-art PLC-based Wi-Fi systems – like devolo’s Magic Wi-Fi – are a lot more than simply ‘Wi-Fi extenders’.
Forget 5 GHz radio and instead add (wired) mesh
Says Joachim Thelen of devolo: “One thing that most people miss about PLC-backed Wi-Fi is that it is actually mesh Wi-Fi, too – except for the fact that it uses a wired network for meshing instead of 5 GHz radio. This means that all of the same mesh features apply. And it is highly reliable.”
These kinds of mesh products also employ the TR-069 standard, so that ISPs can remotely access and manage in-home G.hn-based installations. And last but not least: At least in the case of devolo, the Wi-Fi technology itself comes in one of this industry’s most feature-rich packages delivered by none other than Qualcomm. Self-organising networks, gapless device handover, band steering, sync of configurations between APs, and more is all included.
It’s all there – and it’s poised to attack the global markets. We think it will do well.