Does powerline networking nuke radio hams?

Paul Ockenden upsets the amateur radio community by plugging powerline networking

Paul Ockenden
10 Aug 2009

Page 2 of 2 Does powerline networking nuke radio hams?

On the one hand you could argue that amateur radio is a long-established hobby, which the upstart powerline networking technology is beginning to wreck, where the adverse effects are almost certain to become worse in the future. That’s a compelling argument and it obviously raises strong passions among the radio enthusiast camp. I even found one website that declared these devices were a breach of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Right stuff).

On the other hand, you could argue that the world has moved on, that shortwave radio is a “legacy” hobby while IP-based communication is very much tomorrow’s technology, with powerline networking forming an important part of this new world.

I didn’t experience anything to get all green ink and CAPITALS about
Indeed, most, if not all, of the shortwave broadcast stations being blocked by un-notched HomePlug frequencies would be available (in much better quality, and not subject to atmospheric conditions) via internet streaming. You could also argue that there are far more potential users for HomePlug devices than there are radio amateurs, so that in terms of sheer numbers the networkers would seem to have the advantage.

Having said all that, this is the Real World Computing section, so I need to get beyond the current heated online argument and find out what the effect actually is in the real world. So I got out my trusty shortwave radio (a lovely little Sony ICF-SW100) and, sure enough, within my house I heard lots of RF noise from my HomePlug AV kit. What was noticeable, though, was that the worst of this noise happened only during data transfer, so web surfing and checking email just caused the occasional burble, whereas copying gigabytes of data across the network really made the radio scream.

The other thing I noticed was that this interference spans a wide band, and the notches I mentioned above are really noticeable; within one of those notched bands I have to get very close to my ring-main before the HomePlug interference will swamp the normal shortwave squawky voices and Morse code. Outside the notched bands, the noise from the HomePlugs is far more noticeable around the house – strong stations are fine, but the weaker ones are swamped by the digital drumming. I tried setting off a huge file transfer to max out the HomePlug interference, and then went on a walkabout. I didn’t go very far – just to the bottom of my garden (approximately 100ft from the house) – and from there I could detect no interference at all.

I appreciate that many radio amateurs will use more sensitive kit than my little Sony, and I know that some other people’s ring mains may act as more efficient transmitters than mine, but even so, after the venom I’d seen spilled online and via email I was expecting far, far worse. I didn’t experience anything to get all green ink and CAPITALS about.

So am I going to stop recommending HomePlug kit to readers of this column? Well, despite trying to present a balanced view here, I expect I’m in for another bombardment of emails because my answer is “no”. I still think that HomePlug devices are a boon to anyone working in an environment where Wi-Fi is tricky or unreliable, but from now on I think I’ll add a caveat to my recommendation.

The chances are you’ll know whether you have a radio amateur living close to you – they’ll have a socking great aerial strapped to their chimney or in their garden – and if you do have one of these enthusiasts living nearby, my advice would be to avoid HomePlug or other powerline networking devices if you can (or at least check with said neighbour to see whether interference from your devices is causing them any problems). After all, it isn’t worth upsetting the neighbours just to get an internet connection in your shed.

Likewise, if you have a radio ham living nearby whose equipment is causing problems with your TV reception, I’m equally sure that they’ll be happy to work with you to alleviate the problem. Hopefully, then we can all enjoy our hobbies in peace.

Page 2 of 2 Does powerline networking nuke radio hams?

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