The Phone Line Wi-Fi Extender

The Phone Line Wi-Fi Extender

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Eric Griffith

December 2, 2005

If you can’t get your Wi-Fi router or access point (AP) at home to reach every area of your house where you want a signal, what do you do? According to SercoNet Senior Vice President of Development Mike Harnack, most people go to the store and buy products like range extenders, high-gain antennas or repeaters. According to his information, the return rate on such products to retailers is 35 percent or higher.

“There’s figures that say there are 20 to 25 percent returns [on access points and routers] at retail — and that’s conservative,” says Harnack. He says the returns are mostly blamed on bad coverage.

The St. Petersburg, Florida-based company decided to solve that problem by using something found in every home: phone lines. Their development is called WirePlus Broadband. The hardware plugs into phone jack outlets — one near the AP, others in areas of the house with a weak signal or no signal at all — and the copper phone wiring in the walls becomes the antenna.

“At first, a lot of people equate it to HPNA,” says Harnack, referring to the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, which promotes use of existing phone wires instead of power lines or even Ethernet cable for home networks. “But it’s not that.”

The WirePlus Broadband hardware does nothing but move the radio signal along the wire, Harnack says.

“It is strictly RF [radio frequency], physical layer. We just do the frequency shift. It’s like an extension of the antenna… the copper is the medium that the shifted signal flies on. On the other end, we reverse the process,” says Harnack. In the room where there was no coverage before, the WirePlus receiver shoots out the Wi-Fi signal as strongly as if the AP were in the room.

There are some products using power lines on the market that also extend Wi-Fi range, but they all involve actual 802.11 chips in some way, making the products nodes on the network. That’s not the case here. There are no Wi-Fi chips, not even any routing of packets.

“The hardware is totally physical — there’s no MAC address, no IP address, no SSID to set. It’s as if you were able to make that antenna and put it anywhere you want that has a telephone outlet,” says Harnack.  The hardware plugs into the RJ-11 jack, and there’s no software to install.

If you have multiple dead spots, you can plug in multiple WirePlus units to get the signal just about anywhere. SercoNet is contemplating versions of the product for MDUs and businesses where one AP could service an entire floor or an entire building, using the phone lines to extend the signal. “There’s theoretically no limit,” says Harnack of the potential number of units that could be running at once.  

The technology overall is wireless-agnostic; the company envisions it extending signals throughout a home for everything from Wi-Fi to WiMax to EV-DO (though the initial use will probably be limited to Wi-Fi).  It also won’t impact use of the phone or ADSL broadband using the same lines. It is only limited by the length of the phone lines in the house, which can usually go a maximum of 550 feet before losing quality for voice.

The hardware has a reference design now with a high/low button on it, knocking the signal strength down so you still get the full-speed connection, but keeping it from getting so strong that it bleeds through all walls, just in case you’re in an apartment or a densely packed neighborhood. SercoNet calls the technology “virtually lossless.”

Why use phone lines when there seems to be some buzz about using power lines for everything from extension to full-on broadband service in cities? It’s SercoNet’s background— it has offered similar professionally-installed products in its NetHome series.

SercoNet wants to see its technology in blister packs on retail shelves, and thinks that might happen within the first quarter of next year. The company won’t be making retail products, however— SercoNet will license the technology to hardware vendors or service providers. The company expects to announce its first customers by the time of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January of 2006.

Today, SercoNet announced that one potential customer, Motorola, just finished doing very detailed lab and field testing to extend Wi-Fi signals using WirePlus. “They did the most extensive lab testing of anyone who took [the hardware],” says Harnack. “They were very engineering-oriented, if you will. They made a large test results document — and they were very pleased.” In the announcement,  Lou Donofrio, Director of Product Management for Motorola Connected Home Solutions, said, “Motorola considers SercoNet’s technology to be an innovative and viable tool for delivering consistent, high performance bandwidth for in-home seamless mobility initiatives.”

With no customers announced, it’s hard to say what the WirePlus will cost. Harnack says a blister pack with two units should, preferably, sell for between $99 and $129. That would keep it under the price of some range extenders currently on the market.

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