Equipment that feeds or receives electricity over Ethernet local area networks (Lans), and an emerging standard, could bring another transformation to computing.
IEEE 802.3af is the emerging standard for delivering power over Ethernet networks. All major technical issues, such as how to maintain data integrity while carrying electrical power, appear to have been handled, so ratification may be as soon as the end of the year.
PowerDsine, a US startup with an Israeli research and development base, is the first, and so far only, vendor to ship power equipment. But switch and hub vendors are already including this in their equipment.
"The concept is not new. The standard telephone gets its power from the same wire as the signal," said Igal Rotem, PowerDsine's chief executive. "A show-stopper for VoIP was lack of power because it's like a computer."
Switches including the technology or a special device can provide the power, with 48 watts giving up to 15 volts.
This current, said Rotem, would barely be felt but is enough to support low power devices such as laptop computers. Standard category 5 cabling can be used.
Analyst Giga Information Group has identified two immediate uses for this technology: VoIP telephony, and wireless Lan access points particularly where electrical outlets are not available. This is already being implemented by wireless network providers.
But the long-term potential for this technology is vast. Any device that can attach to a network and uses less than 15 volts could be modified to do away with separate power cabling.
Equally important is that the RJ45 Ethernet connector would become the first globally-accepted standard 'power plug'.
PowerDsine has this week launched its 8000 series Midspan hub that operates in conjunction with existing Ethernet or Fast Ethernet switches.
Through partnerships, the company had already provided its technology as a single in-line package to 3Com, Nortel, Ericsson, Siemens, Fujitsu, Avaya and Proxim among others.
Leading network switch maker Cisco has implemented its own power technology but is also in talks with PowerDsine, as are end-user equipment makers.
There is significant potential to use the technology for backup power where an uninterruptible power supply would otherwise be needed to guard against mains power loss.
Nor is there any reason for it to stop at the Lan: the entire internet has the potential to use the technology.
As another example, Sony is shortly to produce a small digital CCTV camera that can be web connected, reducing both installation and running costs by taking its power in this way.
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