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New power generation

An electrical storm is brewing in the Ethernet cable that will connect a mobile phone, laptop or any other gadget to the world, writes Kieren McCarthy

24 July 2003

It is ironic that in a world where every minor technological achievement is hailed as a revolution, only a small number of specialist online news sites commented on the ratification last month of the 802.3af IEEE standard.

The classification 802.3af may not sound very promising, but it is the first international standard for delivering electrical power and, as such, is set to change the world.

Here's just one example: laptops only last a few hours on battery power. This means that anyone travelling with one has to carry a power cord and, if they are travelling abroad, a range of adapters for each country. To keep the laptop running, owners are always seeking power supplies to plug into before connecting to a computer network to send and receive data.

With this new standard, however, you will not need a power lead or adapter, nor will you even need to find a power supply. Instead, you just connect to the computer network - called an Ethernet - and the rest is done by power sent down the same lines as the data.

There isn't much power. For safety reasons, it has been restricted to 48 volts, 13 watts and 400 milliamps - enough to give you a pin-prick shock but nothing else. However, it is enough to run the latest laptops and most other electrical devices, including personal digital assistants, web cameras, wireless access points, phones, shavers and guitars.

This may not seem like a huge leap forward. After all, there is normally a power socket somewhere nearby or you can use an extension lead. However, there are several clear advantages to this "power over Ethernet" technology.

It makes connecting devices much faster, easier and simpler: one lead and you're done. And it makes the installation of new equipment easier and cheaper. The standard was originally devised as a way of powering internet phones that use computer networks instead of phone lines for sending voice signals (at vastly lower prices).

Installing this and other new equipment usually means an electrician will be brought in to install an extra power supply, adding to the cost and time it takes to get it all up and running. There's no need for this with the new standard.

However, the most revolutionary aspect of this technology is the fact that the power comes via the data cables. This means that you can tell from anywhere on the computer network what devices are where and whether they are using power. And you can turn that power off individually - not at the flick of a switch but at the click of button.

Much fuss has been made about the home of the future: hubby at work would set the bath to run so it is ready and hot when he gets back home. While this is perhaps far-fetched, this new technology makes it technically feasible. Did you leave the lights on? You can check online. If you did, you can turn them off. In offices, it brings to an end cleaners unplugging faxes for their vacuum cleaner and technical staff having to turn off the power to half a room to fix a minor problem.

The implications for new buildings and lighting and security systems are enormous. There are already systems that give complete control of security or lighting from one office but they tend to be expensive. With this technology, not only is everything cheaper and built to common international standards, but the control point can be anywhere on the network - and so potentially anywhere in the world.

Schools, universities, hotels, shops and offices are already installing ubiquitous computer networks to make maximum use of the internet and computer revolution. For a little extra, they can also use this network to power everything connected to it.

Perhaps surprisingly, the cost of producing devices that support power over Ethernet is negligible. Amir Lehr, vice-president of business development at PowerDsine, an Israeli firm at the forefront of this technology, estimates that it costs just 24p. Manufacturers are therefore charging exactly the same price for devices with the new technology as for those without - something that will inevitably lead to its inclusion becoming standard.

The real cost comes with the power units that have to be added to the network, usually in the form of normal network switches with an added power component. They are currently 50% more expensive, although Lehr says this will soon fall to 20%.

Peter Doggart, the UK product manager at market leader 3Com, confirms this. He says the power-enabled switches are between 20 and 40% more expensive, although the real-life example he gives is 56% more - $2,500 compared with $1,600 without power.

However, with electricians' fees so high, this extra expense is already warranted, he claims, especially as the technology is destined to become an industry norm in the next few years.

And it seems companies agree. "I thought it would be a struggle to sell these products," confesses Doggart. "But they are flying off the shelves. We are now selling almost as many with power as we are those without."

It's not hard to see why. Power over Ethernet is just one of those rare bits of technology that has only advantages. There is no downside. All those connected with it are almost evangelical in their enthusiasm.

"Anything you use on your desk, anything in the office can be powered with this," says Doggart. One man in the US uses his company's computer network to shave at his desk. Guitar manufacturer Gibson has included it in its new digital products. New applications are limited only by imagination.

If it can be run on batteries, it can now be run from and communicate with a data network. The world just got smarter.

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