Powering up a new kind of broadband

It still registers barely a blip on the broadband radar screen. But momentum is starting to build behind broadband over powerline as a viable high-speed Internet access alternative.

In the past three months a handful of significant events have occurred:

  • And work within the IEEE to create a standard - called P1901 - to define an efficient BPL channel over AC power lines. The standard is targeted for completion in early 2007.

These developments follow a ruling by the FCC designed to limit interference to other radio frequency devices. The FCC's action requires BPL providers to employ devices that can switch frequencies if they cause interference and that can be shut down remotely.

FCC commissioners also will require a national database of BPL installations for public safety agencies, amateur radio operators and others.

Taken together, these developments could help drive a compound annual growth rate in BPL revenue of 90% over the next seven years, according to Telecom Trends International. The market watcher says BPL revenue is expected to grow from $57 million in 2004 to $4.4 billion in 2011.

There are 40 BPL deployments across the country in various stages of trials and commercial service, according to the United Power Line Council (UPLC). The largest deployment is in Cincinnati, where BPL service from Cinergy passes 50,000 homes, according to UPLC.

First-generation equipment can produce throughputs up to 45M bit/sec but service speeds range from 500K to 3M bit/sec, which is comparable to DSL. Second-generation equipment will produce throughput up to 200M bit/sec, according to the UPLC.

Yet BPL currently accounted for less than 2% of the 38 million 200K bit/sec-and-above wireline broadband access lines installed in the U.S. in 2004, according to the FCC. And significant business and technical issues remain for the technology.

BPL advocates have been hard-pressed to mold a viable business model - one that can deliver the throughput and QoS users expect while driving profits for utilities and other service providers.

And amateur radio operators still assert that, despite the actions of the FCC, BPL interferes not only with their transmissions but also air traffic control and other emergency communications services.

"As soon as you put those kinds of frequencies on there, the wire turns into an antenna," says Allen Pitts, a spokesman for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for Amateur Radio. "It both receives and transmits."

Interference issues

There have been recent BPL product developments to mitigate interference issues. Pitts noted Motorola as one vendor that had developed a low-voltage system designed to reduce high-frequency interference with radio transmission through radio frequency notch filtering.

Other leading BPL vendors, he says, have yet to follow suit.

Nowhere to go but upWith regard to the FCC decision in October, ARRL says it believes the commission acted hastily under pressure from the Bush administration - which seeks universal broadband availability by 2007 - to fast-track BPL deployment.

"The interference issues were well known," Pitts says. "But what they did was allow systems that were unripened technologies to go ahead and deploy. There was the big push, and it was a political push. [Former FCC] Chairman Powell was an unabashed cheerleader for this thing."

Pitts says he hopes interest in BPL by deep-pocketed Google and IBM will result in more low-voltage/notch filtering devices on the market. "As far as people like IBM backing [BPL], all I can do is say, 'Well, now they've got the money. I really hope they use that money wisely to [overcome] interference issues."

He says Ham radio operators are not opposed to BPL, just the interference."It's a really neat idea, if it worked."

It is working, according to the UPLC.

"We're the utility industry, we don't play games," says Brett Kilbourne, UPLC director of regulatory services. "We wouldn't be deploying this stuff if we weren't absolutely sure it's not going to cause any interference that can't be mitigated."

Kilbourne says the UPLC hasn't received any interference complaints from emergency service providers. They tend to operate at higher power anyway.

Nonetheless, the UPLC has established safeguards to deal with the probability of interference. The UPLC has an obligation to notify emergency services institutions before utilities deploy BPL service, Kilbourne says.

For amateur-radio operators, the UPLC has established a database of BPL operators they can contact in case of interference. Kilbourne says the FCC has also mandated a requirement that BPL equipment be capable of mitigating interference on a dynamic basis - the operator can notch or shift frequencies from a remote location.

"That should cure most of the interference," Kilbourne says, adding that mitigation techniques may be harder to implement if the BPL or emergency service/amateur-radio operations are mobile.

Making a business case

Kilbourne says the bigger concern with BPL is making a compelling business case for utilities to offer the service. Prices for alternative broadband services, such as DSL, are dropping precipitously, making it hard to justify turning up BPL as an adjunct to traditional electrical service if margins are going to rapidly erode.

Another factor is use of BPL by the utilities themselves for internal applications, such as automated meter reading, load management and outage reporting. Utilities are considering ways to harness the technology for their own benefit while providing it to their customers as another moneymaking Internet access service.

"The business case and deciding how these internal applications get rolled out will be the driving factors going forward," Kilbourne says.

The study might include the experiences of PPL Broadband, the Internet access subsidiary of Allentown, Pa., utility PPL. PPL Broadband has trials underway in five areas in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, passing about 20,000 homes, says Al Richenbacher, chief network architect for the Internet access provider.

The deployments provide BPL directly to the electrical outlet in the home or business, as backhaul for 802.11b wireless access and for low-voltage service to schools and multi-dwelling units.

"We're still understanding what technologies are out there, and how they interact, what is the best to use under what circumstances in what locations," Richenbacher says. "And also, not a small part of our trial, is the commercial side - what customers are willing to pay for what kinds of services."

As for interference, Richenbacher says PPL Broadband has had a handful of complaints. But they've been easily resolved, he says, by shifting frequencies, adjusting power levels, or just staying out of frequency bands populated by emergency services or amateur-radio enthusiasts.

"Given the very low power levels that we're using and the availability of spectrum, I think that we can coexist out there with the vast majority of spectrum users," Richenbacher says.

One PPL Broadband customer says interference issues have subsided recently since trials began in his community 16 months ago. Overall, the service seems to be adequate but unspectacular.

"We've had mixed reactions," says James Sterner, Hanover Township, Pa., manager. "We have it in here, in our building. It's like any other Internet provider. There's times when it's down, but it's not down that long."

The township has no time frame for turning it into a production deployment.

"We're going to have to see what the results are here," Sterner says.

Learn more about this topic

Google, others invest in broadband-over-powerline firm


Study: Powerline broadband set to grow in 2005


Nutter's Help Desk: Connecting with BPL


IBM plugs in to powerline broadband trial


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