July 11, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Broadband's power-line push

A big-ticket investment by three corporate heavyweights in a little-known start-up that provides Internet access over electrical lines has sparked renewed interest in a technology that's never come close to living up to its billing.

For several years, many have hoped that the technology, called broadband over power lines, or BPL, would allow electric companies to become a viable third alternative to the cable and telephone companies providing high-speed access to the Internet. It's a sentiment seconded in recent years by the Federal Communications Commission.

Technical limitations and a bad habit of interfering with local emergency radios, however, have made BPL a tantalizing near-miss for the tech industry.

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What's new:
Big-name investors including Google generated buzz with their recent bet on a long-developing technology intended to deliver broadband service over power lines.

Bottom line:
If the technology, called broadband over power lines, or BPL, finally proves reliable--and power companies can market it effectively--it could compete with cable and telephone-line broadband services, and offer ISPs an alternative way into people's homes.

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But last week's investment by Web search leader Google, the media conglomerate Hearst and bankers at Goldman Sachs in a Germantown, Md., company called Current Communications Group has many wondering if the time is finally right for the oft-ignored BPL. Current didn't disclose the amount of the investment, but The Wall Street Journal reported it was about $100 million. IBM has also started making noise in this market, announcing on Monday that it is partnering with Houston-based power utility CenterPoint Energy to build a BPL network.

"I think we are really at an inflection point with the technology," said Kevin Brand, vice president of product management for EarthLink. "We're on the cusp of really breaking through. A big investment like this demonstrates that the large companies think there is something there."

Of course, EarthLink has a vested interest in seeing BPL take off. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court nixed independent Internet service providers' attempts to force cable companies to open their networks to ISPs delivering competing services.

Now it looks as if the Federal Communications Commission, armed with the court's decision, is looking to change the rules for phone companies and free them of their obligation to share their networks with competitors. The result could be devastating for ISPs such as EarthLink, which have built their businesses on the backs of other companies' infrastructures. BPL technology would give these ISPs an alternate way into people's homes.

Critics, however, say they're skeptical that BPL is up to the task. "It's impressive that Google and Goldman have invested in the technology," said Joe Laszlo, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "But I just don't know what they see there. Wireless technologies like WiMax seem to have more promise as a third broadband competitor than BPL."

People have been experimenting with building communication networks over power lines since the 1950s. But the technology has never seriously caught on due to its low speed, low functionality and high development cost.

In recent years, new modulation techniques supported by other technological advances have helped BPL evolve. Most services today are capable of delivering between 512kbps and 3mbps of throughput, which is comparable to most DSL offerings.

BPL service in action

But policy disputes and expensive failures largely have been the hallmark of BPL. In 1999, for example, Nortel Networks, a telecommunications equipment maker, and the British energy company United Utilities abandoned a two-year BPL project.

Because BPL uses the radio frequency signals sent over medium- and low-voltage AC power lines to connect customers to the Internet, it can cause interference with HAM radios and emergency radios. Power lines, it seems, are great and often overpowering antennas because of their length and height off the ground.

In 2004, the FCC released a set of rules governing the use of BPL to prevent interference. Most BPL equipment deployed today keeps to these limits.

"I think the issue of interference has been a little overblown," said Bob Gerardi, manager of power line communications for Duke Power, based in Charlotte, N.C. "Some of the first-generation equipment had some problems, but the latest technology adjusts the power levels to avoid any interference."

With many of the technical issues ironed out, BPL is slowly getting deployed. More than 50 utilities across the country are looking into it. Duke Power, along with Progress Energy in Raleigh, N.C, and Consolidated Edison in New York, is one of three power companies currently in trials with EarthLink.

Duke began its trial with 500 homes and plans to launch a commercial service to 10,000 to 15,000 homes by the end of this year, said Gerardi. The company, which will rent access to its network to ISPs such as EarthLink, said it will be able to handle high-speed data services at 512kbps to 5mbps, along with voice over IP services. The cost of the service will likely be about $30 a month.

"The feedback we have gotten from customers is that they want choice," said Gerardi. "They are happy that Duke Power is pursuing this technology, and we feel an obligation to our customers to vet the opportunity because of the potential benefits."

"The big problem for power companies is not the technology, but the timing."
--Jim Penhune, analyst, Strategy Analytics

But some analysts say it will be difficult for BPL to make any significant gains against the cable and phone companies, which have a big lead both in terms of subscribers and mind share.

In 2004, 89 percent of U.S. households had access to either cable modem or DSL service, according to Jupiter Research. The research firm estimates that 56.6 percent of households had access to both. By 2009, dual access should jump to 76 percent.

"The big problem for power companies is not the technology, but the timing," said Jim Penhune, an analyst with Strategy Analytics. "The more mature the market, the harder it is for new entrants to break in."

The power companies are also not in a great position to bundle their services. Cable operators and phone companies are going after the "triple play" market, which includes a package of telephony, television and high-speed data services. While it's not inconceivable that power companies will try to bundle other services with their broadband access, critics say it'll be a stretch.

"Power companies make the Bells look like fast-paced innovators when it comes to launching into new businesses," said Penhune. "I don't see them as particularly nimble."

17 comments

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Not so sure it can work....
.... and bandwidth is the key problem for BPL like it is for WiFi.
BPL is broadcast, ie., everyone gets all the packets and selects
the proper packets from the stream. So,in a simple example, to
get 10,000 users with 5 mbps service, you would 50 gbps
bandwidth if everyone was online at once. At a 5% usage rate,
maybe only 2,5 gbps service would be needed. But this can be
sent reliably down a powerline?

I do have my doubts. And until the service can be demonstrated
as clearly superior to DSL or Cable, I'll pass.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
an internet connection on every wall
I hope this takes off. I would love the flexibility that BPL gives me in using any electrical outlet in the house to connect to the internet. I think this will be a major benefit that the power companies can use to sell the service. I assume that they will also offer a way to use the electrical wiring/outlets as a way to create a home network.
Posted by Juster444 (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
bpl
I will be getting bpl in my city in a few months and hope I is reliable. The company has plains as low as $30 a month. A lot better than what comcast charges.
Posted by feedbackuser5 (25 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Lack of high speed internet access in rural areas
It is hard to imagine perhaps but there is no inexpensive and reliable high speed internet access available in rural areas. Most people still use dial up access. Satellite access is not reliable due to weather and it is not inexpensive.
I am paying $112/month for a ISDN connection and I had to buy the router on eBay because no one carries ISDN equipment anymore. Because of the low population density there is no cable or high speed access in rural areas. Internet access over the power lines sounds very interesting to people who live in the country.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
BPL won't make any difference for rural
Just because you have power does not mean you will have BPL any more than having a phone means you can get DSL. Even less so actually.
The data is still sent almost all the way to your home on fiber, it is offloaded on medium voltage lines as RF at very very low power because med. voltage lines are unshielded lines and it would cause severe RF interference if not done this way.
Consequently the signal needs to be repeated like every 300 meters on those lines till it hits the transformer near your house.
This means they purchase brand new equipment and infrastructure and create additional points of failure with the repeaters.
They also have to install a costly CT coupler to bypass the transformer so the RF signal is not stepped down with the power on the lines.
and all this is really only a costly last mile solution to the fiber that needs to be run most of the way which means it requires what is really a brand new infrastructure.
They are not any more likely to reach your rural area than Cable or DSL which have been at this for a much longer time.

Power companies will take huge losses on this and make up the difference on your electric bill and render huge portions of the RF spectrum unusable while they are at it.


At best BPL will eat into cable and DSL profit margins in urban areas making your town even less likely to come out on top of a cost-benefit analysis for deploying there.

WIMAX and Fiber to the Home (FTTH) actually make more sense as an alternate last mile solution.
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
Link Flag
BPL interference issues ignored in story
In your recent article regarding investment in Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) there were many claims made. Such statements may have a place in the marketing of the BPL manufacturers, but there is a problem with BPL that is being ignored by BPL proponents: radio interference. ARRL, the National Association for Amateur Radio, has participated in testing in a number of the BPL marketing trials and has seen interference to radio reception in almost all of the sites their staff and volunteers have examined. Currently, only those BPL systems that completely avoid the use of spectrum allocated to the Amateur Radio Service appear to have any promise at avoiding most interference that may occur to Amateur Radio. But simply moving to other frequencies can still cause interference to other services.

Regarding the three BPL designs making recent news, there is one exception. Motorolas LV design for a system that uses only low voltage lines, looks very promising. By working closely with Amateur Radio in their development and by totally avoiding signals on medium voltage lines, as used by most BPL providers, the LV system avoids the interference problems that plague most other manufacturers. In resolving the problems of BPL interference, Current Communications certainly does not have a white hat but at least it's beige. They can do better, and now they have funding to hopefully achieve it. Amperion systems have many unresolved complaints of harmful interference filed against them. In most other cases, BPL proponents may pronounce their marketing trials as being successful, but to ARRLs knowledge, no BPL trial has included a thorough examination of interference issues if deployed on a large scale, so it is premature to pronounce these tests to be a success.

Even past Chairman Powell of the FCC, one of the most vocal proponents of BPL, admitted the seriousness of the interference issues. Simply put, there is no way that radio frequency signals are going to stay contained in a wire designed to carry normal electric power. It will radiate and pollute the radio spectrum. The FCCs October 2004 Report & Order recognized this danger to communications and totally barred the BPL companies from using frequencies associated with aeronautics and some governmental agencies. Obviously, these concerns about interference and spectrum pollution were not seen as trivial or resolved by the FCC. For the rest of the radio community, there was the FCC promise that if a licensed system experiences harmful interference due to BPL in the area, the BPL provider must either fix it in a timely way or shut their system down. Many BPL trials have already closed after being unable to resolve the interference issues.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) studies have determined that broadband over power line creates a high risk of radio wave interference, and that harmful interference to public safety mobile radio receivers can be expected at distances of 75 meters from the power line where broadband over power line is in operation, and at distances of up to 460 meters from fixed stations, such as VHF police or fire dispatch communications facilities.

Many public safety agencies and support services, including emergency medical services, fire, and law enforcement, utilize Low-Band VHF (30-50 MHz). Thirteen states--California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming--use the band for state police operations, while it's the primary public safety radio band in nine states.

The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials Inc (APCO), and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), urged the FCC to withhold final action in the BPL proceeding for at least a year, pending a "conclusive determination" of BPL's potential to interfere with public safety and other licensed radio systems operating below 80 MHz. Unfortunately, the FCC acted prematurely and now there is a resolution, HRes-230, in the Congress calling upon the FCC to reconsider their hasty decision of October 2004.

The article also did not address the reverse problem of interference to BPL by licensed, legally operating radio systems. Since BPL will be using radio frequencies, it is likely that BPL service will be slowed or even stopped by radio transmissions in the area. Tests have been done by Amateur Radio operators that show that even a few watts of transmitter power nearby can cause some BPL systems to temporarily stop working.

Amateur Radio Operators are not against BPL. In fact, hams have historically been one of the first groups to adopt new technologies and possibilities. What the amateur operators and many other radio user groups are so concerned about is the pollution of wide areas of the radio spectrum by interference from BPL.

If you would like more information on this problem in order to present a more balanced picture for future articles about BPL, see the ARRL BPL web page at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/HTML/plc/" target="_newWindow">http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/HTML/plc/</a>.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
to be fair
They did mention that radio interference was one of the reasons why the technology has not taken off. I think these problems may not be overcome by just throwing more money at BPL. Products using it have been around 1998 (I used a disappointing BPL product called Passport for a while) and the same problems continue. However, regardless of what happens, the research in this area will be beneficial, even though it may end with no useful products.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
Broadband Channels Redux
In the case of a electrical power failure like a blackout or brownout, everything crashes except for your hardwired telephone line.

I rest my case.
Posted by malabrm1 (36 comments )
Reply Link Flag
then you have dsl, but no computer
I don't think that is much of an advantage unless you have a power generator to give you electricity to run your computer. The only advantage is if you had a laptop that could run for a while on its battery - that may give you an hour or two of interent access during a power outage.

But I think the benefits of BPL outweigh the the fact that I lose my internet connection during the occasional power outage.
Posted by Juster444 (33 comments )
Link Flag
no power, no internet
What about the fact that, most DSL modems need an outside power source to function anyways? So what, you still have 56k dialup and a laptop with a limited battery power supply? Yeah, like that's gonna work for a long time. I think before it is all said and done the BPL will take off, but in a varied for. Think about it. Every power company already has the largest network available. I think in the end, BPL is not gonna be the end all be all of internet access, but what about using the power system and all the poles to provide wireless internet city wide? Would that not be feasible? Not every pole needs an antenna and, you get very easily connected to the hardwire part.
Posted by fyrfyter (8 comments )
Link Flag
the technology is flawed.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/HTML/plc/degrade.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/HTML/plc/degrade.html</a>
outside radio transmitters cause disconnects of BPL users. BPL companies are FCC part 15 users and have no recourse to interferance from mobile transmitters. As little as 5 watts from a mobile can cause internet users to disconnect and force them to reconnect.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Current Communications
I have been keeping my eye on a company that does this already, Current Communications. A friend of mine has used their service and says it is as good as the cable company's, yet it is also $20/mo cheaper.

They are still expanding coverage, so not everybody has access to it yet. I will love it when they hit my neighborhood. I will also like to see competition within this field, it will drive the price of internet access down a lot.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
It's About Time!
Rural areas would greatly benefit from this type of technology. Cable companies have no interest in spending millions of dollars for areas that have only several homes per square mile. WiFi suffers from the same problem, only imagine how many towers would be needed to accomodate sparsely populated rural areas. I am currently paying $50.00 a month for a &gt;500k download speed via Satellite, not to mention the cost of the equipment and the installation fee. Rural areas are the target market that they should be shooting for.
Posted by obiii (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Broadbandfocus.com
At BroadbandFocus.com we're following the Broad over power line evolution, and find it's increasing fast around the U.S. with recent FCC regulations.
Posted by allrepellents.com (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
you know the big cable companys and phone companys are going to fight this tooth and nail..they have the monopoly on the internet....
Posted by 7Toes_ky (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I may not know the tech stuff, but as a former BPL custmer. I have to say it is or was the best internet I ever used. I was a customer of IBEC, here in Alabama. On April 27, 2011, we were hit by tornadoes, which damaged power lines in serval States, needless to say IBEC went out of business, due to the hugh damages from the tornadoes. I have tried using dial-up and satilite, which fell short of the service I recieved from IBEC. I live 25 miles from major city, deep in rural area, believe me, we need BPL service. My daughter had to move closer to the city, just to continue her schooling, she needed the internet access for classes. Please, would someone start up BPL services for my area, I would definitly subscribe to the service.
Posted by Caspermaine (1 comment )
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