Utilities worldwide are testing power lines for broadband access. Don't laugh

June 25, 2003

3 Min Read
Electrical Access: Dream On?

Is electrical wiring the next Internet superhighway? A number of proponents say "yes," and they're aiming to make the power grid a third access choice (after cable and DSL) for broadband service providers.

At a series of meetings in Brussels, the week of June 10, several organizations dedicated to power line communications (PLC) stated their case. Included were the PLCforum, the Power Line Communications Association, the PLC Utilities Alliance (no Website), and the United Power Line Council, each of which vowed to increase attempts to convince regulators and utilities worldwide to start commercial rollouts.

Enthusiasm for PLC is evident in plans emerging from the Belgian conference: Specifications for high-speed (over 100 Mbit/s) techniques are in the works. Groups such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have been contacted. A trial project called OPERA, led by Iberdrola, one of Spain's largest utilities, is set to take place over the next couple of years and involve more than 39 European partners, with an estimated budget of €26 million. The European Commission has been enlisted for local access talks with regulators.

The concept of running data over electrical wiring isn't new. For several years, it's been among the "out there" technologies that work but never quite take off commercially -- like plastic optical fiber or fiber through the sewers.

The chief techniques for PLC, which is also known as broadband over power lines (BPL), involve sending radio frequencies over power lines and picking them up with wireless gear or special equipment linked directly to the power grid.

It's a neat concept that's said to work well. But commercial deployments are scarce, limited to a handful of European offerings that include about 15,000 to 20,000 paying customers. Stateside, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking into the technology, but regulatory issues abound, since most U.S. utilities can't offer services unrelated to energy provisioning without first launching unregulated subsidiaries.

A couple of U.S. utilities, most recently Pennsylvania's PPL Corp., have been interested in PLC enough to trial it. PPL's reportedly planning a trial for this year, though spokespeople called there didn't confirm this at press time.

"The penetration [of PLC] is negligible," says senior analyst Seth Libby of Yankee Group. "It's a very promising idea, though." Yankee isn't forecasting a market yet, but after four years of tracking the technology's progress, the level of activity has picked up considerably over the past few months, Libby says.

Utilities are intrigued with the idea of adding an alternative source of income to their rosters, Libby asserts, and ISPs like the idea of having a choice for broadband wholesaling that doesn't include cable operators and telcos.

A growing range of vendors also like the concept of PLC. Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A) is investigating the technology and has joined the PLCforum. Amperion Inc., backed in part by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), has captured attention with a wireless PLC product set. Wireline solutions are offered by Main.net Communications Ltd.

If enthusiasm counts for anything, PLC should get a considerable boost from it all. But the key to future success will be commercial offerings. Libby of Yankee says we'll see more of those this year, such as PPL's in Pennsylvania. The trial outcomes, in turn, will help determine the fate of PLC. If it can be offered as a viable alternative to DSL and cable Internet, the future may be bright. If rollout costs aren't feasible, PLC may fade into obscurity.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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