First Large BPL Network Powers Up

The first US commercial deployment went live this week, but the market still has mixed messages

Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief

October 7, 2005

4 Min Read
First Large BPL Network Powers Up

In the year since the FCC gave broadband over power line (BPL) technology the nod, it has had mixed results. Today, it got its first commercial city-wide deployment in the United States. (See Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod.)

Manassas, Va., is the first U.S. municipality to cover its entire city with BPL. (See Comtek Succeeds at BPS.) The 37,000-person suburb of Washington, D.C., turned on service this week, according to Walt Adams, VP of Communication Technologies Inc. (COMTek), the company that operates the network.

In a public-private partnership, COMTek and the city of Manassas shared the costs to deploy the service, and they will share the revenues as well. "The city is a landlord, as well as a services vendor to us," Adams tells Light Reading.

The city hangs COMTek's BPL devices from power poles. In exchange for that -- and the network itself -- COMTek gives the city a 10.5 percent cut of all residential revenues and a 21 percent cut of all commercial broadband business it generates. "Those percentages slide up as penetration increases," Adams says.

The Manassas network so far has passed 12,500 households. It has 700 subscribers, and Adams says COMTek is on pace to add about 100 each month. Those subscribers are getting anywhere from 300 to 800 kbit/s of data-only bandwidth for about $29 a month.

COMTek is negotiating to deliver BPL services for nine other investor-owned utilities, municipal-owned utilities, and other entities. The company is close to providing VOIP over BPL soon. And Adams says that speeds up to 1 Gbit/s could be possible over BPL in the next few years, which would enable IPTV and other services.

Elsewhere on the BPL front, however, the signals are decidedly mixed. In the past 90 days, one BPL equipment firm has received a load of funding from big investors, one major market BPL trial was called off, and one industry consortium held out new hope for technology standards.

All BPL networks are different, and power grids vary widely in regards to throughput, equipment required, and other factors. In the Manassas network, it costs COMTek, which uses equipment from Communications Ltd., between $65 and $100 to pass a home and anywhere from $275 to $1,000 to service one.

One large barrier to the development of the market is a lack of clear standards. Without technology standards in place, there's very little unity in the BPL equipment provider universe, Adams says, and providers "don't have mass-market economics working in their favor when they buy equipment."

Those factors appear to explain why PPL Telcom LLC is ending its Lehigh Valley, Pa., BPL trial on October 31. "While our market trials indicate that BPL technology is promising, the combination of a competitive marketplace and the need for significant scale has led us to the decision not to proceed as a retail communications service provider," said David Kelley, PPL's president, in a statement. (See BPL on Trial.)

That scale problem is on its way to being addressed as the HomePlug Powerline Alliance recently boasted that it now has 50 member companies and is broadening its scope to work towards some kind of interoperability among the different kinds of BPL gear out there.

There are fewer than 10 working commercial BPL deployments in the U.S., and those are all small operations, covering only certain neighborhoods or business districts. And there's apparently been little in the way of financial success.

Regardless, investment is still flowing into the BPL equipment sector. Just over a month ago, BPL gear maker Intellon Corp. raised $24.5 million in new funding from several investors, including BCE Capital, Goldman Sachs, Intel Capital, and Motorola Ventures.

Current Communications Group LLC also announced new funding from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and The Hearst Corporation. (See Google Backs Powerline Carrier.)

Ultimately, though, BPL faces a quandary common to other broadband methods, and its critics have been a vocal bunch. (See Cisco CTO Whips WiMax and BPL's Parmenides Fallacy.) Because it typically requires packet regeneration every three-quarters of a mile, according to Adams, the ideal neighborhoods for BPL are upscale suburbs, the ones most likely to already be blanketed by DSL coverage and targeted for fiber-to-the-home build-outs.

— Phil Harvey, News Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Phil Harvey

Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

Phil Harvey has been a Light Reading writer and editor for more than 18 years combined. He began his second tour as the site's chief editor in April 2020.

His interest in speed and scale means he often covers optical networking and the foundational technologies powering the modern Internet.

Harvey covered networking, Internet infrastructure and dot-com mania in the late 90s for Silicon Valley magazines like UPSIDE and Red Herring before joining Light Reading (for the first time) in late 2000.

After moving to the Republic of Texas, Harvey spent eight years as a contributing tech writer for D CEO magazine, producing columns about tech advances in everything from supercomputing to cellphone recycling.

Harvey is an avid photographer and camera collector – if you accept that compulsive shopping and "collecting" are the same.

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