Cable Tech

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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desikar 12/4/2012 | 11:51:15 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? What are the regulatory issues involved? Which agency will regulate such deployment in the US?

Am hoping someone on this board has thought about this in depth before and will be willing to share their insight.

rjmcmahon 12/4/2012 | 11:51:14 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? The following sites may be helpful.


My guess is that there will be many fights over regulatory jurisdictions and few rudimentary plans have accounted for those wasted costs.

Fortunately, some folks in NE know how to face such corruption and can give us guidance.


The Supreme Court of Nebraska has ruled that the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 preempts a State law that prohibits political subdivisions from providing telecommunications services.

The Nebraska court said that Section 253 of the Act, which states that no State or local statute or regulation may prohibit the ability of "any entity" to provide interstate or intrastate telecom service. Nebraska jurists agreed with a recent decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which concluded that individual municipalities are encompassed within the term "any entity."

The case arose because the Nebraska Public Service Commission had dismissed the city of Lincoln's application for authority to provide telecommunications services. The city owns and maintains fiber optic facilities throughout the city and uses the network for its own telecom needs.

In late 2000, the city asked for the authority to use its existing facilities to provide telecommunications services to business customers and governmental entities. The Public Service Commission concluded that the city did not have the State authority and nothing in Lincoln's home rule charter gave them the authority to offer the services. In the meantime, the Nebraska legislature passed legislation prohibiting municipalities from providing telecommunications services.

The city of Lincoln appealed and prevailed on the question of whether the PSC had the authority to grant the certificate. However, the Court concurred that the residents of Lincoln must amend their city charter to allow the city to offer the services.
opto 12/4/2012 | 11:51:12 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? Deregulation of the power industry is proceeding at different paces in different states, but there is a general trend. The failure of PG&E is evidence to the expected not-to-graceful transition to more free market based utilities.

But this trend has brought about wholesale restructuring of the industry. Utilities are now complex structures of for-profit and rate regulated entities.

This means they will have no problem establishing a business entity with little regulatory oversight, which is what they want. Electric/gas/water rate payer cross-subsidization of telecom services will be the only thing the regulators look out for. As long as they are transparent on that score, they will have free reign.

Effectively marketing their services is more problematic for their "alternative revenue" aspirations. If the RBOC's could not market video competently, imagine a power company trying! Data is an easier goal, but certainly non trivial for them.

Muni's are the one area will there will be some innovation here, I would guess.
bonnyman 12/4/2012 | 11:51:04 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? desikar wrote:
"What are the regulatory issues involved? Which agency will regulate such deployment in the US?"

The big regulatory issue relates to radio interference. These powerline broadband systems use unshielded power conductors to transmit radio frequency signals over a typical range of 2 to 30 MHz. The unshielded conductors potentially allow both external radio traffic to leak in and interfere with the broadband traffic as well as allowing the broadband traffic to radiate outward and interfere with everyone using those wavelengths.

Most of the existing frequency users have licenses and have invested billions over the years in equipment to use the bands. They have the existing rights to these frequencies.

To make powerline broadband work, the vendors have to either make their systems operate at sufficiently low powers that they don't radiate excessively or the FCC has to strip the existing licensees of their spectrum (-- or more likely than baldly stripping spectrum, issuing a ruling quietly changing the maximum allowable noise allowed from unlicensed services).

The most vocal skeptics of powerline broadband are amateur radio operators, however, there are many other users of this very wide chunk of spectrum.

Also, Mary Jander wrote in her article that there was only one trial underway in the U.S. In fact there are several underway. To get more information on these trials, you can either:

1. dig through the archives of my weblog:
I post links to articles as they are written on the subject, or

2. Go to the American radio Relay League's page on the subject: http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/H...
They're down on powerline broadband, but Ed Hare, the author of this page has been very fair in including links to everybody, including powerline broadband vendors, or

3. Go to the vendor links Mary included in her article.

If the interference issue gets sorted out, powerline broadband could be a killer technology. It's reportedly cheaper to deploy than DSL and cable modem technology. The power utilities that might possibly deploy it have strong financial resources in most cases. It's not the final solution (fiber to the home), but it may bring good bandwidth to millions of Americans pretty quickly in the meantime at very affordable prices.
lightbeer 12/4/2012 | 11:51:03 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? Effectively marketing their services is more problematic for their "alternative revenue" aspirations. If the RBOC's could not market video competently, imagine a power company trying! Data is an easier goal, but certainly non trivial for them
You might be surprised by the business savvy and innovation in the Power Industry. I was a casualty of the Telecom Bust and moved on to the Power Industry, and I was pleasantly surprised by business acumen and forward thinking at some of the utilities. There is definitely a lot less bullsh*t and marketing hot air in this industry then in Telecom. Granted Enron didnGÇÖt do much for the industries image, but they are only a small part of the industry as a whole.

First, I donGÇÖt think the Electric Co. would ever consider proving broadcast television period. Second, I do not think the marketing hurdles are that overwhelming. God knows, there are plenty of good qualified telecom marketing folks that would jump at the chance just to have a paying job again.

I think that the Utilities can be successful if they make the user experience easy (i.e. plug the modem in the wall & plug the Ethernet connection into the computer and presto your up and running). Price the service below Cable/DSL and stick to data service only.
bonnyman 12/4/2012 | 11:51:02 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? "What do these guys do to get the signal over the step-down transformers. I understand this is less of an issue in Europe, where 200V to the household is the standard, than in the US?"

Amperion puts a Wi-Fi transmitter on the higher voltage side of the transformer and goes Wi-Fi the last 100 feet to the house, bypassing the transformer. Main.net puts an amplifier at the transformer on the higher voltage to both punch a stronger signal though the transformer towards the house and to re-amplify very weak signals coming back through the transformer from the house. Some other vendors have special bridges to go around the transformer electronically.

materialgirl 12/4/2012 | 11:51:02 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? A couple of thoughts.
1) What do these guys do to get the signal over the step-down transformers. I understand this is less of an issue in Europe, where 200V to the household is the standard, than in the US?

2)Can use of spread spectrum technologies alleviate the transmitted noise problem here?

3)I know about a fast powerline Ethernet solution that fits in a "wall wart" and is cheap. Any takers, or will WiFi rule all end user communications?
slayer666 12/4/2012 | 11:50:59 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? Someone asking about home networking? It exists and is called HomePlug...Ethernet over your powerlines. A little late due to 802.11 capturing the market. No range problems however, so it could have some uses. See Intellon and Cogency.

I would have to agree the Power Co's are the 1000 Lb. Gorillas, and could deliver the service if they wanted to. Europe seems to be ahead on this front, as most of their Telco's seem to be semi-government institutions who charge high rates and face no competition, so the power companies could step in and offer the service.
stephenpcooke 12/4/2012 | 11:50:59 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? There seem to be too many levels of testing that is going on. Carriers have their own fully equipped labs that perform generally complete test plans to required standards as well as their own network's peculiarities, Equipment Providers do their own development testing, and there is often a level in between occupied by the likes of Telcordia, in North America, and other national regulatory bodies.

The problem is that much of the testing that gets done by the Telcordia level is already done by the Equipment Providers, and then is re-done by the carriers. This level is incredibly expensive and yields very little in terms of equipment standards-compliance, quality, etc.

What is needed instead is a coalition of carriers that will accept the results generated in each other's labs. The key here is that this coalition would be an independent third party organization that would use the carriers labs (ie: make the carrier's labs a revenue source for the carrier) and sell testing services to the industry at large. This deals with the mistrust that carriers have for each other's labs (which is generally not on a technical level but a political or business level).

This coalition could then schedule testing for any vendor's equipment through the various carriers labs (the standards-based part would only be done once and would be accepted by all member carriers) as there would be interoperability testing necessary for each individual network. However, this would be the carrier-specific portion and would have minimal overlap. Equipment Providers would prioritize the carriers that their equipment goes through but coalition members would not have to re-find bugs that were found in other members' labs.

Turning the carrier labs into a revenue source instead of a huge expense, eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) the Telcordia layer, and reducing un-necessary overlap. I'm not saying that overlap is a bad thing, just overlap without communication between carriers.
OptoScot 12/4/2012 | 11:50:59 PM
re: Electrical Access: Dream On? There are at least three trials of this technology currently going in the Highlands of Scotland being run by Scottish Hydro Electric. They have a website at http://www.hydro.co.uk/broadba...

So far the trials seem to be panning out pretty well although they haven't yet declared what the final cost will be although it's thought to be about 30 pounds ( about 45USD ) for 1Mb. I also hear some stories about contention issues.

Nobody has died yet so it seems safe !!

Incidentally, standard voltage to the home here is 240v.

But, I remember in the 80s a system you could plug into the parallel port on your PC that you could use for remote printing before someone invented networks.... I had one and it worked but was horrendously slow...
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