Cable Tech

Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod

Broadband over powerline (BPL) got a boost from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week, but even as the technology begins deployments, it's unclear how much of a fight it will put up against DSL and cable.

The FCC decided against changing the rules governing BPL last week, a move welcomed by supporters of the technology (see BPL Players Applaud FCC). The FCC also praised the rise of BPL, noting that it offers a "third line" into the home, next to DSL and cable, and offered BPL as proof that competition thrives in the market.

The past two years have seen several BPL trials pop up in rural U.S. areas, and some companies have even installed permanent deployments. But it's difficult to see BPL becoming a widely successful business for utilities, says Meta Group Inc. analyst David Willis.

"If they have the goal of having cheap broadband in, say, two years -- by that time, the market will have completely changed. It won't be about $30 broadband; it'll be about wireless and security and voice and other things," Willis says. With fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and WiMax deployments already underway, the utilities "have so much catching up to do."

The best area for BPL would be upscale suburbs -- but that's the case for every other broadband technology, especially FTTH. "No matter where they go, they're already getting squeezed by somebody that's already in the market," Willis says.

Still, others believe BPL will be necessary to keep competition fired up in the U.S. market. Among them is "apprentice" venture capitalist and Ethernet creator Bob Metcalfe, who remains unconvinced that FTTH alone can create competition (see Bob Metcalfe). Some big names are starting to get involved with BPL. Cinergy Corp. is working with Current Communications Group LLC to bring BPL to a planned 50,000 homes in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana by year's end. And EarthLink Inc. is hoping to deliver BPL in Manhattan, using Con Edison Communications Inc. (NYSE: ED) power lines and technology from Ambient Corp.

Rural utilities are trying their hand as well. The Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) tried out BPL with a small trial in March. The utility contacted 500 customers with a "buyer beware" letter, saying that the service could deliver 256 Mbit/s bidirectionally but noting that it was unproven and would come with limited maintenance. About 50 homes and businesses responded, with results good enough for CVEC to consider expanding the service further.

"We spent a number of months working on the equipment and the software, but it has worked exceedingly well," says Greg Kelly, CVEC's business development manager.

Aside from the business case, a few technology concerns linger for BPL, including interference, particularly with Ham radio. Power lines already interfere with radio signals -- anyone listening to AM radio in the car can tell you that -- and it's long been suspected that BPL will increase that interference in higher-frequency bands, tromping over other signals.

Kelly says CVEC's gear provider, International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC), has been working on solving those problems with a combination of methods -- a wireless technique called notching; the use of ferrites, magnets that can be found in some power cords; and a lower-power signal, something akin to what's used to deliver powerline Ethernet within a building.

Meta's Willis thinks it's likely is that the FCC is just trying to show it isn't coddling phone companies at the expense of other providers. The problem is that BPL is only beginning to roll out and hasn't proven itself in large-scale deployments.

"It's a little bit pathethic that this is the best the FCC can do to introduce competition," Willis says. "They've talked about intramodal competition for some time, but the only thing they can point to is cable vs. DSL."

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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jayja 12/5/2012 | 1:10:12 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod If BPL worked, it would be happening now.

"...the service could deliver 256 Mbit/s bidirectionally... "

They're shooting behind the duck. The only people that will want these speeds in 2 or 3 years are the few people who can't get DSL or cable modem.
Toad680 12/5/2012 | 1:10:11 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod Here are a couple lines from a very long article in the Boston Globe on October 18th titled FCC ruling sets stage for broadband surge. It talks a little bit about the speed some are claiming (as I mentioned DS2 is saying 200mbs) as well as the cost advantages and other benefits to the utility that I think are going to help drive deployments. It's only a small section and you should access the whole piece--there are negative points raised as well--but this section addresses your point.

"Hunt says that Amperion's current gear can deliver 20 megabits of data to the lamppost, with a 100-megabit version due out next year. And because the utility won't have to string a lot of new cables, Hunt figures it could sell this kind of service for $19 a month and still turn a profit.

The utility can make still more money by using the data network to operate more efficiently. It can install electric meters that read themselves or electrical switchgear that diagnose maintenance problems and send an e-mail to headquarters before there's a blackout. Systems like these could save millions in labor and repair costs and hold our rates down.
And if you combine a smart electrical grid with smart electrical devices, utilities would be able to manage customers' demand for electricity. Imagine a big office building whose owners get a lower electric rate in exchange for letting the utility control their electrical use. The building's key electrical systems--air conditioning, heating, lighting -- could all talk to the utility over the power grid. On a hot day, with power demand soaring, the power company could inch up the building's thermostat from 70 to 75 and shut off half the fluorescent lights on every other floor. Multiply this by thousands of buildings, and you could save enough juice to skip that new power plant. That's millions of dollars saved, and millions of tons of filthy coal unburnt."
johnyrosco 12/5/2012 | 1:10:11 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod

Patent Approval Time Line

Patents Granted to Ambient

Identifying one of a plurality of wires of a power transmission cable
Applied for September 7, 2001 Granted November 11, 2003 26 months

Energy conversion systems using nanometer scale assemblies and methods for using same
Applied for June 20, 2001 Granted July 15, 2003 24 months

Inductive coupling of a data signal to a power transmission cable
Applied for December 28, 2000 Granted September 17, 2002 21 months

Capcitively coupled bi-directional data and power transmission system
Applied July 9, 1996 Granted December 8, 1998 29 months

Patents Pending

Construction of medium voltage power line data couplers
Applied for May 2, 2003 Estimated Approval Date May, 2005

Identifying one of a plurality of wires of a power transmission cable
Applied for March 7, 2002 Estimated Approval Date March, 2004 (now granted)

Protecting medium voltage inductive coupled device from electrical transients
Applied for Nov 13, 2003 Estimated Approval Date November, 2005

High current inductive coupler and current transformer for power lines
Applied for October 30, 2003 Estimated Approval Date October, 2005

Full duplexing for power line data communications
Applied for October 30, 2003 Estimated Approval Date October, 2005

Inductive coupling of a data signal for a power transmission cable
August 28, 2003 Estimated Approval Date August, 2005

Energy conversion systems using nanometer scale assemblies and methods for using same
August 14, 2003 Estimated Approval Date August, 2005
Toad680 12/5/2012 | 1:10:11 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod I think that was technology from a couple of years ago.

Spanish chip maker DS2 says their chipset provides 200mbs.

That's more than enough for a couple HDTV channels, VoIP, internet access. . .

But the utility also gets the cost benefits of automated meter reading, real time pricing and load balancing blah, blah, blah

And then you have real time traffic monitoring, air quality monitoring because you can put cameras at intersections and air qual readers at various points along the grid.

If the performance claims are true, the cost advantages are accurate and the additional uses are of benefit, I wouldn't be so quick to discount the competition that BPL may provide.

It may not be as sexy as fiber, but I can see how the economics may work even better, particularly from the point of view of a utility. And it gives a tired old utility a way to drive down costs and increase revenues and earnings. There will clearly be cross subsidization issues with the local utility boards, but the desire to grow earnings isn't absent from utilities--especially since the deregulation of generation.
Frank 12/5/2012 | 1:10:10 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod Most of the benefits cited in connection with the power company's own use would be considered 'in band' to the utitlity's own media. Such would be useless in the event of downed power lines, since it's impossible at that point to 'see' beyond the faults.

Currently (I could have stated, "at present"), the utilities use a combination of both in-band and out-of-band probes, the latter usually attached to their network centers via an assortment of media, sometimes being twisted pairs provided by the telcos, or through private, secondary paths of the utility's own provisioning.

It's the difference between an integrated management system and one that has been overlaid, each with their own pros and cons. Personally, I think that they are making too much out of the use of BPL for such things, because if this is all they wanted to do they could have done it with in-band low-speed telemetry without all of the problems and risks associated with EMi/RFI.

cyberhare 12/5/2012 | 1:10:10 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod Here's an earlier LR article on BPL. These benefits for utility companies might be a compelling factor for deployment:

"BPL will provide for significantly more efficient and reliable electric distribution networks nationwide in a variety of ways, including:

* Automated outage and restoration detection;
* Automated meter reading;
* Load management through remote monitoring and operation of switches, transformers and other electric utility network equipment;
* Remote capability to connect and disconnect electrical service;
* More efficient demand-side management programs."

Pepcione 12/5/2012 | 1:10:10 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod It's not about the utilities getting into the business as ISP's to compete with Cable and DSL, but rather for the Major ISP's to lease the Utilities' BPL network so they have a broadband solution to offer their fleeing dial-up customers. The Utility themselves are more interested in using BPL for grid management - which in itself could justify the deployment investment.

With preferential LEC wholesale rates going away, the AOL's & Earthlinks of the world need a broadband offering that actually has some sustainable margins in the future. The increasing DSL rates from the Boc's to the ISP's make it risky for them to migrate customer's over to the Boc's DSL. So what are they to do with the 40+ Million dial up customers in the US? Do you think these ISP's are going to just roll over and die? Think not.

Let's consider Level 3 for a moment, the largest wholesale provider of dial-up lines to all the major ISP's; AOL, Earthlink, United Online, is an advocate and petitioned the FCC to support BPL. The Bells are doing their best to shut the major ISP's out of broadband party, I wouldn't underestimate their strength.

If the price of broadband drops below $30 by the time BPL hits the streets, the winner will the network with the lowest cost. Lowest cost to build out and lowest cost to operate. BPL wins on both fronts.

slayer666 12/5/2012 | 1:10:09 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod LetGÇÖs not forget that most power companies are pseudo government institutions, or at the very least State monopolies, and charge based on state regulated pricingGǪExcept of course when DubyaGÇÖs buddies at Enron pulled them in to the GÇ£free marketGÇ¥ of power trading. They are regulated based on the cost of generation and delivery,GǪAnyway, they will not be capable of running an IP network over their lines, and will need a complete refocus of their skills. This is a classic case of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks! And these are very old dogs.
outtatelecom 12/5/2012 | 1:10:09 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod Power companies may be old dogs, but
admittedly the cable guys were too at one
time and after getting their act together,
driving a standard, and slogging through
5 or 6 years worth of deployment issues
ended being not your grandfather's cable

All this talk about power line health
monitoring is a another way to pump up the
the value of BPL for the FCC. As has been
pointed out in the past, the existing
low frequency communication system already
deployed could be extended to include all
the features laid out in these articles.
You don't need 20 Mbit/s to do this stuff.
And it doesn't cause interference to HF.

Bottom line is that until the HF interference
issues are solved, BPL is a non-starter. The
rules are clear - no interference must be


slayer666 12/5/2012 | 1:10:08 AM
re: Powerline Ethernet Gets the Nod Yes the cable guys were luddites when they tried to deliver ISP services, and they still do it poorly in most cases...But with 3.5Mb/s (MB/s?)on the download I can overlook that. At least they originally had the concept of delivering multiple things to homes and charging them different rates for these things. (Cable Packages) I just think that power cos' are so far behind the eight ball, they will never see the pocket.

On the other hand, I think powerline internet is already rolled out in Europe, so I guess it is not that much of a stretch.
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