Broadband Over Power Lines Gains Steam

In Manassas, Virginia, residents and businesses have a third option for broadband Internet access, and it comes at a lower price and without the installation fee and long-term commitment of DSL and cable. What's more, it's delivered over electrical wires, meaning everyone soon will have access to high-speed Internet without availability limitations that plague other technologies.

"We've got a couple hundred users today that are using the BPL [broadband over power line] service, and we've got about 1200 on a waiting list," says John Hewa, assistant director, electric utility, for the city. "We think around the end of the year or the beginning of 2005, we'll have the service available anywhere in the city."

In January, Manassas, a city of about 36,000 people, turned an 18-month field trial into a commercial offering. It's one of four utilities--including Cynergy in Cincinnati, Pennsylvania Power & Light, and Central Virginia Coop--that have rolled out commercial BPL this year.

Growth Expected

While 2004 didn't turn into quite the rush to embrace BPL services that industry observers predicted last year, there continues to be momentum around the technology. Providers say BPL throughput can range from 300 kilobits per second to 2 mbps, about the same as cable and DSL, but that they can provide the service at a less-expensive rate.

Manassas, for example, offers its BPL for $26.95 per month with no installation fee and no long-term contract. Hewa says cable service in Manassas could be as much as $55 per month without a bundled package that includes cable television service, and DSL averages about $30 per month. Cable and DSL also charge installation fees and require long-term contracts, Hewa says.

The primary benefit of BPL, however, is that it can be delivered over existing infrastructure: any site with power outlets can be hooked up to a high-speed broadband connection. That has attracted the attention of high-level officials, including FCC Chairman Michael Powell and President George Bush, who has called for nationwide broadband access by 2007.

"One great opportunity [to get broadband to more consumers] is to spread broadband throughout America via our power lines," Bush said during a speech at the U.S. Department of Commerce in June.

Hurdles Ahead

But hurdles remain--such as setting standards and opposition from groups such as amateur radio enthusiasts who say the technology causes too much radio interference. Analysts are also lukewarm about BPL's prospects for taking significant market share from DSL and cable. They note that cable and DSL have matured to provide more than a single "big pipe," bundling other services into their offerings. That's something BPL also will have to do.

"We're in the camp of 'We're going to believe it when we see it,'" says Matt Davis, director of broadband access technologies at The Yankee Group. "The more technologies and the more choices in the marketplace, the better. It keeps everybody innovating. But it's going to be tough. To tell you the truth, if utilities are really going to get into driving telecom services it likely will be through fiber."

Nevertheless, the continuing maturity of BPL and a growing number of positive experiences with field trials, along with government support, is helping spur interest.

Last year, for example, there were about a dozen utilities conducting field trials, but no commercial deployments. This year, in addition to the four commercial ventures, the number of field trials has increased to more than 36.

Getting Into the Game

ISPs that quietly watched the trials last year are now getting into the game. EarthLink, for example, is partnering with Progress Energy to deliver BPL in a field trial outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. EarthLink also has been working with Consolidated Edison in New York to deliver BPL on a trial basis for about two years. Last month, AT&T announced it was working with Pacific Gas and Electric to conduct a trial with about 100 residents in Menlo Park, California.

"There is general acceptance now that broadband over power line is here to stay. Most people agree it's going to happen and that it's a good thing," says Alan Shark, president of the Power Line Communications Association. "It's gotten off the drawing board. You are seeing deployments."

Research firm Chartwell, which tracks the energy industry, says the percentage of utilities--gas, water, and electric --planning or considering broadband deployments rose from 6 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2003. Of 100 electric utilities Chartwell surveyed, a third said they were using, planning, or considering broadband last year.

BPL is a last-mile technology that injects data handed off from a backhaul line, such as fiber-optic or fixed wireless, into medium-voltage power lines. Companies such as Ambient, Amperion, Current Technology, and Main.net-Power Line Communications have developed technology to do that.

The technology providers have their greatest variance when the data signals reach the transformer that converts medium volts into the low volts that are sent into homes and businesses. Amperion, for example, avoids the transformer and low-voltage lines altogether, using Wi-Fi to go directly into the homes. The others go through the transformer or around it, sending IP packets into the home along the low-voltage lines.

The data is accessed via a standard HomePlug-certified device or a proprietary device that plugs into a wall.

Business Plans

Utilities are still grappling with the business issues of becoming a broadband wholesaler--in most cases they are not interested in distributing the service themselves and instead are working with third-party service providers. Manassas, for example, is partnering with broadband provider Communication Technologies.

"The utility companies that conducted the trials initially were asking the question, 'Does it work?'" says Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services for the United Telecom Council, an IT trade association for electric, gas and other critical infrastructure firms. "The question now is, 'Can we deploy it economically?'"

Another issue that might be holding things up is that rules and standards are still pending. This fall, the FCC is expected to finalize rules it proposed earlier this year regarding BPL. As for standards, the IEEE has formed a committee to create hardware and safety standards for BPL. While Kilbourne notes that many utilities might be waiting for the FCC to finalize rules before making serious bets on BPL, standards probably won't make that much of a difference just yet.

The IEEE says it likely will be 2006 before any standards are settled on. Once standards are set, it will help drive down prices by removing the proprietary nature of existing hardware technologies, analysts say.

As for existing obstacles, the FCC is proposing rules aimed at mitigating problems, including requiring that BPL equipment can reduce power or shift frequencies to avoid or correct interference problems.

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