BPL Powering Up in 2005 -- Maybe
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Broadband over power line (BPL) technology is quickly emerging as a workable alternative, third-pipe competitor to cable and telephone companies, but it still needs a plan, according to a new report released today.
Prepared by the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), a Washington-based policy group, the report notes that trials, as well as actual commercial deployments of BPL systems, are on the rise, with more than 20 projects in operation in 2004 and more expected to come online in 2005.
"Experts feel that while the technology might be ready, electric utility companies and their partners still need to find ways to effectively compete in the broadband market," Barry Goodstat, a vice president at Harris Interactive, said at an NMRC press conference.
BPL holds tantalizing prospects for spreading broadband since the wires that carry electricity also possess the capacity to serve as a conduit for data signals. By bundling radio-frequency energy on the same line with the electric current that is already carried, data can be transmitted without the need for a separate line.
Once the signal reaches a business or home, the BPL technology allows users to plug a modem into any electrical outlet for a broadband connection.
"It is possible to deploy BPL networks that will offer data rates comparable to those of DSL or cable modem systems," Robert Olsen, an electrical engineering professor at Washington State University and another press conference participant, said. "It is doubtful, however, that data rates significantly higher than this will be possible without a very significant investment in 'conditioning' the power system."
Goodstat said Harris Interactive surveys show there is strong consumer interest in BPL and estimates that if the service is priced at $30 a month, there could be as many as 13 million households generating $4.5 billion for utilities within the next five years.
"But will they [utilities] really be able to deliver those services?" Goodstat asked. "In the past, utilities have been wary of rolling out new technologies."
One that has not been wary is the city of Manassas, Va., a bedroom community west of Washington. Last year, the city awarded a 10-year contract to Communications Technologies (COMtek) to provide BPL services over the city's electric grid. COMtek said the Manassas project is the first commercial deployment of BPL in the United States.
Offering residential service at $28.95 a month and commercial service for $39.95, COMtek has signed up more than a thousand customers and has several thousand more on a waiting list for when the company completes the rollout to all 12,500 residents of Manassas in April.
COMtek President and CEO Joseph Fergus said once his company began offering BPL, a local cable modem provider slashed its prices by 55 percent.
"Cities like Manassas, with only one or two competitors, are the real sweet spot," Fergus said.
"BPL isn't the answer for every community," he added, "and, in some cases, the technology is likely to be blended with other broadband platforms in order to provide the widest possible coverage."
BPL systems require a connection from the Internet backbone at a power substation, repeaters and couplers along the power lines. A final converter transfers the signal from the medium-voltage transmission lines to the low-voltage lines that go into homes and businesses. Some BPL trials have used Wi-Fi to bypass the final converter.
Some technologists and industry analysts remain concerned with the potential interference to radio transmissions from BPL systems. BPL transmissions are not shielded to prevent radio interference in the same manner as telephone and cable lines. Amateur radio operators, in particular, have opposed BPL.
Nevertheless, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October cleared the way for commercial BPL deployment by imposing technical requirements on BPL equipment and establishing "excluded frequency bands" that BPL must entirely avoid to protect aeronautical and aircraft communications.
Amateur radio operators received no exclusions, but the rules require the establishment of a publicly available BPL notification database to help identify and resolve harmful interference claims.
"The industry is finally moving beyond the theoretical stage to the real thing: actual commercial deployments of BPL," Fergus said. "Of course, we are dealing with a regulated industry [utilities] and that takes time, but we're getting calls from all over the world."
As the NMRC report notes, "Some BPL supporters caution that while the technology has been shown to be technically workable, economic questions remain about whether the electric companies can generate a profit. Regarded by some as a perfect solution for America's perceived broadband 'problems,' BPL still must prove the technology can be reliable on a large scale."