A New Outlet for Broadband

The emerging field of BPL – broadband Internet access over common power lines – is nearing some large-scale rollouts.

As several companies conduct experiments using electrical wiring in the home to provide broadband Internet access, the phrase “plugged in” may take on a whole new meaning.

Currently, most power lines are “dumb” conduits, used to transfer electric current. But they’re actually capable of carrying data as well. Therein lies the excitement behind the emerging field of broadband over power lines, or BPL.

Last week, Houston, Texas-based energy company CenterPoint and IBM announced a trial run that will provide BPL service to 220 homes in the greater Houston area. And two weeks ago Current Communications Group, a Maryland-based company offering broadband over power lines, announced that it had secured $100 million in venture financing from Google, Hearst, and Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, other BPL trials are currently underway in Manhattan, Cincinnati, and parts of North Carolina.

So, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision that cable companies don’t have to share their lines with other ISPs (the “BrandX Decision”), consumers around the country may soon have a third choice (in addition to cable and DSL) for getting broadband.

BPL technology has been in the works for more than five years, but several factors have come together recently to speed up its commercial viability. In October 2004, the Federal Communications Commission announced its support for standards for the technology – an important step. Also, several states, including Texas and California, are developing their own legislation to iron out remaining regulatory issues among utilities and BPL.

Meanwhile, on the technology side, increases in chip speed have combined with cost reductions for key components, such as adapters and chips, to pave the way for more economical deployments of the technology.

“We’ve been chomping at the bit with BPL,” says Ray Blair, vice president of IBM’s BPL initiatives. “Now we can run.”

Others are also enthusiastic. “We’re finally seeing the pieces are all in place,” says Kevin Brand, vice president of product management for Earthlink. The Internet provider currently has several small BPL trials around the country and Brand says subscriber feedback so far has been “very positive.”

It’s not just Internet providers and their consumers who could benefit from BPL. Utility companies themselves are bullish on it.

“We’re looking to take our grid into the 21st century,” says Don Cortez, vice president of operations support at Houston-based CenterPoint Energy. “BPL gives us the possibility of monitoring the different points on the grid and letting us know well before something happens if something is wrong. Right now we have no way to see what’s going on.”

With BPL, utilities can monitor line usage and problems, as well as read meters without dispatching a technician.

On the consumer side, BPL offers some potential advantages over broadband alternatives. For one, customers could use the technology to turn down air conditioning or make sure the coffee pot is off while they’re away from home.

“When every power outlet becomes a communications tool, you can have that kind of intelligence in every room,” says Cortez. CenterPoint will decide what type of commercial roll-out to offer its customers by September, according to Cortez.

BPL technology also provides a broadband option that may be simpler and faster. Current Communications Group has a BPL-based program running in Cincinnati, with subscribers “in the thousands,” according to Kevin Kushman, CCG vice president of corporate development.

The company offers a three-megabit-per-second broadband package, comparable to many cable-based broadband offerings, for $35 per month. It’s not price that Current is competing on, though, says Kushman, but the fact that, with BPL, the uploading speed is the same as the downloading speed, around 3 megabits per second.

In other broadband mediums, the upstream speed can be considerably slower than downstream. Further, Kushman says their BPL customers like not having to deal with a router. The company gives subscribers one free adapter with the service, and sells additional adapters for $30 each.

Wes Warnock, a spokesperson for SBC Communications, the largest telephone-line-based broadband provider in the country, won’t comment on the IBM/CenterPoint trial, but says that SBC’s consumers are satisfied with the 416 K bits per second upstream speed of DSL. “Our feedback shows it serves them well,” he says.

Meanwhile, other companies are plugging away. “We’re close to seeing large-scale deployments of BPL,” says Earthlink’s Brand.

Eric Hellweg is an award-winning writer and editor who has covered business and technology for over 10 years.

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