Access denied: BPL turns to the home network

Broadband over Power Lines not an ideal access technology, shows promise in high-def oriented home networks

According to opponents and proponents of Broadband over Power Lines, the technology is unlikely to gain a foothold in the commercial access space but is finding a niche as a networking technology inside the home.

Several years ago, Aurora energy, Country Energy, SP Ausnet, TransACT and others all trialed BPL access technology across Australian states as an alternative to copper and fibre-based netowrks.

Despite being touted for high speeds and widespread commercialization, claims of unacceptable levels of interference by wireless operators, stiff competition from other technologies such as wireless access, and reluctance of utilities providers to move into the telco space have been some of the obstacles BPL has faced.

"[BPL is] certainly looking very shaky as far as access technology is concerned, there is no doubt about that" said Phil Waits, director of the Wireless Institute of Australia, a chief opponent of BPL.

"I think at the end of the day it just became too expensive, there were too many problems to use it successfully as an access technology."

Waits said that from a technical point-of-view most of the WIA's objections stemmed from the belief that BPL access technology is flawed because of interference with other sensitive electronic devices.

While BPL modems in the home can also have problems of interference with other devices, he agrees that there are some very good applications for the technology.

"BPL is certainly one in a whole basket of technologies that can provide connectivity through a home, where you have a home with smart appliances and smart [electricity] meters, and all the appliances talk to the meters. BPL is just one in a range of technologies people can use," Waits said.

But Waits believes using BPL in the home to communicate between smart meters and appliances would be akin to "cracking a walnut with an elephant," and that mobile wireless technology such as GPRS is a much simpler, cheaper, established and less problematic method of doing so.

"I think in some ways it's a product looking for an application, an industry looking for a reason to be. Wireless technology has passed it by," he said.

Waits concedes that there are "very good applications for BPL" in specialised markets, but believes the technology will remain a niche application.

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Paul Brooks, executive director of telecommunications analyst firm Layer 10, agrees that despite successful trials as an access technology, BPL did not support a service speed, capability and cost that was competitive with existing telecoms technology and was therefore an unattractive commercial proposition.

In the case of Aurora, Brook's assertion is confirmed by the company's business development manager, Piero Peroni, who said that the BPL technology Aurora trialed was "simply outstanding, but there were decisions made related more to the business capabilities, electrical utilities moving into a very different telco space".

Telco analyst Paul Budde, of BuddeComm, echoed Peroni's sentiments.

"I think there is nothing wrong with the technology, the major problem is not if BPL works or doesn't work, the major problem is to get utilities to take on that work and become telcos. But they don't want to take that risk, they don't feel comfortable in the telco space," Budde said.

"So far I haven't seen around the world many utilities that are overly eager to do that. There are a few in Germany and America, but there are very few in between. So it really is a problem of the business model rather than the technology,"

But Layer 10's Brooks is adamant BPL has a strong case for a place in consumer's homes.

"Absolutely, as a distribution mechanism within the home, BPL is something I use myself and it works very well. The current devices on the market I believe run up to 200Mbs bi-directional; they compete favourably and can exceed the performance you can get with wireless," he said.

Brooks believes BPL's prevalence will grow as more and more triple play networks emerge as people install media gateways, digital recorders and other devices typically deployed close to the television set in their homes.

"Quite a few people are taking it up when they try to hook up a media gateway to do high-def media streaming to their television and find they can't get the performance they need from a Wi-Fi connection back to their study. BPL is absolutely perfect for that and beats the performance of wireless" he said.

BPL technology can also be rolled out in buildings that preclude excavation or modification to accommodate new infrastructure, or where Ethernet may not reach, such as in coal mines or heritage buildings.

Budde believes that as utilities providers become more involved in the climate and energy debate, and as the nation's electricity grids are upgraded to smart grids, BPL may make a resurgence.

"In that process, BPL and wireless and all the other technologies can play a role, so what you will see is rather than looking externally for a business opportunity to exploit BPL, they will look more internally and say 'how can we actually use BPL and other technologies to smarten up and be more efficient and save energy'."

Confirming Budde's forecast, an ACMA media spokesperson told Computerworld that "recent media reports confirm that a number of power utilities in Australia, and overseas, are continuing to investigate the use of electricity infrastructure for the supply of services ancillary to the operation of the electricity network (referred to occasionally as 'smart grids'). Such services are not offered to end-users, and can be distinguished from BPL services offered to end-users as a surrogate for other broadband services (eg. ADSL, Wi-Fi)".

Further information on BPL trials and deployments can be obtained from the ACMA BPL information page.