Walk the line

Just a few years ago, power lines were touted as a potential means of delivering information fast and at little cost. But despite significant barriers stalling progress and competition from rival technologies, the concept maintains a staunch following with tests ongoing.

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By  Administrator Published  November 4, 2007

While wireless technology has developed rapidly in recent years it may come as a surprise that ICT specialists ever looked at the idea of using power lines as a means to transmitting information.

But despite the arrival of new technologies such as WiMAX and fibre optic cable, broadband over power lines still appeals to many people in the ICT sector, particularly in countries with established telecom markets where the cost of laying new cables may be prohibitive and existing power line infrastructure can offer a ready-made infrastructure.

Milan Sallaba, director of specialist consultancy Oliver Wyman, is no stranger to the technology, and the many reasons for its lacklustre development.

"The promise of extending broadband access via the ubiquitous electricity grid appears compelling - ‘every house' pretty much is already connected, no new wires needed, easy to install and use - but BPL (broadband over power lines) was simply not ready for wider commercial launch and has remained since then in an embryonic stage," Sallaba says. He added that in 2006 BPL still counted less than 200,000 subscribers worldwide, according to some analysts.

There are many reasons for this, with a lack of standardised technologies and incompatibility between technologies causing particular headaches for exponents of BPL. Other problems include high frequency transmissions resulting in high electromagnetic emissions, and noise from electrical appliances being switched on and off which can interfere with signals, all of which is exacerbated by an inferior bandwidth to ADSL, according to Sallaba. "On top of that, the business case for broadband access was unclear given cost uncertainty, business models around broadband provision and competition from other broadband access technologies," he says.

But despite these problems, interest in BPL remains strong, particularly in more developed markets such as Europe. "Since 2004, various entities, organisations and associations such as Opera (Open Plc European Research Alliance) and Home Plug Power Line Association, have continued their efforts to solve technological issues and tried to overcome lack of standardisation. Many today claim to have made significant progress," Sallaba adds.

Opera is a consortium of 26 organisations including electric utilities such as Spain's Iberdrola, PLC (power line communication) operators such as Portugal's ONI, and smaller technology providers. Furthermore, Opera's European Union-funded research project has now entered its second phase  - running from 2007 until 2009 - with the goal of making BPL a real broadband access alternative.

In particular Opera aims to improve BPL technology and foster standardisation. Some industry analysts have pointed out that the consortium is setting-up a showroom to demonstrate the viability of BPL services such as internet, VoIP, VoD or smart home.

"These developments and the fact that in-building PLC is gaining some traction, with big industry names such as France Telecom, BT Vision and Belgacom are offering their IPTV subscribers PLC adaptors to connect the ADSL router with the IPTV decoder, might explain the renewed public interest in BPL," says Sallaba. "Some sources estimate that currently more than 100 commercial BPL trials are being conducted in 40 countries."

However, Sallaba says that many questions remain about the wide-spread commercial viability of BPL. Different standardisation bodies continue to follow different paths, and even where BPL is able to compete with other fixed line broadband access technologies in terms of speed, many markets already have significant existing infrastructure of alternative access technologies, such as cable and xDSL.

Sallaba points to the example of French utility Mecelec. In April 2006, the company announced its intention to roll out BPL to 1.5 million households in suburbs in Paris to offer broadband access. However, in March 2007, it stopped recruiting third-party operators and announced that is was re-evaluating the impact of its rivals' plans, such as the roll out of FTTH planned by France Telecom and others players.

"In general terms, the commercialisation of BPL still requires investments beyond the power grid being available, for example, special equipment at transformer stations and CPE (customer premises equipment) is required, and it may not be cost efficient," Sallaba says. "The business case heavily depends on the number of households connected, which would vary significantly by region.

"In the US, for instance, typically only four to eight households are on the low-voltage side of the transformer, so BPL investments at transformer level would need to be recovered with very few customers," he says. "By contrast in Europe one might find 100 homes per node, which requires lower investment per home, but currently that consequently would not allow high-bandwidth services such as IPTV due to shared bandwidth constraints," he adds.

Fixed line high-speed access technologies are not the only competitors to BPL either. Mobile technologies such as WiMAX are gaining momentum, and are especially attractive for some of the markets BPL might target, such as low penetration rural areas with a lack of fixed infrastructure. In this case timing is a key issue, as BPL is still in its standardisation phase, according to Sallaba.

On the other hand, the combination of WiMAX and BPL could potentially prove to be a successful means to provide broadband access economically in these areas. Existing telco operators might have little interest in co-operating with utilities to deliver BPL, and particularly if they already have high-speed internet infrastructure in place. At the same time, utilities have generally remained cautious regarding high-speed internet and related P&S offers, and rather focus on the "intelligent network" aspect of BPL.

Akshay Lamba, a consultant with consultant KPMG, agrees that BPL faces numerous challenges, and that it is unlikely to compete with newer technologies such as fibre optic cable and WiMAX, particularly in newer markets such as the Gulf countries where there it is often easier to install these technologies.

"With the new companies like du coming in, they are actually spreading fibre optic to the home so sending information over the power line is not going to make sense when you have got fibre-optic in the ground," he said. "Thirdly, companies like Etisalat and du are looking at third generation technologies now, especially wireless data services, whether it's WiMAX or WiBro or 3G HSDPA. All these would play a much bigger role in offering broadband to the consumers than actually to power lines."

A further blow for BPL is that in established markets where the concept might seem to have a greater potential, there are other problems. Indeed, while BPL might have less competition from fibre-optic cable in established markets such as Europe and the USA, there is often a problem with the quality of copper in the power system, which might not be up to the job of transmitting information. "In this respect, you can't operate here and you can't operate there - it's not a technology that I think will overpower the rest. There is fibre-optic and the world is moving at a fast pace towards wireless," Lamba says.

Despite this, BPL might still hold some benefits for certain applications. Lamba said there are two pieces to the concept of BPL. There is as access side to the technology and a transmission side. "The core transmission bit is when you are sending huge amounts of data from one point to another, typically as part of a telecom network. This is not for end customers - this is generally for your own transmission of data - say from the UAE to KSA. Doing broadband over power lines for the transmission network makes sense and it works reasonably well."

In this way, Lamba says it would make sense for a telecom provider to use BPL over transmission networks, particularly for overflow traffic, but not for businesses or end-users. Some telecom companies could benefit by collecting information from multiple country sites and then aggregating it across a single pipe, according to Lamba. "That's where transmission networks play a role. That's where broadband over power lines can be used, and it does make a lot of sense for overflow traffic."

Another potential application of BPL is to use the concept as an access technology from the consumer to the operator. This would allow the end-user to plug their laptop computer into a power line instead of a phone line in order to communicate. But again, this type of application could be hampered by the quality of copper used for power lines, which could effectively rule out broadband internet access and would put the technology in competition with dial-up connections.

Ultimately, Lamba thinks BPL is only likely to be used by some telecom companies to transmit aggregate overflow traffic, and even this is likely to be more of a short term application that could be overshadowed by other, lower cost technology in the future.

"Frankly there are too many other competing technologies that offer other advantages that overlook the fact that power lines are already in place," he says. "Technologies like WiMAX where it's all wireless, implementation costs are not too high, deployment timelines are not very long. These competing technologies are just much stronger than actually benefiting from delivering broadband over power lines."

BPL pilots By Joyce Putscher, principal analyst, residential connectivity, In-stat.

For BPL access, there are numerous pilots and tests going on, although I do not recall any specific full-scale deployments in the MEA region as yet. Many utilities are doing pilots and tests, but that process normally takes quite a while, depending on the amount of funding they have for deploying. Concerning BPL In terms of access in MDUs (multi dwelling units), there are spotty deployments - this is where they distribute broadband services to MDU tenants using power line from a basement (for example) to all units. Then, inside each unit, an "in-home" broadand power line connection to the broadband can be accomplished to every room via the electrical receptacles. A router can also be used with wireless LAN (802.11x) to complement connections in each unit with wireless in addition to a wired power line. Power line networking is considered to be an "alternative wired networking" technology that does not require installation of new cables - an advantage in terms of installation costs and ease while providing a stable wired connection.

The outlook for large volume access BPL is dependent upon timelines for full-scale deployments by utilities, while the outlook for access BPL for MDUs has been occurring (dependent upon individual MDU ownership, but small numbers for each MDU).

The utilites are also interested in HomePlug Command & Control (HPCC) narrowband power line networking for AMR and power load management. The HPCC specification was ratified not long ago. The most likely utility company candidates are those doing BPL smart grid applications. Utilities that are very motivated now (with available cash to spend for energy conservation and thus power load management) could have full deployment in their territories in five years.

Technologies such as HomePlug AV (and HomePlug 1.0+Turbo) are already being used in Europe, North America, and Asia for in-home broadband power line networking and are assisting service providers with making it easier to connect set top boxes for IPTV.

The HomePlug Alliance is targeting the end of 2007 to have HomePlug BPL ratified (that's for access), but of course, while those efforts are going on, in parallel you have pilots and tests.

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