BPL advocates say system ready to prosper, expand.
A year ago, Underground Construction carried a report about Manassas, VA, becoming the first U.S. community to offer BPL on a citywide basis. Broadband service is provided over the city's electrical system by Communications Technology Inc. Walt Adams, vice president for commercial operations, says the network has been well received and a major upgrade providing faster internet speeds will be implemented next year.
However, benefits of BPL are not limited to internet services--BPL brings power providers real-time information about its electrical system, pinpoints problems as they occur, and can help improve the system's overall performance.
How much has BPL progressed since the Manassas system was activated?
"BPL is being deployed commercially on a wide-scale basis as we speak," said Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services and associate counsel for the United Power Line Council (UPLC), an alliance of electric utilities and technology companies dedicated to the development of BPL. "I would estimate that there are now about 100,000 customers in the U.S.
"The biggest area of growth has been in Texas. The TXU deployment with Current Communications will be the largest (see related article on page 30), but there are other significant deployments underway, including Current's deployment in Cincinnati to 50,000 homes."
Kilbourne said the prevailing business model is for the electrical utilities that are infrastructure service providers to lease access to BPL providers who actually provide internet services.
Manassas residents, as are most Texans who currently have or will be able to order Current's broadband services over TXU's BPL network, also have access to DSL and cable internet services. Are conventional broadband providers worried that the speed promised and convenience offered by BPL will take away customers?
Answered Kilbourne: "The major broadband providers don't consider BPL a competitive threat. They're too busy fighting each other to try and kill BPL too. Having said that, BPL is being deployed in areas where cable and DSL are currently available, and it has been able to compete effectively on cost and quality."
Some potential users also may be concerned that the same power line can carry both electrical power and broadband service without interference or other problems. Bundling power and broadband on the same power line works very well, say BPL advocates.
Electric lines that connect to a home or other building transmit 120/240/480 volts. Because electric current and radio frequency energy signals that carry data operate at different frequencies, the two don't interfere with each other electric current travels at lower frequencies while data is at higher levels. Once the electrical service carrying BPL information is inside a structure, the signal can be accessed at any electrical outlet with a BPL modem.
"Like any new technology," said Kilbourne, "BPL continues to be tested. The technology continues to improve, and we remain optimistic about its future. What we have learned from these tests is that it is a lot easier to deploy BPL equipment in homes than it is out on the grid. Resolving those challenges is the last remaining hurdle for BPL."
There are still only a handful of commercial deployments across the country, but that should change next year, Kilbourne believes.
"All it will take is a few successful commercial deployments and it should gain widescale acceptance," he said. "BPL is very user friendly and it can be deployed quickly. We're getting to the point where the technology can be used out of the box but at this stage it is still an art, as much as a science. We're still learning as we go along about the challenges of taking the equipment and using it out on the grid."
An improved regulatory climate also should encourage BPL growth. In August 2006, the Federal Communications Commission affirmed technical rules for BPL that UPLC believes promotes broadband access and competition, efficiency and reliability of electrical service.
In a press release, the UPLC called the FCC ruling a "landmark" decision. "First and foremost," said the release, "it [the FCC ruling] found that the rules adequately protect authorized radio services, including amateur radio, from harmful interference. In that regard, it also rejected efforts by radio licensees to prevent BPL operations in spectrum allocated for certain services, including amateur radio, and it denied prohibiting BPL altogether pending further study.
"Second, it allowed BPL operators to continue for the next year to use equipment that has not been certified by the FCC under new equipment authorization rules for BPL. This will enable BPL operators to replace defective equipment or to supplement equipment in existing systems."
Kilbourne believes regulatory issues have held back BPL development until recently, but that the FCC action, and laws passed in Texas and California that encourage utilities to deploy BPL technology will help.
"As more states support BPL, it will lead to wider deployment, just as it has in Texas and California," he said.
A question of standards
Standards are another issue.
"Utilities want to see the technology standardized before widespread commercial deployment begins," said Kilbourne. "The IEEE is developing standards so that equipment of different manufacturers will coexist and not conflict with other BPL devices on the same lines. Ultimately, the standards will promote interoperability."
What are the prospects for BPL in the immediate future?
Smart grid applications--using BPL to enable advanced utility applications--will probably be the biggest growth factor for BPL, Kilbourne said. Utilities need the capabilities that BPL can provide. It is necessary now to develop equipment for those smart-grid applications.
"In the near term, most of the commercial activity will be using BPL in buildings," said Kilbourne. "There was recently another announcement about a major deployment in Washington, DC. It is relatively easy to deploy inside buildings and a lot cheaper and easier than drilling to run fiber or coax through walls.
"In the long term, BPL is something that could change the way that utilities do their business. There is still a lot of work left to do to get there, but there is so much potential from BPL that I believe it will happen and must happen because of business, regulatory and technical issues that are driving utilities to upgrade their infrastructure.
"Finally, from a consumer's standpoint, BPL is starting to gain market awareness, and it enjoys many advantages over other technologies that are on the market. The best thing going for it is its ease of use. You plug it in and it works. Cost is now coming down where the equipment is competitive with other technologies. Speeds are increasing because of new chip sets that are on the market. It really is more a question of when BPL will take off, not if it will take off."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Broadband Over Power Lines: United Power Line Council, (202) 833-6815, uplc.utc.org
Smart Grid Technology
Historically, power grids have never been especially "smart," observes the United Power Line Council (UPLC). Often service providers have not known about a power outage until customer calls report the problem.
Broadband over power line (BPL) technology, providing two-way flow of information, can detect exactly when and where there is a power interruption. This allows the effective deployment of repair and maintenance crews. Power stations can be monitored remotely by using cameras, increasing their security. In addition, smart grids enable automatic meter reading. It also allows for demand-side management, where consumers are encouraged to use non-essential power sources in off-peak times. For example, run the dishwashers and do laundry late at night and pay a lower cost for electrical consumption.
Tim Frost, director of corporate planning for Consolidated Edison, New York, NY, and co-chair of the United Power Line Council board of directors, says BPL power line communications will enable his company to better operate and automate its electrical network.
"For utilities," Frost says, "smart grid technology provides the ability to create real-time information. For networks to be functional, they have to have sensors to deal with the flood of information that needs to be managed and that operators can react to. One thing we are particularly interested in is that BPL may have the unique ability to allow utilities to understand the condition of underground cables. BPL can potentially assist in predicting failures. That still has to be developed."