Powerline broadband trial pleases utility

Tasmanian electricity utility Aurora Energy is "very pleased" with the progress of its four-month-old Hobart trial of broadband over powerline (BPL) technology and is fielding strong international interest from countries as far afield as Iran. "We're very pleased with how it's going," the utility's Piero Peroni told ZDNet Australia last week.

Tasmanian electricity utility Aurora Energy is "very pleased" with the progress of its four-month-old Hobart trial of broadband over powerline (BPL) technology and is fielding strong international interest from countries as far afield as Iran.

"We're very pleased with how it's going," the utility's Piero Peroni told ZDNet Australia last week. The executive holds the rank of business development manager, new ventures.

"The only thing is, we're probably going a bit slower than we would have liked, but that's to be expected, because it's a new technology. It's hard to develop a project plan about how you would roll it out."

Peroni said demand for the service in broadband-starved Tasmania had been strong, although he declined to reveal exact numbers. On launching the service Aurora said it hoped to eventually deploy BPL to all 250,000 customers on its Tasmanian electricity grid.

"We're very, very happy in particular with the customer takeup -- it's actually exceeded our expectations," he said. "We've been quite astounded really ... in some areas, it's probably even fair to say that we've been a little bit overwhelmed by the demand."

"The numbers in some areas exceed even our most optimistic expectations. So we're already at this stage working on planning what the future steps might be."

Peroni said the demand was exacerbated because there was a dearth of competition for broadband services in Tasmania.

"In Sydney you've got decent wireless providers, and you've got all these telcos putting their own equipment into the exchanges and so on, but here it's pretty much Telstra or Telstra," he said, adding the service had even been taken up by some customers with existing ADSL services.

According to the Aurora executive, around 70 percent of new BPL customers had signed up for a 1Mbps plan, with around 10-15 percent choosing the higher speed 4Mbps package.

A 256Kbps package is also on offer, but Peroni said it had not proved popular. "The 256kbps is really just an intro package for people who have not had the Internet before," he said.

"Typically they decide that this is good and they decide to go to the faster packages."

Playing host
Due to the trial's status as one of the world's first large-scale commercial BPL trials, Aurora has been fielding enquiries about its progress from electricity utilities from all over the world.

In addition to local utilities from the mainland, companies from New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore and Fiji have visited with Aurora, and enquiries have come in from as far as Iran.

"We have had a lot of utilities come down," said Peroni. "Typically we spend a day with them, talk about it, show them the network and the network management tools."

"We probably need a full-time tour guide," the executive joked. He noted though, that Aurora was happy to entertain visitors because of the need to share experiences about the bleeding-edge technology.

"We don't step on each other's toes because we only have networks in our own states -- they don't overlap," he said on the issue of giving information to potential local competitors.

Such free-flowing information could soon result in additional BPL trials. NSW-based Country Energy said back in November last year it was planning a commercial trial early this year.

"You'll find that over the next few months -- so I would hope anyway -- that a number of trials will get up and running," said Peroni.

Ironing out the bugs
As for the BPL technology itself, Peroni is confident it'll stand the test of time.

"There's always some minor hiccups, you know, a little tweak here and a tweak there, but overall, it's been very reliable," he said. "We're really where ADSL was five years ago."

Aurora initially had concerns the BPL hardware from vendor Mitsubishi -- some of which sits on street-side electricity poles -- wouldn't stand up to Australia's extreme temperatures. But "it's been very very reliable in that sense," said Peroni.

"Sometimes you need to tweak parameters, as you do with any network ... the key thing with the technology is not the BPL equipment, but how you couple onto the powerlines to get maximum performance," he added.

"That's one thing that we're learning throughout the trial, how to get more and more bandwidth out of the links that we built."

"It's transparent to the users obviously, but from a technical point of view we've made a lot of progress. We interact regularly with Mitsubishi in Japan, and they're already sending us firmware upgrades. They have some hardware upgrades in the future to make it better, faster."

One of the technical challenges Aurora has faced is related to the dated hardware commonly found in electricity grids.

"Electricity networks have been built over decades -- 60 years," said Peroni.

"The difference between installing this [BPL hardware] and a typical communications network is that every time you go to a segment of an electricity network, it's different from the previous one."

"You have different cables, different switching gear, a whole lot of things. And that was part of the trial: we specifically chose different areas with different networks."

"We wanted to get as much feedback as possible about what it takes to build networks in these areas and what kind of performance we can expect."

Ultimately the trial appears to have been a challenging but rewarding experience so far for Aurora.

"We're on a very steep learning curve, and there aren't other people in the world we can turn to, to ask for help," said Peroni. "Having said that though, we're very happy with what we've achieved."

Aurora's BPL trial is expected to last for nine months and commenced in mid-September last year.

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