Broadband over powerlines: It may take awhile

Broadband over powerlines: It may take awhile

Summary: Broadband over powerline technology may be coming to your home, but first electric companies need to read your meter in real time. That's the takeaway from a roundtable that focused Current Communications, a startup that is selling electric utilities on the need for better grid monitoring and management and software and broadband over powerline technology.

TOPICS: Broadband

Broadband over powerline technology may be coming to your home, but first electric companies need to read your meter in real time.

That's the takeaway from a roundtable that focused Current Communications, a startup that is selling electric utilities on the need for better grid monitoring and management and software and broadband over powerline technology. Current sells the technology and gear (below) utilities can use to offer broadband.  Internet access over the power grid allows you to plug in anywhere there is an electric outlet. Download  and upload speeds are also symmetrical.  Here's a gallery explaining how it works.

The roundtable at the Wharton Technology Conference had an executive from Current, Brendan Herron Jr., vice president of corporate development and strategy, and two investors--Richard Goldstein, managing director at Liberty Associates Partners and Scott Ungerer, managing partner at EnterTech Capital.

While the talk was focused on lessons for young startups, there were a lot of lessons about broadband over powerline technology.

Lesson 1: It's nearly impossible to sell new technologies to an industry that is risk averse and doesn't value new technologies. Current started with one big plan--enable voice and data communications over power lines. The rub: Electric companies weren't interested.

Lesson 2: Given lesson 1 you better be ready to cook up a new game plan. Current's game plan was to focus on software and services to monitor an electric grid in real-time with a system the company dubs SmartGrid. The business plan audible put Goldstein and Ungerer at odds, but it makes sense.

"Power companies are not looking to focus on broadband. That's why we launched the SmartGrid just to convince electric companies that we can help them," says Herron.

"If we didn't shift the business from broadband to SmartGrid. We would not have landed business. Who doesn't want to manage their assets better?" says Goldstein.

The catch: Convincing electric companies to take risks takes time. "You're changing their thought process over many years," says Goldstein.

Lesson 3: But don't forget the initial goal. Goldstein says that once SmartGrid is installed, utilities can offer broadband services. One large Texas power provider, TXU is starting to offer broadband services. TXU decided to invest in Current. In effect, SmartGrid is the Trojan Horse Current will use to roll out broadband services. If Current switched course too early SmartGrid and broadband services may not have hatched.

"Once we solved for the voice problem. Everything else became a subset of that technically. If say I just want to read the meter, we would have missed it," says Goldstein. "The problem is how do you get customers excited about voice over powerlines."

Lesson 4: Broadband over powerline technology needs evangelists. Current has two large customers, Duke Energy and TXU, and it will need those partners to convince other utilities to follow suit.

Lesson 5: Success is a slog. Translation: Don't expect broadband over powerlines any time soon. Current had to face regulatory hurdles and is targeting broadband services market by market, says Herron. There is no number of customers that will create a snowball effect right now although Current will need more than TXU and Duke on board.

Results so far: Current's rollout with TXU means broadband service capabilities will pass several 100,000 homes, says Herron. In Cincinnati, Current passes 54,000 homes. Goldstein argues that as long as customers don't fall in love with both cable and phone companies Current has a market. The experiment bears watching: Current raised $130 million in 2006 and counts Google, Liberty Media, Hearst and a handful of utilities as investors.

Topic: Broadband

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  • It will take a LONG while....

    While it would be REALLY nice to see some more competition in the broadband market (pretty much sucks now), I'm not holding my breath.

    As I've said all along in regards to BPL, if you're over 40, you probably don't need to give much thought to BPL. I'm in my fifties and am fairly confident that if BPL arrives in my neck of the woods, I'll be deceased or too old to give a crap.
    • I am in my 40's and I will bet cable wont

      be here until Iam dead and buried, assuming I live into my 80's or longer
  • Broadband Over Powerlines

    The power lines are excellent antennas. Tests have shown that it will cause major interference to licensed services including fire police, military, and aircraft navigation. FCC has ignored the test results. This will cause major safety problems.
    Terry Cove
    • Except that ... they are already doing it successfully ...

      This is an old argument that has been around for ages, but technology has advanced significantly and there are areas that have already deployed these services and since all wireless services are going to digital anyway, this has become pretty much a moot issue. There are those who are fighting it just like their have been those who fought the introduction of computers and the automobile, among other innovations. But broadband over power line is coming and it is coming sooner than you might imagine. The potential profits and efficiencies of scale are just to great for it not to happen.
      George Mitchell
    • Old argument, no longer true.

      The world is going digtal, this eliminates the issue with the possible exception of a small part of the band for HAM operators. No big loss...
      • And who did the emergency communications for Katrina?

        There's a motto, When all else fails there's still Ham Radio and that was the case in Katrina and other more recent but less publicized disasters. The world may be going digital but hams have been operating digital for many years. When it comes to emergencies we can offer voice and digital communications that are not just local, but long distance as well. Here our county EOC has a Ham Station set up along with their equipment and they also installed a Ham Station in the mobile EOC as well. BTW Digital is not new to Ham Radio, I was operating long range digital in 1979. Currently there is a sophisticated system that allows digital repeaters to tie into Internet gateways that connect them to other ham Internet gateways around the world. Even the ISS has a Ham station that operates voice and digital.

        However the point is not about digital, it is about BPL versus the other forms of broad band digital. When compared directly BPL can not compete with cable or fiber for cost or speed except for some limited instances such as apartment complexes, and business high rises. However there is a saturation point where BPL can begin to interfere with itself once the number of simultaneous users passes a given point.
        • The power went out during Katrina


          The power goes out most of the time during a disaster like this. So your ham radio operators can operate after all. I have pictures of Punta Gorda in Florida where I volunteered to help distribute supplies over two years ago. There were power lines and poles laying down all over the street and I was giving requests to the ham radio operator at base so we could bring in supplies. Hurricanes are a bitch.

          Your concerns are totally unfounded. Besides, they could shutdown this service during an emergency if needed.
          • Wellll..Not quite

            As to just turning off BPL during an emergency? The goal is a smart grid with broadband being secondary. In the case of wide spread power failures the last thing they'd want to do is shut the system down that controls the grid. It'd make things worse.

            Also note that the interference issue has worked both ways. A low power transmitter such as a 5 watt CB rig could shut the system down and that is not necessarily a local issue. The ingress issue has greatly improved for some companies with the notching. However, a transmitter outside the notching frequencies could likely still shut the system down. That is akin to giving terrorists or vandals the key to our power distribution grid. Remember the grid is running near capacity and it only takes a disruption in one relatively small area to cause a snow ball effect. Just look at what started in Ohio and spread over a wide area a couple years back.

            As to the communications issue: Turning BPL off during emergencies is a bit too simplistic and misses a lot of issues.
            Disaster communications, or emergency communications don't just happen. They require on-the-air training and practice. Stations suffering very strong interference are not able to do that and most likely would be unavailable. This would be much like grounding pilots except for flying rescue work.
          • I guess you didn't read my post.

            The powerlines are laying in the street with the poles snapped like toothpicks.

            As for emergencies, turning off BPL would only be a problem if they eliminated a manual override so that it can fallback to low tech.

            BPL will win over ham radio operators when the decision comes if they cannot solve the interference problem, just like the diesel locomotive won over the steam engine.

            All you have been doing is campaigning against BPL. Lets face it, you are a ham radio amateur. Hobbies never trump over business so give it up.
          • On the contrary

            I've listed both positives and negatives and stuck with facts.
            I've said BPL has great potential, where it works well and where it does not. I also mentioned that several companies have reduced interference and tests where BPL and ham radio were able to coexist at the same location. Some, Including Current are working with Hams to eliminate problems. Others have denied that there is any problem.

            However I've pretty much stuck with the operational end of things except when directly answering another post. Computers and networks are my field.

            What I've been doing is explaining how BPL works and why it is more expensive to implement in rural areas. If you check the new article on ZDNet with graphics from "Current Technology" you will see a graphic that shows what I've described on how BPL works.

            I am not anti-BPL. I'd be overjoyed if it worked as good as the pr people claim, but like most engineers and technical professionals I like to see how things work properly presented.
          • I did not get that impression.

            You sounded like if it isn't perfect, don't implement. All you did was find problems with it instead of offering solutions. The interference issue is more noticeable when the mhz BPL signal is increased on the power line and it leaks more.


            The hardest part is routing it around transformers and I am sure the signal is amplified there. If you have to send it down line with fiber to bypass ultra high voltage lines and then use repeaters on secondaries, it is still more cost effective then you think. That fiber will be needed for bandwidth for it will be the utility's backbone for all the millions of IP addresses for their equipment alone. Why don't you offer solutions instead of concentrating on the problem.
          • If I only I had those answers I'd be rich

            First I have to point out that the electrical distribution system in Europe is much easier and more economical to use when implementing BPL than in the US. Where we may have one to 3 or maybe 4 homes on one transformer (It's 2 in this neighborhood) they have maybe 10 or possibly 20 homes on one transformer and their low voltage is 220 VAC instead of 110 VAC.They also have wide areas of high density population which lends itself to BPL. As I understand some of those countries have very tight regulations and limitations imposed on BPL.

            I see the possibility of great potential for BPL when they get the kinks out. No, it doesn't have to be perfect, but it does need the promise of becoming efficient and economically viable. As to having the answers to the problems? I wish I did. However the start to getting the answers is knowing how the system works and then understanding both it's strengths and weaknesses. To get beyond that point you have to deal with both and not ignore one or the other. Those companies have teams of engineers trying to solve the problems and as the density of the implementations goes up new problems pop up. Were I able to do solve those problems on my own I could "name my price" and have that new airplane I want and a lot of other things as well.

            I have a sizable computer system here that was running about $290 a month between the ISP and DSL lines. Switching to cable as an access has dropped that to an over all cost of around $90 a month and given me a good increase in speed. Still I find even the 5 to 10 Mbs to be slow. I run a CAT5e hard wired gigabit network so the Internet connection is the bottle neck. Although once you reach much more than 1 Mbs the Internet itself is quite often the limiting factor. So I'd certainly like to see prices come down and speeds go up.
          • I believe that energy management is their main reason

            with BPL being a secondary factor to offset some of the cost. Eventually they will make money off of it.

            As for America with its land area and people spread out, all services are more expensive. In Korea or Japan broadband is very cheap with their population density.

            Actually in this country we do too many studies to cipher ROI. Actually all it boils down to is mass production and how much the investors are willing to wait for a ROI.

            Well no wonder you are not too thrilled with BPL with your connection speed needs. BPL is only for low speed broadband that needs to get to remote areas where folks will appreciate low speeds over nothing. BPL is pushing farm country access and reliability over speed. We all like more speed and lower prices.
        • BPL can prevent BILLION-DOLLAR LOSS from blackouts !!!

          No question about it.

          New Ham-friendly 200 Mbps BPL technology is already out there in the market. No power utilities want huge losses from blackouts like that of New York City and the Northeast Grid few months back.

          BPL can save lives via Realtime Smart Grid Monitoring !!!
        • During a REAL emergency

          turn it off.

          See, no big deal.
      • HEY

        Hey, Ham radio is a very good hobby, and far outranges even the newest "17 mile" walkie talkies :). We were talking to people around the world long before cell phones and satellites became a reality. In fact, you can thank Ham Radio for a lot of R&D that eventually went into much of the wireless communications technologies you see today.

        We also generally provide backup communications and emergency services when conventional communications fail, as well as to provide the National Weather Service with storm information.
        • Yes, and blacksmiths were important at one time

          that time has passed.
    • Yawn - This is available in Canada already

      Just once it would be nice if an American "Tech" reporter stopped to think that maybe there is a world outside of the USA.
      • No it is not. You are confused

        by the fact the modem plugs into the wall. In fact, the who setup is wireless that
        runs on 2.5ghz NOT the common 2.4ghz, on the Rogers wireless network.

        You really need to read this:

        A section in that called: "Why might I not be able to receive the service?" is worth
        your attention.

        Sorry to burst your bubble -- it ain't internet over the powerlines -- but what
        Rogers is doing with this IS still cool though.

        Personally, I'm waiting for a direct fiber optic feed to my PowerBook. (HAH!!)
  • Could make cable and telco obsolete ..

    Remember these technologies don't just stand still, the evolve with the growing body of science underlying them. Telcos can deliver media and cable companies can deliver communications. But neither telcos nor cable companies can deliver power. If the technology develops which enables power companies to deliver power, communications, and media over one highly upgraded facility, that would create huge efficiencies of scale and almost guarantee the demise of telcos and cable companies in terms of distribution network based operations. Both currently depend largely on power company owned infrastructure (power poles, underground vaults, etc.) as it is. If power companies can make this stuff work on a grand scale, it will be bad news for the old providers who will have to do some powerful changes to their business models or go the way of the typewriter industry. Its a long stretch given the obstacles still present, but none the less, it has to be a HUGE long term threat to the current embedded base of legacy providers.
    George Mitchell