Shocking times for Aussie broadband over powerline

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Australian utilities' recent abandonment of broadband over powerline (BPL) technology has all but sealed the fate of a technology that was once hoped to bring high-speed data to every corner of Australia.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Australian utilities' recent abandonment of broadband over powerline (BPL) technology has all but sealed the fate of a technology that was once hoped to bring high-speed data to every corner of Australia.

Enthusiasm for BPL grew out of the telecommunications industry slump of 2003, as technology providers looked for new ways of building revenue and realised that electricity operators already had access to wires running into every home and business premise in their coverage areas. Why not, they reasoned, use those wires to bring broadband into areas where thinner, older copper local loop wiring just wasn't up to the task of carrying ADSL reliably?

Commercial trials quickly ensued, and by 2004 it seemed that success in the trials would see the technology used to bring blazing-fast Internet to both metropolitan and rural consumers at reasonable rates. The will was there, and the equipment readily available -- but somewhere along the way, the lights seem to have just gone out.

by 2004 it seemed that success in the trials would see the technology used to bring blazing-fast Internet to both metropolitan and rural consumers at reasonable rates.

Wires everywhere, BPL nowhere?
BPL technology is based around two key components: signal injectors, which the utilities deploy as an Internet gateway on their end of the line; and customer premises equipment that plugs into any powerpoint in a home or office.

By stuffing the data into a specific range of frequencies that wouldn't interfere with normal electricity carriage, the BPL equipment would allow data to run across the thousands of kilometres of high-voltage electrical lines that score the countryside.

This was the approach to be trialled by Tasmanian electricity company Aurora Energy, which was the first Australian utility to jump onboard. Three-month early field trials were expanded into ongoing tests in Burnie and Hobart late in 2005, and two years of ongoing testing suggested the technology certainly had a future. Similar enthusiasm was shared by the Woomera Consortium group, NSW-based Energy Australia, Melbourne-Based SP AusNet and Canberra-based Country Energy, all of which followed Aurora's lead by running trials of BPL technology with small groups of customers in their coverage areas.

Things looked good at first: SP AusNet, in particular, was optimistic about the technology after concluding a year-long BPL trial, which last August saw BPL rolled out to a number of premises in rural Mount Beauty, Victoria.

At the time, Reynard Smith, the company's manager for commercial development, remarked that the technology showed "a lot of potential... In the places where it worked well, we're very happy." This year, however, Smith is more reserved, saying only that the trial had been shut down and that the company is "assessing [BPL] in line with other options."

Less ambiguous was Aurora Energy, which announced in November that it was pulling out of BPL entirely. This was a significant change in strategy for the company, for which BPL would have seemed particularly appropriate given the relatively low density of broadband in the island state.

Aurora declined to offer further comment on the decision other than that outlined in a press release at the time. In that release, CEO Dr Peter Davis cited "cost pressures and service demands for Aurora's electricity business" that had seen BPL ditched after a six-month strategic review. Aurora would, Davis said, focus its efforts on electricity distribution and retailing, and "carefully selected telecommunications activities."

Those activities, it now appears, revolve around fibre-optic infrastructure. Aurora has dissolved its relationship with local retailer TasTel and telco partner AAPT, instead focusing its efforts on building fibre-optic network capacity to be resold to government and commercial users. This approach, presumably, offers more commercial certainty than the technically successful but commercially questionable BPL technology.

Death of a champion
Because of its easy implementation and far reach -- not to mention broadband speeds of up to 200Mbps -- BPL was once held as the Great White Hope of Australian telecommunications. SP AusNet's success in Mount Beauty, a remote town of around 1,700 people that suffers from the tyranny of distance as much as most other small rural towns, added credence to the argument that BPL could finally bring viable broadband to rural areas where other technologies were failing.

BPL was once held as the Great White Hope of Australian telecommunications

Commercial reality wasn't to have it that way, however: the assistance provided by the government's Broadband Connect program, as well as the rapidly evolving broadband market, meant that BPL quickly lost its potentially significant commercial edge.

The case for BPL wasn't helped, either, by rollout costs that would have quickly spiralled due to the need for a repeater station to be installed every kilometre along Australia's tens of thousands of kilometres of transmission lines. Interference with ham and emergency services radios was a well-documented side effect of BPL, although frequency 'notching' techniques were successfully introduced to avoid that problem.

Throw in the need for utilities to manage the telecoms infrastructure and enlist a carrier partner -- one that would also want a cut of the pie -- and it's clear that BPL, despite its promise and technical feasibility, is no longer compelling enough to be attractive for Australian utilities. Neither, apparently, is the related idea of a 'smart grid' -- an offshoot of BPL that was to use the pervasive data connectivity to both read and control meters regulating usage of electricity in homes.

Although utilities testing BPL remained hopeful about the technology's promise even at the beginning of this financial year, the mood in 2008 is decidedly less optimistic. A Country Energy spokesperson said that company's trial in Queanbeyan and Jerrabomberra was "still active" but wouldn't commit to any concrete plans for deployment.

utilities are just not risk taking organisations

"The timescale, unfortunately, just keeps moving out," he explained. None of this comes as any surprise to telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, who saw BPL running out of steam a while ago. Because of the need to bring on telecommunications partners, for example, utilities can never own, manage and profit from BPL on their own, particularly given the cutthroat nature of the telecommunications market.

"The reality is that utilities are not telcos, and that they are risk adverse," Budde explains. "They might want to make their infrastructure available to the telcos, and that goes all the way to fibre-optic cabling. But none of the CEOs of the utilities is eager to start a fight with the telcos; you need very strong leadership [to make that happen], and utilities are just not risk taking organisations."