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Powerline communication to survive but in niches

Powerline communication (PLC) technology has lost some of its appeal due to the gain in popularity of wireless and mobile broadband, but interest in the area will be sustained by its application in niches such as smart grids.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Getting Web connectivity and data at home via electricity lines, or powerline communication (PLC) technology, took a backseat despite the initial hype several years ago, as wireless and mobile broadband became more affordable and pervasive. However, analysts say PLC will carry on in niche uses, such as the smart grid.

PLC technology, also called broadband over powerline (BPL), was talked about more than 10 years ago, said Ian Keene, vice president at Gartner Research. He noted that there was a lot of hype back then around the idea of using the power supply lines that existed in homes or offices to become new broadband communication infrastructure.

However, the hype never made it to reality: Products were delayed into the market due to technical issues, prices were high, and field performance often did not match up to laboratory performance, he explained.

Simultaneously, while all this was going on, the bandwidth available from telco networks continued to increase, so being able to supply a few megabits per second (Mbps) of Web bandwidth was just not competitive from the carriers' standpoint, Keene added.

Julie Kunstler, principal analyst for telecommunications at Ovum, said PLC was not infallible in terms of connection quality in the first place. "You could get connected [to the Web], but the connection wouldn't always be good or stable.

"Powerlines were never made to handle communications. Think about it, you're asking the electric network to handle communications [besides] electricity," she pointed out.

The result was a poor and inconsistent communication network, since PLC would unsurprisingly suffer from interference problems with other appliances that are also plugged into the electricity at home, she argued. "What happens if I can't turn on my microwave oven or refrigerator because of an interference problem?"

Consumers obviously want a home broadband network that always works without having to think about it, she added. "PLC often could not meet that requirement and so did not become the technology of choice."

The other reason why PLC did not take off was because alternatives proved more appealing, Kunstler noted. Wireless technology became very successful and inexpensive both in and outside the home, and in some markets, third- and fourth-generation (3G and 4G) mobile broadband has since surpassed desktop Web access.

Bill Rojas, director of telecom research at IDC Asia-Pacific, noted that the emergence of HSPA (high speed packet access) mobile broadband technology and now long-term evolution (LTE) offer more attractive cost-performance for home broadband access, especially in developing markets. And this basically meant PLC would only be utilized where even mobile broadband cannot be delivered cost-effectively or fast enough, such as particularly remote rural areas, he said.

Kunstler disagreed when asked if PLC would more likely take off in developed countries, which typically have more established electricity infrastructure. She explained the reason was simply because if the electrical cables were very old, the BPL connection would not be good enough.

Not at death's door
Despite these issues, industry watchers were unanimous that PLC would not fade away as it still had its uses, just not in home broadband.

The promise of Internet delivery via BPL may not have materialized, but PLC has found a niche in the smart grid space, said Varun Nagaraj, senior vice president of product management and marketing at Echelon, which designs energy-control networks.

According to him, narrowband PLC is the leading technology used around the world for smart metering, with millions of PLC-based smart meters deployed every year.

Ovum analyst Kunstler highlighted that utility companies themselves are "very big users" of PLC technology in their own networks. It makes sense for them, since the total cost of ownership is low as they already own the electricity grid. "They don't have to pay to use their powerlines for data communication throughout that network. PLC hence works very well for automated remote communication with smart meters."

PLC will ultimately find a niche purpose in vertical markets, she said, adding: "I don't think it will ever be dead. But it would never get as big as proponents hoped."

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