If your firm does telecomm work, this is worth reading. Although it has been talked about for several decades, modulated radio frequency communications over power lines never really took off because there were difficult technical challenges and no cost-effective solutions. No more. Now called Broadband Over Powerline (BPL), it is getting the attention of some very powerful utility players who could change the way people connect to the Internet. Can you imagine every electrical receptacle potentially used as an Ethernet data port? It has been happening in other countries and municipal power systems, and your local utility may soon bring it to your town.

According to a report by Network Strategy Solutions, LLC, BPL provides the means for electric utilities to offer ultra-fast systems competitive with slow dial-up service. Within the last year, large-scale deployments of Internet access services using BPL technology have been achieved in Mannheim, Germany; in Spain through the offerings of Endesa and Iberdrola, the country's leading electric utilities; and in Chile by Enersis, the large electric utility that offers services in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. In the United States, the cities of Manassas, Va., and Cincinnati are the first to provide fully operational BPL commercial services over municipal power lines. Additional market or technical trials are underway by utilities such as American Electric Power, Consolidated Edison, Duke Power, PEPCO, Progress Energy, PG&E and Southern Company. A partnership between the American Public Power Association's “Hometown Connections” brand and Main.net is helping member municipal utilities develop additional systems.

Writing for Telecommunications Americas, Michael Kennedy, Ph.D., said, “BPL is an attractive approach to providing broadband services because its signals ride on the electric power distribution system that potentially connects every outlet to a computer. Furthermore, distribution automation applications, including outage detection, meter reading and load management, could easily support the business case for BPL deployment by utility companies. BPL is also important to public policy initiatives such as the FCC's efforts to open up telecomm markets. Utility participation strengthens open market policies through the addition of a third facilities-based path to subscribers, in addition to telcos and cable operators, as well as through the economic and political might of the utility industry.”

As you know, electric power transmission systems consist of high-voltage (greater than 40kV), medium-voltage (1kV to 40kV) and low-voltage (110V or 220V) power lines. High-voltage lines are roughly analogous to the telephone company's interoffice facilities, medium-voltage lines correspond to the feeder and distribution portions of the subscriber loop, and low-voltage lines are like the telco's drop wire from the street to the premises. While the telco/power company analogy holds up fairly well, two exceptions apply. The distribution power substations, where high voltage is transformed down to medium voltage, are placed closer to subscribers than are telco central offices-the substations are more analogous to telco remote terminal units. Second, the low-voltage power system extends to every power outlet; there is no inside wire interface point as there is in a telephone system. Consequently BPL is quite literally a last-mile solution for fiber to the home.

There are opponents, of course. BPL frequencies are largely unregulated under Part 15 of FCC rules, and they compete with other users. Most vocal objectors are ham radio operators, who claim more research is needed to ensure they will not be affected by interference from radio frequency radiation. The FCC is conducting hearings for possible regulatory response. But initial BPL trial projects do not seem to cause any problems. The city engineer of Manassas is a ham operator and he reports no difficulties. Telco and cable Internet service providers don't like it either. They are fighting back with new copper-wiring technologies that reach speeds exceeding 50 Mbps, fast enough for the most bandwidth-intensive applications, in the next few years.

The distribution transformer, which serves five to six homes in the United States vs. 100 or more in Europe, is designed for 60Hz electric power and presents a barrier to the BPL signal. This barrier is overcome by vendors such as Ambient, Current Technologies, Telkonet and Main.net, who use couplers to divert the BPL signal around each transformer. An official of Telkonet reported they were already training IBEW electricians for installation projects. Simple and inexpensive ($30 to $120) modem devices are plugged into power receptacles and provide an Ethernet connection to the subscriber's computer or other Ethernet device. Membership in The HomePlug Alliance (www.homeplug.org) includes vendors offering a broad range of low-voltage BPL devices for premises networking. It wouldn't hurt to check out the Web site. EC

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He may be reached at 703.321.9268 or lewtag@aol.com.