Broadband power-line Web service comes to Canada

PUC Telecom in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. says it’s the first Canadian service provider to use electrical power lines for high-speed Internet connectivity — a potentially powerful, if controversial, method of extending quick Web conduits.

An offshoot of the municipal public utilities holdings company PUC Inc., the firm is building a broadband power-line (BPL) network that should let it expand its data offerings and provide local businesses with an alternative to DSL.

According to Martin Wyant, PUC Telecom’s general manager, the company already offers dedicated, enterprise-grade Internet connections via a fibre-optic network. But it wanted to offer connectivity beyond that infrastructure’s reach.

It would have been too expensive to extend the optical net. And although PUC Telecom considered reselling the local telco’s DSL, that option had a profit problem: “There’s not a lot” of money in it, Wyant said.

So PUC Telecom opted for a BPL platform from Amperion Inc. in Andover, Mass. Amperion’s system would support high-speed Internet service and help the carrier offer more than plain old wireline data transport.

According to Jeff Tolnar, an Amperion vice-president, his firm’s current offering turns a municipality’s electric infrastructure into a 20Mbps data backbone. The next release would bring the speed up to 100Mbps.

“It won’t replace fibre,” Tolnar said, pointing out that for now, BPL spells an easy way for municipal utility telcos to extend service — a way to test the market in new industrial parks, for instance. “It’s a full complement to fibre.”

Amperion’s system is also speed-governed by its termination technology. It ends not inside businesses at common electrical sockets. Instead, it halts at hydro poles along Sault Ste. Marie’s streets. Atop the poles you’ll find boxes that transmit Wi-Fi (802.11b) signals to customers’ premises. Top speed throughput: 3 to 5Mbps. Wyant from the PUC said he expects to see more 802.11g BPL terminations in the future. That would spell throughput rates near 15Mbps.

The Wi-Fi part of the network means Wyant’s firm can operate a city-wide hotspot, so people roving Sault Ste. Marie’s streets with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or PDAs can get online. As well, PUC Telecom’s field workers can use the network to connect with headquarters and garner work-site data when they’re out on the job. Wyant said his company is developing applications for just that sort of thing; it might license the apps to other utility firms.

BPL makes some people blow a fuse. Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC), a ham-radio operators group headquartered in Ottawa, has reservations. According to Jim Dean, RAC’s vice-president, regulatory affairs, BPL implementations can wreak havoc on licensed wireless devices. The power lines, unshielded and designed not at all to carry data, can radiate signals that interfere with important communication services.

“It would be the department of national defence, marine communications, airline communication [ellipse] anybody who uses the spectrum between 2 and 80MHz for shortwave reception,” Dean said.

BPL could run into regulatory problems, too. According to Jean-Claude Brien, director of EMC analysis and consulting at Industry Canada’s spectrum engineering branch, the feds have no standard for BPL, so it’s difficult to govern this new technology. That said, Industry Canada is well aware of the newcomer and plans create a regulatory framework that addresses BPL’s interference issues.

PUC Telecom said it has interference licked. The Wi-Fi, last-mile component of Amperion’s system means data-live wires are safely separated from customers’ premises, where people might use sensitive radios. As well, Wi-Fi operates on a different frequency than do military and marine radios, said Tolnar from Amperion.

“The other thing is, the system we have on the wires is frequency-agile,” Tolnar said, pointing out that Amperion can move the power-line frequencies so they don’t interfere with radios.

Wyant said PUC Telecom invited Industry Canada to test Sault Ste. Marie for interference. “I wouldn’t say there’s ‘concern’ in that we think there’s going to be a problem, but it’s an issue we want to confront.”

Dean from RAC said he’s encouraged that PUC Telecom is testing for interference. Nonetheless, he’d like to see this issue raised at the next Radio Advisory Board of Canada (RABC) meeting. The group advises the government on wireless spectrum use.

“I would like to [ellipse] have some of the companies, if they can be convinced to come, explain their technology and how it works,” Dean said.

Brien from Industry Canada said that could be tough. It’s hard to decide which companies to invite. The RABC doesn’t want to seem biased towards one or another manufacturer.

Amperion’s Amy Burnis said her company would accept an RABC invitation. She pointed out that the firm has consulted with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the past.

Photo tag: 04-04-01 Caption: “Martin Wyant of PUC Telecom said BPL technology turns Sault Ste. Marie into a city-sized Wi-Fi hotspot.”

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