Powering up broadband

The 16 police officers in Ossining, N.Y., have an always-on connection to the townspeople. In an effort to step up community policing, Chief Kenneth Donato has instituted a program that calls for his officers to personally meet all 5,500 of the town’s residents.

“The officers have personal business cards, and the cards have e-mail addresses,” Donato says. “We’re encouraging residents to communicate with us via e-mail.”

A year ago, such a program would have been difficult to undertake. Until six months ago, the department’s only link to the Internet was a dialup connection.

“It was painful; painful, to say the least,” Donato says.

Today, the department has a high-speed, always-on connection. And it’s getting it through its power company.

The department is part of a field trial that Consolidated Edison, an investor-owned utility that serves more than three million customers in New York City and Westchester County, N.Y., has been running for about a year to deliver broadband via its electrical distribution network. And it’s not alone: power line communication (PLC) is being tested in a dozen states in field trials conducted by utilities such as Pepco in Washington, D.C., Ameren in St. Louis and Pennsylvania Power & Light.

An old idea

The idea of moving data over electrical wires is nothing new. Utility companies have used low-frequency signals sent across their networks to remotely manage equipment and monitor power distribution for years.

In the 1990s, companies such as Nortel Networks Corp. and Siemens AG recognized the broadband potential and launched initiatives to send IP packets over power grids. But technology at the time faced hurdles. For example, to transmit data along noisy electric lines, the signals had to be turned up so high that it interfered with emissions from other devices such as radios and military equipment.

Troubles like that, however, largely have been addressed, and the technology continues to mature. Today, companies such as Ambient, which also is conducting the field test with Con Edison, Amperion, Current Technologies, and Main.net, have developed technology to move bits across medium- and low-voltage lines.

“It’s like Wi-Fi three years ago when Wi-Fi was nothing. Now all of a sudden it has become pervasive,” says Leif Ericson, manager of business development at Southern Telecom, a subsidiary of Southern Company that provides long-haul and metropolitan dark fibre. “The jury is still out as to whether this will be commercial or not. But we say it’s moving in the right direction.”

Southern Telecom is conducting a field trial with Ambient in Alabama and recently announced plans to launch another trial with Main.net in Atlanta.

“You have different models of deployment, and you also have different technologies,” says Alan Shark, president of the Power Line Communications Association. “The technology is there. The question then becomes: which technology?”

PLC is a last-mile technology. Data is handed off from a fibre-optic or T-1 line, for example, and injected into a medium-voltage line. In the past, the hurdle for PLC, and the point at which technologies most greatly differ, has been what happens when those signals reach the transformer that converts medium volts into the low volts that are sent into homes and businesses.

Amperion uses Wi-Fi to go directly into homes, avoiding transformers and the low-voltage lines altogether. A broadband connection then is accessed through a Wi-Fi hookup. The others either go around a transformer or through it, sending IP packets onto low-voltage lines and then directly to power outlets. The connection is accessed via a standard HomePlug-certified device that plugs into a wall. The HomePlug Alliance has created a standard for in-home networking using power lines.

Providers claim throughput speeds of between 500Kbps and 3Mbps, on par with DSL and cable, but say they can sell the service for US$30 per month, less than the US$50 per month that DSL and cable users typically pay.

As a result, PLC – or broadband over power line, as the Federal Communications Commission refers to it – is getting more attention as a possible third pipe to deliver broadband access to homes and businesses. The allure of PLC is that the infrastructure is already there – any site with power outlets could be hooked up to a broadband connection.

“It lends itself to what people are hoping to find, and that’s a cheap solution without having to do anything different to the wiring in the house or business,” says Kathie Hackler, vice-president and telecom analyst at Gartner Group. “And it’s getting a lot of interest now because there is so much focus on broadband, both from consumers and from the industry, looking at this as something that’s going to perk up the communications sector.”

Up north

In Canada, the concept of delivering network traffic over power lines is in its early stages. Hydro One Inc., a utility company serving 1.2 million customers in Ontario, says it is interested in the idea, but so far does not offer such a service.

However, according to Nancy Lunn, director of marketing for the firm’s Toronto-based carrier subsidiary, Hydro One Telecom, the company is using its grid infrastructure to offer fibre optic links to customers. Bundled in the same sheath as the overhead power cables are fibre optic lines that were originally included solely to help monitor the power grid. The excess capacity on those fibre lines is now being sold to customers.

“We’re using the power grid in that we’re using the right-of-ways and the towers that are there, but we’re not using copper wiring; we’re using fibre,” said Lunn.

The service has been offered since the subsidiary was created in 2000, and so far revenue has come from both the enterprise and public-sector outfits. Some of the utility’s major wins have included the education market in Southern Ontario, such as the Peel District School Board and the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. Hydro One Telecom also joined forces with four other utilities to offer the service, known as optical groundwire technology, to Ontario’s Simcoe County.

Lunn says customers are hungry for more choice when it comes to providers of optical connectivity.

“There is demand and there are customers that are looking for an alternative to Ma Bell. We’re a fairly stable alternative in these times.”

As for selling broadband traffic directly over its power lines, Lunn admits that Hydro One Telecom “hasn’t looked at it in all that much detail just yet.” She added, however, that the company does see it having the potential to be a revenue-generator in the future.

The legal side

FCC Chairman Michael Powell was impressed by what he saw when he got a demonstration of the technology in the Current Technologies/Pepco trial in Potomac, Md. “This is within striking distance of being the third major broadband pipe into the home,” he told reporters.

Observers say such a strike could happen soon. First commercial deployments are expected in the next few months, and that could unleash a rush, they say.

“Utility companies are watching to see how those commercializations go. If they’re successful, I think you’ll see a lot of the utility companies adopt it and this thing will take off,” says Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services for the United Telecom Council, an IT trade association for electric, gas and other critical infrastructure firms.

However, regulatory issues still must be cleared up, Kilbourne says. In the U.S., the FCC is reviewing whether regulations need to be modified to oversee PLC. The focus is to ensure that regulatory issues don’t sidetrack adoption. “Ultimately, it will be for the marketplace to decide how broadband over power lines fits into tomorrow’s competitive telecommunications landscape, but we welcome them to the frontier of the digital migration,” said Powell.

Special Delivery

Another issue, analysts say, is how the utilities will deliver the service. At this point, utilities are cautious, but if the technology is proven, they might end up wholesaling the service to ISPs. For instance, Con Edison doubts it will become an ISP, but recognizes that wholesaling the service could be “another source of revenue for us,” says George Jee, director of resource planning.

ISPs are watching the technology closely. AT&T and EarthLink, for example, are looking at PLC as a broadband connection into their networks.

“We are closer to commercial reality with PLC than we’ve ever been,” says Seth Libby, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group. “But we’re not out of the woods yet. We need to get out there and show that it works.”

However the technology ultimately is delivered, users seem ready to give it a try. Donato of the Ossining police says PLC will be on his list along with T-1, cable and DSL when the department’s PLC trial ends.

“You can be anyplace and just plug in,” he says. “You can’t beat the versatility – you’re not restricted to one corner of the room where the phone line is coming or the cable line is coming in. You just pick up your computer and plug it in anywhere, and there you are.”

Mears is a writer for (Network World (U.S.).