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Technology Executive

A two-pin plug and you have broadband

* Broadband-over-powerline technology

By Linda Musthaler, Network World, 07/25/05

Linda Musthaler

There has been a flurry of activity in the past year in the area of broadband-over-powerline technology. BPL is about a 10-year old technology that is still in its infancy. The downturn in the energy industry in 2001 held up progress, but that's all changing now as major players are getting their feet wet in this nascent industry; even the FCC has given its blessings to continue to try it out. Pilot programs are taking place around the country. Could it be that your next network will plug into an ordinary electrical wall outlet?


BPL uses the country's existing electrical power grid to deliver high-speed broadband communications to consumers. If the technology can overcome a few technical hurdles, it could be a viable alternative to cable and DSL access to the Internet from homes. And given that the electrical power grid reaches nearly every home in America, even rural customers who can't get cable or DSL service could still get broadband access via BPL.

Sounds like a dream, doesn't it? An ordinary electrical outlet equipped with a BPL modem delivers your data, voice and video communications - at a rate that is faster than DSL and cable today. The market potential is so huge that companies like AT&T, IBM, Cisco, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Google and many of the major power companies in the country have invested in the technology and trial programs. 

Recently, my own firm Currid & Company participated in a BPL demonstration sponsored by CenterPoint Energy of Houston. CenterPoint and IBM just announced a joint effort to explore the uses of the technology, especially for the utility industry. In addition, CenterPoint has opened a BPL technology center in Houston, as well as launched a pilot program to a limited number of homes in its hometown. You can read more about the IBM/CenterPoint joint effort here:

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a group led by Google, Hearst Communications and Goldman Sachs invested $100 million in a company called Current Communications Group. Current reports the funds will be used for capital and operating expenses in the U.S. and abroad as it begins to rollout BPL service to consumers.

The FCC is enthralled with the technology and supports further development.  There are a few glitches to be worked out, however. Access BPL - signals that travel through overhead and underground power lines - emits low-level radio communication signals that can interfere with licensed radio services, such as amateur radio and some emergency services communications. What's more, in-house BPL - signals that travel within the home - can be relatively slow due to older wiring that can't sustain the high broadband throughput once the signals enter the home. In some cases, service is slower than DSL or cable inside the house.

Moshen Kavehrad, professor of electrical engineering at Penn State University and director of the Center for Information and Communications Technology Research, led a team of Penn State engineers that developed a new model for high speed data transmission via overhead power lines.  Kavehrad predicts that the engineering issues to make BPL a technical alternative to DSL and cable will be solved. Whether it will be an economical alternative remains to be seen since there are interference issues that have to be overcome.  According to Kavehrad, "If you condition those power lines properly, they're an omni-present national treasure waiting to be tapped for broadband Internet service delivery, especially in rural areas where cable or DSL are unavailable."

You can read more about the Penn State project here:

Not everyone is excited about the prospect of BPL becoming a commercial venture.  The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is not willing to gloss over the interference issue. This organization filed extensive technical comments with the FCC following an April 2003 notice of inquiry that sought information and data on the relevant technology. Since BPL is regulated by the FCC, the ARRL is urging extreme caution - if not an outright halt - in the implementation of BPL nationwide. ARRL cites extensive studies and trials of BPL in Europe and Japan that resulted in numerous interference complaints.

With huge financial investments pouring into this technology, as well as the backing of both technology and power companies, there's little doubt that the numerous studies and trials in the U.S. will lead to at least limited implementation, and potentially to ubiquitous service throughout the country someday.  For now, the power companies are looking at this technology in terms of benefits to their own industry, including the ability to cheaply monitor and control remote utility facilities or read power meters. Nevertheless, BPL is one hot technology to watch for further developments.

For more about BPL, check out these links below:

Double duty for power lines

Broadband Over Power Line (Federal Communications Commission)

Web coming to electrical outlets

Broadband over power line and amateur radio

Google, others invest in broadband-over-powerline firm
IDG News Service, 07/07/05

Connecting with BPL, 01/31/05

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company.  You can write to her at

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Currid & Company researches information technology and how it can change the rules of business. Analysts focus on emerging technologies and methods by which organizations can obtain the best results from these innovations. Currid & Company offers consulting services to computer industry and corporate clients to help define and fulfill the potential of these exciting technologies. To learn more about emerging technologies that affect your business and your life, visit Your Digital Minute , brought to you by Currid & Company.

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