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by Archives March 22, 2006

In the near future you might be accessing the internet through the electrical grid. A new technology called Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) promises to make it a reality.that is if providers can work out the wrinkles.

THE PITCH

Proponents of the technology say that the major advantage of BPL is that it offers broadband in areas that do not readily have access to high-speed internet. The idea is that anyone with electricity will have access to broadband since the lines are already in place.

The technology has been successfully implemented in trials and small-scale deployments across the globe. In the city of Manassas, Virginia, 35,000 residents are offered internet access at double the speed of anything available in metropolitan Montreal for US$30 per month.

Forget those unsightly blue Ethernet cables. HomePlug, a new networking standard that uses BPL technology, allows you to connect all the devices in your home through the power lines in the walls. If manufactures move to accept standards, this could be the biggest step towards a totally “wired” home to-date.

I don’t care how frivolous it might be, the idea that I could preheat my oven from my PDA when I’m across town is just plain cool. You could have everything in your house talking to each other: your computer, your home entertainment center, your alarm system, your washer and dryer, your heating system and even your stove. Imagine how much simpler the technology could make wiring and networking in large office buildings.

In a market where phone companies are offering digital television service and cable companies are offering phone service you can bet that if electric companies begin providing internet access over power lines, they’ll eventually offer phone service and digital television. This is good news for consumers: increased competition should lead to lower prices and better service.

THE PROBLEMS

The main problem with BPL is that it uses radio waves in between the AM and FM frequencies to transmit data through overhead power lines and into people homes. Power lines, unlike phone or cable lines, are not shielded, so they act like huge antennas throwing radio waves in every direction. This can create huge amounts of interference across an even broader range encompassing short-wave radio, maritime and aeronautical communication, emergency response frequencies and perhaps the most disturbing of all, some television channels. It is also possible that unshielded power lines will pick up interference from other radio signals.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commision (FCC) has established regulations to deal with the problem of harmful interference. Since then, companies have held several trials, which they claim were successful. Critics disagree. They allege that a number of these trials were shut down due to the amount of interference they generated. Amateur radio operators are among the most vocal critics. They believe that the steps taken to address the issue of interference are insufficient and that any widespread deployment would result prevalent interference, possibly on a global scale.

Critics are also sceptical about the cost efficiency of BPL. A BPL signal degrades rapidly as is passes along power lines and requires repeaters every few hundred metres to boost its strength. The signal also can’t pass through the transformers that reduce the voltage on lines down to the household standard. To get around this, every BPL line that has a transformer on it requires a device called a coupler to provide a path around the transformer. These are just two pieces of the equipment that would be required on every power line. It’s suggested that such retrofitting would not be economical in the rural areas where BPL is supposed to introduce broadband.

One possible solution to the problem of interference is to bury all BPL lines underground. Unfortunately, this would undermine any cost benefit that might exist by employing BPL. A company called Corridor examined the possibility of using the microwave spectrum to transmit data along power lines. Electromagnetic waves of this nature would be much less likely to cause harmful interference since they only travel a few miles and in a line-of-site fashion. Too bad the company has since abandoned efforts to bring the technology to market.

BPL promises more competition among telecommunications providers and increased access to broadband. But the reality is that unless companies can prove its cost effectiveness and solve the interference issues, it will remain a pipedream.


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