For years, many have hoped that broadband over powerline, or BPL, would allow utility companies to become a viable third alternative to the cable and telephone companies providing high-speed data access to the Internet. While the promise of extending broadband access via the ubiquitous electricity grid fueled the early deployment of BPL, the technology's broadband access capabilities have failed to gain much ground in the market due to technical limitations and interference.
However, with technological advancements in BPL technologies and questions of BPL-caused radio frequency interference being resolved, BPL is gaining renewed interests on a global basis.
Already more than 100 commercial BPL trials are being conducted in 40 countries, with about a third taking place in the US and a large majority in Europe. While it's no secret that Asia is the least mature market when it comes to BPL deployments, the technology is also gaining traction in the region with a handful of utility companies launched commercial trials in Australia, China, India, Korea, Japan and Malaysia.
In Australia utility firms Aurora Energy and Country Energy, and local ISP AusNet have conducted a number of small-scale commercial trials of BPL in New South Wales and Tasmania over the past two years.
Aurora Energy recently completed two commercial BPL trials in the south and north-west of Tasmania through its telecom subsidiary TasTel. The 12-month trials, which started in 2005, provided over 1,200 customers access to high-speed Internet and telephony services over powerlines via power points in the home, with customers connecting to the service via a BPL modem (200 Mbps) developed by Mitsubishi Electric in Japan.
Peter Davis, CEO of Aurora Energy, said the take-up rate during the trial period had exceeded expectations and stage one of commercialization is scheduled later this year.
Reliance Energy in India is also conducting pilot BPL tests in Mumbai and Delhi. In the Mumbai trial, Reliance is offering broadband Internet access, voice and data services to 5,000 customers, using low-voltage BPL (underground) together with fiber optics. Similar services are offered to 200 customers in the Delhi trial using mid-voltage and low-voltage (overhead) BPL.
Research firm In-Stat predicts that BPL subscribers in Asia will grow from less than half a million in 2006 to over 1.8 million by 2011.
While the majority of BPL trials are for access, Gartner analyst Juan Ignacio noted that BPL has no chance of becoming a mainstream competitor to other broadband access technologies, partly due to the conservative attitude of utility firms, regulatory uncertainties and slow development of the technology itself.
Stephen Jay, senior consultant at BMP-TC, concurs, saying that the majority of utility firms deploying BPL are more focusing on utility applications like automated metering and energy management rather than becoming a broadband service provider. That said, in the long term, BPL will be used as a niche broadband access application, except in underserved areas with established power grids and by utilities for their internal communication networks.
Opportunities in the home
Indeed BPL, combined with other technologies such as broadband wireless access and fiber optics provide a cost-effective and innovative last-mile solution for broadband Internet access to flats in high-rise building.
As broadband markets develop, new services and applications are being introduced that the end-user will want to distribute to numerous end devices scattered around the home, and it will become increasingly important to have broadband access available in virtually every room in the house.
Although wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi already provide some freedom to the end-user, it runs into problems with indoor coverage, especially in houses and flats made of brick and concrete. A wired technology is therefore preferred.
'Even with wireless technology there is no guarantee that you can get through walls and structure to get that wireless signal inside,' says Dr Ray Owen, director of wireless broadband for Motorola Asia Pacific. 'If you look at fiber or cable, one of the issues is that the cost to wire every room is prohibited. A key benefit of powerline that you cannot get with any other technology economically is guaranteed data communication in every power socket in the room.'
Another advantage, says Michael Philpott, an analyst at Ovum, is that it is simple for the end-user to install and set up: inserting two transceivers into two electrical plug-sockets makes a network connection.
'Such simplicity is vital to service providers, which want to avoid the expense of sending engineers to individual homes to deliver new services,' he noted.
To help service providers achieve this chip vendors such as DS2 have self-installation software burnt into chipsets before they leave the factory.
Part of the jagsaw
If nothing else, IPTV is also driving the adoption of BPL as a networking technology in the home. IPTV over BPL is already on the way, and significant investments are being made by the vendors to develop technologies that accelerate speeds of commercialization.
France Telecom, for instance, is selling its IPTV subscribers powerline wall adapters to connect its ADSL modem router with its IPTV decoder. The adapters, made with Devolousing IntellonTurbo chips, support a speed up to 85 Mbps.
In bid to compete against cable rival Telent in Belgium's fierce fixed-line market, Belgacom in Q4 last year launched IPTV within the home over existing electrical wiring using powerline technology, or through the air using a proprietary Wi-Fi solution from Ruckus. The two solutions are offered alongside traditional Ethernet cable solutions as three network options for Belgacom's IPTV customers, according to Ovum's Philpott.
While there is not yet any commercial deployment of IPTV over BPL in Asia, telecom operators in the region like Chinese fixed-line carriers, China Telecom and China Netcom, have shown increasing interest in adopting BPL as a complementary in-home network option, according to Radomir Jovanovic, president of French chipmaker Spidcom Technologies. Jovanovic said Spidcom, which provides chips for powerline modem makers including some Chinese manufacturers, is now in talks with Chinese telecom operators to bring broadband Internet access over power lines to Chinese households.
'IPTV services could offer a big opportunity for the uptake of powerline communications,' he said, adding that it could boost deregulation of the technology.
Co-existence and interoperability
Philpott said the case of Belgacom showed that BPL provides a useful and credible home network solution for IPTV services, when Ethernet cabling is not already installed and Wi-Fi is not a suitable solution.
However, the lack of a single standard for the technology will continue to hinder a wider adoption of BPL in this market, he warned.
On the whole, Belgacom sees powerline as one technology in its home network portfolio, but doesn't see the technology developing fast enough to become anything bigger, as it may eventually lose out to the faster developing radio technologies, he said.
'Standardization of the technology would definitely help powerline's cause, and its chances may be even further advanced if it becomes part of a wider standard that covers a number of home networking mediums - similar perhaps to what HomePNA have done with coaxial and home phone cabling.'
Currently there is no single standard for home powerline technology. The two main specification bodies are the HomePlug Powerline Alliance (HPPA) and the Universal Powerline Alliance (UPA). As such there is incompatibility issues between equipment using different specifications. In other words, a HomePlug-stamped product will not work with a UPA-stamped product.
Although the IEE is working to take specifications from these and other groups to create a single standard, no time frame has yet been announced.