The quiet ending of the broadband over powerline (BPL) initiative in Manassas, Va., says as much about how far the telecommunications industry has come as it does about the potential of the platform.
Many sites, including The Washington Post, reported that the city council voted unanimously to end the service, which has only about 520 residential and business customers. The city had taken over from Communications Technologies in October 2008, and will stop serving subscribers on July 1, the story says.
Manassas is the highest-profile BPL project to date, making its end the highest-profile BPL failure. While the platform may be headed toward oblivion in the States, it should be noted that projects are still ongoing elsewhere, such as Brazil and the Philippines. Furthermore, the European Union clearly still is interested in the technology. However, TelecommsEurope describes a tiff between the EU and the U.S. Trade Representative that suggests that vendors from the States-those that stay in the game despite BPL's fading fortunes here-may not be able to enter markets on the continent.
The bigger picture here is that BPL is on the way to not being needed. Even at its best, BPL was a bolt-on technology that had a "plan B" feel to it. Its speeds were certainly better than dialup, but not close to that of cable modems or DSL. It had engrained opposition from ham radio operators and faced technical challenges, simply due to the difficulty of transporting a sensitive trickle of electronic signals alongside a raging maelstrom of electrical current.
But BPL got as far as it did because its one advantage was a great one: Power lines essentially are everywhere. Even an imperfect service is potent if it reaches essentially the entire potential customer base on day one.
The environment has changed, though. Far more powerful technologies are queuing up to serve wider swaths of homes and businesses, including those represening BPL's core customer base. There are several sources of this broader coverage: The broadband element of the stimulus-part of the American Recovery and. Reinvestment Act of 2009-focuses on underserved communities. Likewise, the National Broadband Plan is aimed at the same basic rural segment. The development of smart grid technology, which is infinitely more promising than BPL, will dominate any joint efforts by the telecommunications and energy industries. Finally, the emergence of powerful 4G wireless technologies also will bring more coverage to the hinterlands.
It is interesting to note that these projects are in their very early stages. It is possible to argue that it is premature to pull the plug on the BPL industry. The point is, however, that the Manassas City Council made the decision that it considered to be in the best interest of that community. The fact that the media perceives the end of one initiative as the death knell of the entire domestic BPL industry is further proof that the industry was unable to establish itself in a meaningful way.