There is an old put-down in the technology game that goes something like this: "XYZ is the technology of the future, and it always will be."
That slight fits broadband over powerline (BPL) well. The approach -- which, as the name suggests, focuses on sending data through parts of the electrical infrastructure -- has garnered interest and investment, but has never broken through.
This week, direct broadcast satellite provider DirecTV made a move that clearly shows that BPL, while not ascendant, isn't dead. According to internetnews.com, DirecTV subscribers will be able to access Current Technologies' BPL network. The first phase of the agreement covers about 1.8 million homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Current is no slouch -- it has enticed $100 million in investments from Google, Goldman Sachs and Hearst, according to the story. Nobody doubts that the potential of BPL is awesome. The infrastructure to carry signals is as ubiquitous as the wall outlets in virtually every room in America. Perhaps that's why it doesn't fade away. Indeed, an interesting and seemingly significant deal is announced every few months. In February, for instance, Best Buy said it would begin offering the BPL services of Corinex, a Canadian company.
Despite the promise, the technology has had a difficult evolution. In addition to the inherent challenges of ferrying sensitive data on the same infrastructure as electrical signals, amateur radio groups and others have campaigned against the technology because of interference issues.
This is not DirecTV's first foray into broadband. The company in June signed a deal to offer Clearwire's WiMax-like service. (EchoStar, another DBS player, signed a similar deal.) It will be interesting to see if any relationship between DirecTV's wireless and BPL initiatives develops. The answer to that question is years off, however.
The promise of BPL is well presented in this story at Read Head'd BlueVoter. Though the action is set in Stockholm, the writer speaks generally and refers to Parks Associates' estimates that BPL will grow from 100,000 U.S. users today to 2.5 million by 2011. The Parks analyst references the rural flavor of the technology and says the problems that have dogged it have been solved.
This Computerworld piece raises an interesting advantage that BPL has over other technologies. Since BPL is deployed by utilities, it can be used for internal management applications in addition to revenue-generating services to subscribers. The piece cites research by Newton-Evans that suggests this may be a significant driver. In any case, it clearly changes the capital and operational expenditure formulas in favor of the technology. It's fair to point out, however, that this always has been the case and there has been no explosion of deployments.