The Death and Life of Broadband over Powerline

Carl Weinschenk

It seems like a decade or so ago, but, in actuality, the height of interest by the industry in broadband over powerline (BPL) was only a few short years ago.

The attraction of the technology was compelling and simple to understand. While it was never predicted that BPL would generate huge throughput to homes, the simple ubiquity of the technology — power lines are virtually everywhere people live and work — made the argument for the platform compelling, at least on paper. BPL, which also is known as power line communications (PLC), wasn’t a passing fancy. It enticed investments from Google, Goldman Sachs and a variety of projects.

The approach has largely faded into the sunset. Jamie Yap at ZDNet details why it didn’t catch fire. The bottom line is that the technology is expensive, the growth of wireless and wired capacity across the board greatly reduces the need for the introduction of a DSL-like technology and the intermingling of sensitive telecommunication signals with high levels of electricity is technically challenging.

That’s all interesting, but wouldn’t be too important if BPL were totally gone. It’s not. Yap says that the core technology has found a far more modest but real use as a platform for smart metering. It’s a natural: Very little data has to move upstream, so the technical challenges are de-emphasized. But the big advantage — almost total ubiquity — remains.

Metering.com in June reported on a study by United States National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) that described two trials of smart grid and BPL. The bottom line is that the technology is appropriate for the most demanding scenarios. The report was conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. and Renz Consulting LLC. The story said that research was ongoing and it linked to the full report.

The use of BPL/PLC for smart grid is illustrated by a $15 million funding round from Power Plus Communications in Europe. The company raised $15 million from Siemens Financial Services, British Gas and Climate Change Capital Private Equity. The GreenTech Media piece on the funding round says that Climate Change is an existing investor in the company, which implies that the first two companies mentioned are new. Here is the reason for the round:

The technology will primarily be used for two applications: real-time communications in the distribution network for maintaining low- and medium-voltage control applications and smart metering to bring data from the meter back to the utility. GTM Research forecasts €6.8 billion ($8.5 billion) per year in smart grid investment in Europe between now and 2016, with the bulk of the investment going to smart metering and distribution automation.

The bottom line is that BPL/PLC was thought to be dead. That’s not true. It never will fulfill the expansive use case its developers originally envisioned. But, by the same token, a more modest future seems set.

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Nov 2, 2013 6:11 AM Concerned RF spectrumuser Concerned RF spectrumuser  says:
The uneducated, opinionated blather from the talking heads is completely overwhelming, much like the noise from BPL in radio systems already used, in place, and LICENSED by our own FCC. This BPL crap is flawed technology, should NEVER have been allowed in any shape or form. All RF users, whether commercial communications, amateur radio operators, two way customers of all kinds including emergency services, and of course air communications fight RF noise ON A DAILY BASIS, and causing power lines to purposly generate MORE of it goes against the very (ignored) rules which the FCC itself established. The bottom line is the people who think they need to communicate over power lines need to find another medium, whether point to point microwave, satelite, or low power wireless to internet link. Reply

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